My Cryptozoology Epiphany

I’ve always been an interested skeptic. Stories of the yeti and the Loch Ness monster fascinated me, but also made me laugh! As a scientist, I could never get behind the idea that those things existed without us knowing. That all changed a few years ago. In 2014 I was in Vietnam doing my master’s research on silvered langurs. On a tour around the city of Hanoi my friend told me the story of Cu Rua, the sacred turtle of Hoan Kiem lake. He said it was a turtle the size of a car that had lived in the lake for hundreds of years and was sacred to the people of Hanoi. I looked at the relatively small, dirty lake with little in the way of plants or animal life, and dismissed the story. What an interesting legend I believed it was, but obviously not a real animal. What would it eat? Why don’t people see it every day? Just a story.

In January 2016 I happened across a news article. The sacred turtle of Hoan Kiem was dead. A turtle of almost 400 pounds and over six feet long had washed up on the shores of the river. It was a type of giant river turtle known to inhabit parts of Asia. I was floored. I was wrong. It existed. In that moment I was ashamed. Ashamed I was a scientist who had dismissed the possibility, and ashamed I was an anthropologist who had failed to listen to local people. From that moment on I vowed never to dismiss a cryptid again.

I retain my healthy skepticism. If you are seeking someone to blindly accept all cryptids, I’m not it. I will present my ideas on various cryptids and address new possibilities with an open mind. With a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, ecology, and evolutionary biology, a master’s in primatology, and a doctorate in anthrozoology in the works (yes, I’m not done with my PhD and therefore not a full doctor yet, but it was a catchy title) I have lots of ideas! So prepare to enter the wonderful world of cryptozoology and learn about this crazy planet we all live on!

Making a Cryptid: The Chupacabra

The Chupacabra. Its name means “goat-sucker” and conjures up dreaded visions of a vampire-like creature preying on livestock across Latin America and Texas. It is feared for its destructive ability and even hunted by ranchers. However, the Chupacabra is not a legendary creature of old, in fact, it’s brand new. The Chupacabra was only officially “born” in 1995. However, modern day Chupacabra believers will tell stories of this animal as if it dates back much further. How was this modern-day cryptid created? Why are there two different versions of it? And what is it, really?

The story of the Chupacabra begins in Puerto Rico in 1995. An incident in 1995 where eight farm animals were killed and drained of blood would be retroactively ascribed to the Chupacabra. Months later, in the town of Canóvanas, a rash of animal killings where the animals were found bloodless were ascribed to an alien-like creature described by eyewitness Madelyne Tolentino. She described the creature as a short reptilian-like creature with spines on its back and tail. There’s just one problem, she was describing the alien from the movie Species which she had recently seen. And so, the Puerto Rican Chupacabra was born. The power of suggestion is strong, and once word got out of a strange, reptilian creature killing livestock in the night, it spread like wildfire. The Chupacabra started being blamed for all sorts of animal deaths all the way back to the 1970s, and people who probably saw little more than a shadow in the night started claiming to see the same thing as Madelyne Tolentino. There is no doubt that livestock killings were fairly common in Puerto Rico, but there are any number of wild animals that could have been responsible. Soon after the first incidents were reported in the news a Puerto Rican comedian coined the term “Chupacabra,” and the legend was born.

But it didn’t stop there. Like much Latin American culture, it spread to the American Southwest and Texas in particular. A 1997 episode of the wildly popular television show The X-Files probably brought the Chupacabra to the attention of American audiences. Once the Chupacabra made it to the United States it started being blamed for livestock deaths there. However, the reptilian description of the creature was lost and the American version of the Chupacabra is usually described as more dog-like and walking on four legs instead of two. Here’s where a twist comes to the story, farmers in Texas (as they do) started to actually shoot “Chupacabra.” There is even a taxidermy one that was killed by one Lynn Butler after she heard it killing her chickens. The animals that were killed undoubtedly looked strange; hairless and doglike with burnt looking skin. However, they are almost certainly dogs, coyotes, or hybrids with various cases of mange. Strange they may be, supernatural they are not. To the untrained eye however, they would absolutely look like some sort of monster, especially if they were found going after your farm animals.

