"Cryptozoologist try to separate
strange fact from science fiction"

by Leslie Alan Horvitz

One newsletter defines it as a subspecialty for new or presumed extinct species of all sizes.' Simply stated, cryptozoology is the study of animals that have not been recognized by Western science.

In 1982, a professor at a Vietnamese university was exploring the slopes of Mom Ray Mountain near the Cambodian border when he stumbled upon a strange footprint. Measuring 10-by-6 inches, it was wider than any human foot and had longer toes.--> Some speculated that the footprint might belong to a legendary creature called Nguoi Rung, or "Wildman."

To this day, no one knows who -- or what -- made the footprint.

Is "Wildman" an ape? Or more tantalizingly, could it be a human ancestor still hiding in Asian forests? Though Nguoi Rung sounds like something from a Michael Crichton novel, new species are being discovered in Vietnam with startling regularity. During the last several years, scientists have identified five new mammals, including a barking deer, a pheasant like bird and what one naturalist described as a "kind of goat, but a little bit strange." Not since the 19th century have so many mammals been discovered in such a short period.

The search for new creatures, or creatures believed to be extinct, has attracted serious investigators despite its quixotic nature. In fact, the field has a name -- cryptozoology -- coined by Belgian zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans from the Greek word kryptos, meaning hidden, unknown, secret.

There even is an International Society of Cryptozoology with 900 members, a number of distinguished zoologists, naturalists, and o
thers came to the field by way of science fiction. Loren Coleman, a Maine researcher who has written extensively on cryptozoology, says that he was inspired by a science-fiction movie called Half-Human, about the yeti, or abominable snowman. "It showed me a reality that I hadn't heard about from my biology and natural-history teachers," he tells Insight. After earning undergraduate degrees in anthropology and zoology, he went on to get a graduate degree in psychology "so I'd know when people were lying to me."

An ability to ferret out the truth clearly is a crucial skill for a Cryptozoologist. Coleman estimates that 20 percent of the reports he investigates prove to be genuine; the others tend to be cases of mistaken identity or outright hoaxes. Unquestionably, some reputed creatures seem to belong to the realm of pure fantasy, such as the chupacabra of Mexico, feared for its nasty habit of sucking the blood out of goats, and the New Jersey devil, a creature "three-and-a-half feet high, with a head like a collie and a face like a horse," which hasn't been seen since 1951.

But of all the undiscovered creatures that have fascinated Cryptozoologist and the public, few have received as much attention as bigfoot (or Sasquatch) and the Loch Ness monster. In Portland, Oregon fans of the hirsute humanoid have formed the Western Bigfoot Society, with members from as far away as Sri Lanka. This summer the society will sponsor a mock trial in Carson, Wash., where the "defendant" will stand accused of killing a bigfoot, a crime that is actually on the books in Skamania County. The issue to be decided: Is bigfoot animal or human? "I get a lot of weirdos with stories about bigfoot coming out of flying saucers," admits Ray Crowe, the society's director. "On the other hand, I also get veterinarians and doctors. I never try to discourage anyone from attending our meetings."

Although there have been numerous reported sightings (on the East Coast and in the Midwest as well as in the Northwest), Crowe acknowledges that the existence of bigfoot is far from proved. The most convincing evidence he can recall is some 16mm footage taken of a mysterious creature in 1968. Experts still are debating its significance. Otherwise, Crowe says, "No matter how many tracks you find, they can always be faked. And if you find hairs you have nothing to compare them with."

When it comes to the Loch Ness monster in Scotland, the evidence similarly is equivocal. Research carried out in the early 1990s suggests that the biomass of the lake is insufficient to support a predator weighing more than 660 pounds. Some naturalists speculated that the monster, popularly known as Nessie, was more likely to be a Baltic sturgeon. a primitive fish with a snout and spines.

Coleman, however, believes there may be subterranean routes that lead from the lake to the sea. He even raises the possibility that a serpent the size of Nessie could travel overland. And in his view, Nessie isn't alone. "There isn't just one Loch Ness monster, or one bigfoot, or one yeti. There has to be a breeding stock."

Though Nessie is the most famous lake-dwelling monster, she is by no means the only one. There is Caddy (short for cadborosaurus), an unidentified sea creature that has been spotted for centuries in the waters around Victoria, British Columbia. Most witnesses report a serpentine creature with the head of a horse, a serrated back and, occasionally, what appears to be a mane. Paul LeBlond, an oceanographer at the University of British Columbia who hasinvestigated Caddy, isn't sanguine about the prospects of seeing it any time soon: "Given the rate of sightings [half a dozen or so over the last couple of years] and the nature of the evidence I am not holding my breath!" A similar creature called Ogopogo is supposed to inhabit Lake Okanagan in British Columbia, while Lake Champlain calls its monster "Champ."

The obsession with monsters such as bigfoot and Nessie basically is unproductive, says Matthew Bille, a defense analyst and editor of the newsletter Exotic Zoology. "I still hope that bigfoot is out there, but if I had to bet on it I would have to say no." Indeed, when people focus on such monsters, he says, they "overlook some of the spectacular discoveries that are still going on."

His point is well-taken. Estimates for the number of species on the ocean floor, for instance, have soared to 100 million, far exceeding old projections of 200,000 species for all marine life. The vast majority of these species have yet to be identified: tiny slugs, snails, crabs, bristle
worms, ribbon worms, sea anemones, sea cucumbers ... most of them the size of an aspirin or even smaller.

But not all the unknown species in the sea are so tiny A new whale was found in 1991, Bille says, "but we know that there's another whale still out there." The "beak" whale has been sighted 24 times in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and is distinguished by a white diagonal stripe on its side. It has never been caught.

The search for new species continues on land as well. Researchers associated with the British Society of Flora and Fauna are working to establish the existence of a small ape called orang-pendek on Sumatra, the largest island in the Indonesian archipelago. In the next six months, Coleman says, he expects Indonesia to make the discovery official and at the same time declare the habitat of the ape a national preserve

Cryptozoologists are making rediscoveries too. Park rangers in Tasmania have reported two sightings of the Tasmanian tiger (a misnomer, as it is a 60-pound marsupial that resembles a striped wolf). The animal had not been seen since 1936. According to Coleman, there have been some verifiable sightings of a tall flightless bird called the moa in northern New Zealand
as well. If the existence of the moa is confirmed, it will mark an astonishing comeback -- the bird was believed to have died off 500 to 600 years ago.

That new species continue to be discovered and rediscovered has not elevated the standing of Cryptozoologists among many scientists, however. LeBlond admits that fringe groups give "the search for rare and elusive animals a bad name." Yet he points out that "there is no lack of flakes in other fields. It is just that science has set such high standards that the public thinks that everyone interested in exploring the natural world should be a paragon of scientific logic."

For his part, Coleman remains confident that many creatures now considered fantastic will turn up -- citing as proof the recent discoveries of the pygmy hippopotamus, the Komodo dragon (actually a large monitor lizard) and the Andean wolf. The gorilla was considered a purely fabulous beast as late as the early 19th century, and the first carcass of a modern coelacanth, a deep-sea fish presumed to have been extinct for millions of years, was found in 1938. "People are surprised when they discover that the giant panda was only discovered in the last 60 years," he adds. "We're not just wasting our time looking for new animals," concludes Bille. "There are still a number of mysteries out there -- that's what makes it so fascinating."

© Insight on the News 01/27/97 v13: n3. p44(2)
1997 Washington Times Corporation

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