Last year, we wrote about various scientific explanations for ghostly phenomena. This year, we thought we’d take a look at the world of cryptozoology, one that is inhabited by strange, mythical beasts.
We’re not talking vampires and werewolves here – allegedly supernatural beings – but a cast of creatures that includes giant marine reptiles, wild hominids – the Yeti and Big Foot – unicorns and even the “mothman”. Derived from the Greek "κρυπτός"/kryptos, “hidden” + zoology, cryptozoology literally means the “study of hidden animals”.
So, is the Loch Ness Monster anything more than an invention by the locals to attract tourists, and could a mythical man-like creature be roaming the wilds of the Himalayas? While cryptozoology is classified as a pseudoscience, it does shade into more mainstream zoology at its boundaries.
For instance, species such as the okapi and mountain gorilla have commonly been cited by
cryptozoologists as examples of animals they say were previously thought to be cryptids, but are now known to exist. The okapi or forest giraffe was only accepted by science in 1901, although its existence had been hinted at by accounts of Henry Morton Stanley’s explorations of the Congo during the previous century.
In fact, the okapi had probably been known outside Europe for thousands of years and may have been depicted as early as the early fifth century BC on the façade of the Apadana at Persepolis, a gift from the Ethiopian procession to the Achaemenid kingdom. During the colonialist era, Europeans in Africa reported hearing about an animal that they came to refer to as the “African Unicorn”.
In his travelogue of the Congo, Stanley (of “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” fame) mentioned a kind of donkey that the natives called the atti, which scholars later identified as the okapi. Explorers may have seen a fleeting view of its striped backside as the animal fled through the bush, leading to speculation that the okapi was some sort of rainforest zebra.
The story became clearer when the British governor of Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston prevented some Congo pygmies from being abducted for exhibition by a showman. The grateful pygmies later showed Johnston some okapi tracks that indicated it to be a cloven-hoofed animal rather than a forest-dwelling horse. Johnston never did get to see an okapi for himself, although he did manage to obtain pieces of striped skin and eventually a skull. From this skull the okapi was correctly classified as a relative of the giraffe and, in 1901, formally recognized as Okapia johnstoni.
So, sometimes mythical animals turn out to be real, albeit that they were probably only mythical from a Western scientific perspective. Another example is the Komodo Dragon, often referred to as the “Giant Monitor”, which was thought to be a mythological creature prior to its scientific description in 1912.
Recent research suggests the large size of Komodo Dragons today may not be the result of the “island gigantism” phenomenon; the species may actually be a relict population of very large Varanid monitor lizards that once lived across Indonesia and Australia. Most of this megafauna died out after the Pleistocene epoch but fossils very similar to V. komodoensis have been found in Australia dating to more than 3.8 million years ago. At the same time, the komodo dragon’s body size has remained stable on Flores, one of the Indonesian islands where it is currently found, for the past 900,000 years.
If ancient giant lizards can survive in Indonesia, why not plesiosaurs in Scotland? The Loch Ness Monster has been the subject of various “encounters” and “sightings” since the 1930s when the area around Loch Ness became more accessible. There have been numerous photographs – some of which have now been acknowledged as fakes – some film footage and even reports of sonar contacts. However, if analyzed objectively, the evidence remains scanty and entirely anecdotal, despite several expeditions to obtain genuine scientific evidence. It looks like “Nessie” will have to remain a myth for the foreseeable future.
But whatever you think about mythical beasts, there's one thing that you can count on. We have yet to explore every inch of our planet and there are many things that will still surprise us. We are lucky enough to be part of an age where the opportunity to explore, investigate and be a part of science education around the world, is abundant. At 3B Scientific we relish every opportunity to learn more about Life on Earth.
Are you interested in Paleontology and Anthropology? Tell us what you think scientists of the future will discover!