So where does that leave the Chupacabra? Is there any chance there is actually an undiscovered creature killing livestock in Latin America? Likely not. But the Chupacabra is fascinating nonetheless as a study in how a legend is born. The combination of a scary situation and the memory of a movie monster is enough to play tricks with anyone’s mind. Something to keep in mind next time you’re in the woods alone, and think you hear a noise.

Special Edition Post: Cryptozoology as Anti-Racist Science

Considering the climate of America and elsewhere right now, this seems like a good time for a different sort of blog post. This isn’t meant to be political or to be accusatory to any scientific discipline, but I would like to explore one of the main reasons I got into cryptozoology in the first place; which is the inherent racism in many scientific disciplines.

The vast majority of zoologists, ecologists, and biologists are good people who want to improve the natural world and would not be racist in their everyday lives. However, I do believe that, just like in many disciplines, institutionalized racism exists in the sciences without us being consciously aware of it. In particular, the tendency to dismiss indigenous science and observation has always bothered me. When local and indigenous people claim to see a dinosaur in their rivers or a giant bat attacking them through windows, most scientists dismiss the idea. Why? Shouldn’t we assume that local people know their native wildlife better than us? Shouldn’t we trust them? Shouldn’t our default position to be to believe their claims and investigate them appropriately? This is not generally the case; traditional science usually dismisses claims that seem fantastic until a fellow (generally white) scientist makes the same claim. The accounts of the Orang Pendek in Sumatra by local people have been summarily dismissed by most scientists. That is, until white scientists working in Sumatra also claimed to see it. Now there are documentaries and new articles claiming it exists. Despite local reports of its existence, the okapi was not “discovered” until 1901, when it was described by a British zoologist. Prior to this, the okapi was thought to be a mythical animal, as its description by locals sounded too fantastic to be real.

I have always felt that the tendency to dismiss indigenous claims of strange or fantastic animals bears an undertone of systemic racism in the sciences. Some might say that their claims are not taken seriously because they are not trained scientists. But is that it? Or is it because, unlike the scientists, local people in biodiversity hotspots tend to be black or brown? Are we, as scientists, demonstrating systemic racism without even knowing it by not investigating the claims of locals?

This is my belief, and it is one of the reasons I got into cryptozoology. My own tendency to dismiss Cu Rua, the sacred turtle of Hanoi, as a mere myth or legend bothered me. I would like to think that I dismissed it because, as a biologist, I did not believe such a species could exist in the ecosystem it was claimed to. But the possibility that my disbelief was a demonstration of ingrained racism I did not know I possessed bothered me deeply. After that, I decided that all claims by local and indigenous people should be listened to, taken seriously, and investigated. In this way, cryptozoology is the answer to racism in science. Even if such incredible creatures as Mokele-Mbembe and the Popobawa do not exist, we can still learn about nature and culture by searching for them, and we can show respect for indigenous and local people by investigating them.

So in this special edition blog post, I would like to encourage you to consider an anti-racist viewpoint when you next read a news story that local people claim to see an undiscovered species of ape or a giant octopus. Consider where your disbelief is coming from and ask yourself whether considering the idea that it might be real is the more anti-racist way of thinking. And in your own discipline, whether it be zoology, accounting, real estate or whatever else you may work in, ask yourself if you are perhaps working within a system that expresses racism without you even being aware. Only by asking ourselves these difficult questions, being honest with ourselves about the answers, and changing our behavior can we ensure that me move in a direction of true equality for everyone.

The Thylacine: How Soon is too Soon to Declare an Animal Extinct?

The thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf as it is sometimes called) is an interesting cryptozoology case, because it isn’t really a cryptid at all. The thylacine is a well-documented real animal; it was a large (40-60 pounds) carnivorous marsupial that represented the only member of the family Thylacinidae to make it into modern times. It was once widespread throughout Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania. It is thought to have gone extinct on the Australian mainland around 2000 years ago and was thereafter confined to Tasmania. The last living member of the species died in 1936 at the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania. On the surface, this looks like a number of other unfortunate stories warning us of the dangers of overhunting and habitat destruction. However, sightings of the thylacine are so common and numerous up until the present day that is has been relegated to the realm of cryptozoology. Many believe the animal didn’t really go extinct at all but persists still in small pockets.

