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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!

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.