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.
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.
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,
There even is an International Society of Cryptozoology with 900
members, a number of distinguished zoologists, naturalists, and others 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
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
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.
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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