So, is it possible a large marsupial could still be living in Tasmania? Or even on the Australian mainland? The short answer is yes. The thylacine, even when it was known to exist, was a nocturnal and elusive creature that likely persisted at low numbers. Tasmania still has a significant amount of good habitat that a small remnant population of animals could survive in. 84 years since official extinction is a tiny drop in the bucket as far as geologic time goes, and even a very tiny population could probably survive for that long. The coelacanth was discovered alive a full 65 million years after it was thought to be extinct. But there are far less extreme examples of animals being discovered again after they were believed to be extinct. The ivory billed woodpecker was thought to be extinct in the late 1800s, but one was found in 2004. Scientists are still not prepared to declare it extinct, even though recent searches have turned up nothing. Wild dogs in New Guinea were rediscovered after 50 years in a small mountain region. The Australian night parrot hadn’t been seen since 1912 until a car hit one in 1990. These examples show just how difficult it is to guarantee that an animal is truly gone. And when the thylacine was declared extinct in the early 1900s, we did not have the strict requirements we have today. It was likely declared extinct on the basis of a cessation in sightings, and not any kind of exhaustive search.

One has only to do a quick search to find dozens of reports of thylacine sightings in recent years. And these are not just by independent people. In 2019 CNN reported that the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment had released a report on 8 thylacine sightings in the last three years. Footprints have been found, as well as (admittedly blurry) trail camera footage of what might be a thylacine. There are many locals in Tasmania who are positive the species is not extinct. So, what does this all add up to? Is the Tasmanian tiger still lurking around Tasmania? I believe it is very possible. At the very least, we jumped the gun in 1936 by declaring it extinct. It is very likely it survived longer, if not up until the present day. Just because we haven’t seen an animal in awhile (or ever as was the case of the coelacanth) does not mean that it is gone. There is a real danger in declaring an animal extinct before we are sure, it can mean that conservation of the species and habitat is cut off before it should be. For my part, I’m not quite ready to give up on the thylacine. I hope we find some still alive, and if we do, I hope we can keep them that way.

Mothman: Somewhere between Strange Creature and Spirit Omen

The Mothman has always been a strange cryptid to me. It seems to exist somewhere in the liminal space between actual physical creature and supernatural omen of death. Witness reports do indicate a physical entity and are fairly consistent. The Mothman is generally described as a bipedal creature, human sized or larger, with enormous wings—10 to 15 feet in wingspan. The face is not often well described, but most witnesses claim to see red eyes of some sort. The body of the creature is described as black or grey. Most of the sightings of Mothman occur at night, with many witnesses claiming it flew away while they watched. Many of the sightings also claim the creature was situated above them.

The most famous case of multiple Mothman sightings is the case of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. In 1966 and 1967 there were multiple sightings of a large winged creature in the area. In December 1967 the Silver Bridge collapsed, killing 46 people. What animal in West Virginia could possibly be responsible for these sightings? People have proposed bats, but too many people described the creature as upright. There is a large upright creature with red above its eyes that would be fairly unfamiliar to the people of West Virginia, and that is the whooping crane.

Whooping cranes are not usually found in West Virginia. But they DO migrate through nearby Kentucky. One state over is not an unreasonable place to find a migratory bird. Migratory birds do occasionally get knocked off course, sometimes much further. Pink backed pelicans have been found in the Greek islands and flamingoes are occasionally found in Florida. The grouped sightings in Point Pleasant might indicate all the eyewitnesses were seeing the same creature, one which would not be familiar to locals and which may have been acting erratically due to being separated from its migrating flock. Another clue that I believe points to an off-track whooping crane is the red eyes reported. Whooping cranes have red feathers around their eyes. They have a wingspan up to 7.5 feet, stand up to 5 feet tall, and are grey in color. This matches the eyewitness descriptions fairly well. This is certainly an upright creature the size of a man which, if it swooped suddenly toward you in the dark, has the potential to be very frightening.

An off-track whooping crane may explain the West Virginia sightings, but it does not explain the proliferation of sightings of the Mothman all over the world. However, he has now become entrenched in our minds. The power of suggestion is very real, and people could be mistaking other large birds and bats for the cryptid they have heard so much about. Then again, Mothman does have the eerie tendency to turn up right before major tragedies. Who knows, perhaps he is a real creature, one that lurks in the shadows waiting to warn us of impending doom.

Could a Giant Ground Sloth be Responsible for Bigfoot Legends?

One aspect of the North American bigfoot I have always had a hard time reconciling is the lack of conclusive evidence versus the first nations stories of the creature. Many people will argue that there is abundant evidence for bigfoot, but the sheer amount of people looking for him (researchers, scientists, entire tv shows) really should have produced a clear picture, video, or DNA sample by now. There is no cryptid as thoroughly searched for as bigfoot. This has led me to believe it likely does not exist in North America. But what about the abundance of stories, legends, and artwork from first nations people?

I have endeavored to never dismiss a cryptid if it is well documented by local people. And bigfoot surely is. First nations people across North America have stories and beliefs in a “hairy man” or “wild man” or some other form of large bipedal animal covered in hair that lives in the forest. The word Sasquatch itself comes from a first nations language. The plethora of legends and stories about bears makes it hard to believe that it could be a case of misidentifying a bear, so what else could be responsible for this diversity of bigfoot legends? What other huge, hairy, biped could the stories be about?

Today the answer tends to be that there is no other creature these legends could be referring to. But when the legends were first told, that was not the case. Megatherium and Eremotherium were two genus of giant ground sloth that once occupied the Americas. These beasts occurred from South America as far north as New Jersey and weighed as much as 6,000 pounds and stood as tall as 12 feet on their hind legs. Their skeletons show us they were not only capable of moving bipedally but might have done so quite often.

The giant ground sloth overlapped significantly with human occupation of the Americas. Humans were well established in North America a minimum of 15,000 years ago, but some estimates could push it back to as early as 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. The giant ground sloths roamed the forests and plains at least until 10,000 years ago. Some estimates say it may not have gone completely extinct until 4,000 years ago! There was plenty of time for people to come into extensive contact with giant ground sloths and for them to become deeply entrenched into the rich oral history of first nations peoples. Those stories could have been passed down for thousands of years and today may be told as stories of the “hairy man” the “wild man” and the “sasquatch.”

Looking for Bigfoot in All the Wrong Places: Why Nighttime?

As someone with a master’s degree in primatology and a lot of real-world experience in primate behavior, I have a LOT of problems with the conventional methods for looking for Bigfoot/Sasquatch. My opinion on whether this cryptid exists (probably no in North America, probably yes in the Himalayas) aside, I do believe that most of the popular shows and bigfoot hunters are going about it all wrong. In the first of undoubtedly many posts on this subject, I’d like to tackle the issue of activity patterns and eye shine.

Almost every bigfoot hunting show and publicized excursion I’ve seen has its investigators focus on finding bigfoot at night. And yet, almost every bigfoot believer asserts that it is some sort of unidentified large ape. So why would it be nocturnal? There are currently no nocturnal apes and only one species of nocturnal monkey, the owl monkey. It is a characteristic of the haplorrhine group in general (the primate suborder consisting of monkeys, apes, and tarsiers which likely split from the strepsirrhines containing lemurs, lorises, and pottos in the Paleocene around 63 million years ago) to be diurnal. Therefore, a nocturnal great ape would have evolved its nocturnality secondarily, which would require some sort of very extreme evolutionary pressure to do so. Considering that in most places’ bigfoot is thought to exists it is probably one of the largest animals around, predation pressure is unlikely to be the reason. So, some other extreme pressure would have to be the cause.

In keeping with searching for bigfoot at night, a lot of bigfoot searchers use eyeshine to search. Using eyeshine is a very popular method of looking for many nocturnal animals. While in Vietnam I met a team of researchers searching for the tiny nocturnal loris. They claimed that looking for eyeshine was the only possible means of finding the animals in the jungle. Eyeshine is caused by the presence of a reflective layer of tissue in the back of the eye known as the tapetum lucidum, which drastically improves night vision. It is an important adaptation in everything from dogs to deer. However, there is not a single monkey or ape that possesses a tapetum lucidum. It is, in fact, one of the defining traits of the suborder Haplorrhini (mentioned above) to lack the tapetum lucidum. The trait was lost at the split between suborders around 63 million years ago. If bigfoot is a great ape, he should not have eyeshine!

So, we are left with a few options. If bigfoot is a great ape that diverged recently from the other great apes, he must have secondarily evolved nocturnality and a tapetum lucidum. This is incredibly unlikely. Aside from being extremely unparsimonious, the evolutionary pressures would have to be extreme. The only monkey we know of that is nocturnal, the owl monkey, did NOT re-evolve the tapetum lucidum. Instead it just evolved giant eyes. The tapetum lucidum is a very specialized structure, it would be almost impossible for it to evolve again. So is bigfoot not a great ape then? Did he evolve from some other animal? Not likely. That would go against every other piece of evidence we have for him. Bigfoot’s defining feature is being a bipedal strider like a human, and that trait has never evolved in mammals outside the primate lineage.

My conclusion, and the only one I think is acceptable, is that we are looking for bigfoot in the wrong place and the wrong time. If he exists, he is likely to be a diurnal or crepuscular animal with no eye shine. If we are serious about finding bigfoot, I suggest we look for him the way we do other great apes. Search in the early morning hours when activity begins and look for signs of night nests. Perhaps our insistence on looking at night is why finding bigfoot has proven so elusive. Any self-respecting great ape, including bigfoot, should be tucked away in their night nests!

The Orang Pendek: Siamang? Or Something Else?

The Orang Pendek has always been a strange cryptid to me. A three-foot-tall hairy ape living in the dense jungles of Sumatra is not something that seems at all out of the realm of possibility. Locals insist it is real but elusive, but science does not recognize it and many expeditions to find it have turned up nothing. The easy answer to the Orang Pendek is that it is simply a siamang people are seeing. After all, the siamang is known to live in the jungles of Sumatra and is a three-foot-tall hairy ape. So, what makes the Orang Pendek something else? The answer is local knowledge. Local people who have lived in and around the jungles of Sumatra for their entire lives, for generations, know what a siamang is. And they insist this is something different. Who are we to disagree? Locals describe the Orang Pendek as being more bipedal than a siamang. Though they can certainly walk on two legs, the bipedal gait of a siamang is extremely awkward and very distinctive. Locals also say the Orang Pendek can be aggressive, which siamangs rarely are. These differences lead me to believe that locals are seeing something other than a siamang, so why has no one found any official evidence?

In 2014 I was trudging through the Vietnamese jungle looking for silvered langurs, a monkey absolutely known to be in the area. I spent weeks in that jungle. I never saw a silvered langur. Nor did I see a bush pig, a civet, a hornbill, or a macaque. Is it because they’re incredibly rare? Probably not. To be totally honest there could have been a Taco Bell in that jungle, and I wouldn’t have found it. Until you are there, the thickness of that jungle cannot be described or imagined. Sumatra is much the same way. Even the best expeditions (and let’s face it, no one has exactly spent years in there looking for the Orang Pendek), can easily miss a relatively small primate. There are forests in Africa that were only recently found to contain forest elephants, and that’s a much bigger animal! The dense jungles of Asia are one of the least accessible places on the planet, and one of the most likely to be housing an unknown species of primate.

Locals in Sumatra do not describe the Orang Pendek as a creature having special powers or mythology. This is another factor that leads me to believe it is a real creature. Many cryptids seem to live in the liminal space between animal and spirit, often making me wonder whether they are not mythological creatures we are misinterpreting as physical due to cultural differences. But locals describe the Orang Pendek the way they would any other forest creature. There are even researchers living in Sumatra who claim to have seen it and believe in its existence. So, siamang or unknown species? I say, a bit of both. I believe the Orang Pendek is a distinct animal from the known Sumatran siamang. Perhaps one that is more bipedal and possibly more aggressive. It may in fact be a new species of siamang, or perhaps even a new type of lesser ape. It’s likely living its life in jungles so dense we can barely scratch the surface of them. I sincerely hope I get to hear of its official discovery soon, but I also hope it isn’t discovered and put on the endangered species list in the same announcement.