Is there still room on our crowded planet for bizarre, as-yet-undiscovered animals to hide? Or can all the anomalous reports of creatures purportedly still unknown to science be readily explained?
Nothing is easier than to be dismissive of monster tales, especially when so many of them are transparently unreliable, even to the point of being comical. But anyone keen to downplay the possibility of finding big new animals in general might want to take heed of the embarrassing faux pas of Baron Georges Cuvier, the celebrated French anatomist and paleontologist. In 1812, Cuvier proclaimed: "There is little hope of discovering new species of large quadrupeds." Just four years later, Governor Farquar of the Asiatic Society found a previously-unknown herbivore living in the forests of Malaysia and called it the white-backed tapir. There then followed a flood of discoveries of new species as groups of Western explorers and hunters made their way into remote regions of Asian and Africa for the first time. Into the annals of natural history went Prewalski's horse of western Mongolia, Grevy's zebra of eastern Ethiopia, Grant's and Waller's gazelles of central Asia, Schomburgk's and Pere David's deer, the Kodiak bear of Manchuria, the Assam takin (a kind of mountain goat), the Komodo Dragon, the pygmy hippopotamus, the mountain gorilla, the giant panda, and many more.
Yet, that was more than a century ago. Surely, the skeptic may say, all the blank areas of the map have now been filled in. There's nowhere left for an unknown animal of substantial size to hide – or is there?
Where the wild things areIn fact, despite the revolution in air travel and satellite communications, despite the increasing pressure on the world's wildlife habitats from a rapidly growing human population, much of our planet remains untrammeled and poorly charted. Such was the conclusion of Michael McCloskey and Heather Spalding of the Washington-based Sierra Club who, in 1990, mapped for the first time those areas of the world where man's influence has yet to be felt. Surprisingly, they found that at least one third of the Earth's land surface, more than 19 million square miles, is still wilderness. And this is a conservative estimate because McCloskey and Spalding omitted from their survey any block of land under 1,500 square miles as a wilderness candidate. Nor were Antarctica or Greenland included in the statistics, both being assumed to be 100 percent wild. On McCloskey and Spalding's map, two-thirds of Canada, most of it mountain, forest, and tundra, is deemed wilderness, as is a third of the territory of the old Soviet Union. Other particularly broad swathes of wilderness stretch across the Sahara, Australia, and the rain forests of the Amazon Basin, Borneo, and New Guinea.
With so much pristine land remaining, for the time being at least, it would be rash for anyone to discount the chances of finding a sizable new species. Only within the last couple of decades, zoologists have been astonished by the capture of the Vu Quang ox in Vietnam and the Riwoche horse in Tibet, while in 1989 a new primate, the golden-crowned lemur, turned up in Madagascar. Even new colonies of human beings are still being discovered. In September 1995, for instance, a government expedition to the western Brazilian state of Rondonia, in the Amazon rainforest, came across a man and woman belonging to a previously unrecorded tribe. The pair, who carried bows and arrows for hunting, were encountered near two huts which had corn, bananas, and yams planted near by. There are thought to be other uncharted tribes in this little-explored region, about 2,400 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro.
The bunyipNative accounts of strange animals unknown to science are numerous. The Australian Aborigines, for instance, tell of a swamp-dwelling creature, the bunyip, which they describe as having a round head, an elongated neck, and a body resembling that of a hippopotamus. Supposedly, it makes booming or roaring noises and is occasionally given to devouring human prey, especially women and children. Could it be more than just a legend? One theory is that the belief stems from the rare appearance of seals that have traveled upstream for many miles and become trapped in the swamps and lagoons of the interior. The monster's alleged cry could be the call of the bittern marsh bird. But no one can be sure. Nor do we know what to make of Australian gold prospector's tales of a shy, giant herbivore that resembles an out-sized wombat. fossils of an animal fitting this description – the Diprotodon – have been found in Australia but the species was thought to have died out long ago. Also believed to have been extinct since the 1930s is the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, yet occasional reported sightings persist.
Lost worlds and Mokele-mbembeIn The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle took his readers to a remote, isolated plateau in the South American rainforest where dinosaurs and pterosaurs still survived. Is it possible that some prehistoric creatures have remained alive over the eons in secluded enclaves not yet visited by man? Discoveries of relic species, such as the coelacanth, the tuatara lizard, the nautilus, and the horseshoe crab provide at least some encouragement to those on the hunt for presumed-extinct animals. But could anything as big as a living dinosaur have been overlooked?
Rumors of something strange dwelling in the Congo River basin have percolated out of central west Africa for the past 200 years. They center around the legend of Mokele-mbembe (or, in the local Lingala language, "one who stops the flow of rivers") which first came to Western attention through the writings of a French priest, Abbe Proyart, in 1776. Sandwiched between routine accounts of elephants and lions, is a passage in which Proyart describes "a monstrous animal" responsible for huge clawed footprints. Prompted by similar reports over the next century, the German government funded a fact-finding expedition to the area in 1913 during which descriptions of the beast and its habitats were gathered from natives along the Sanga river.
In 1959, a comprehensive summary of all that was known about the legend appeared in Bernard Heuvelsman's book On the Track of Unknown Animals. Heuvelsmans, who popularized use of the term "cryptozoology", compiled all the native stories and alleged sightings by colonial hunters he could find in building up a picture of the beast. Mokele-mbembe emerged as a swap- and river-dwelling herbivore, over 30 feet in length, feared for its devastating attacks on native canoes, hippos, and other intruders into its domain. The suggestion by Heuvelsmans that the creature might be an extant dinosaur was ridiculed in most quarters, but not by Roy Mackal, a biologist and fellow cryptozoologist at the University of Chicago. In the early 1980s, Mackal traveled to the region where Mokele-mbembe was reputed to live. Although almost totally inhospitable to modern man it was, in Mackal's opinion, ideal as a dinosaur refuge: 55,000 square miles of pristine swamp apparently having undergone no significant geomorphological or ecological changes since the late Cretaceous Period, when dinosaurs were the dominant land fauna. Upon showing pictures of various animals to the local people, Mackal elicited a negative response to some, such as a grizzly bear but immediate recognition to others, including elephants, gorillas, lions – and a brontosaurus.
Only time will tell if the Mokele-mbembe is real. We have no bones, no photographs, only anecdotes. yet it would be unwise simply to write off the tales of native tribesfolk as mere primitive superstition or myth. The Wambutti peoples of neighboring Zaire had long claimed to be familiar with the existence of a forest-dwelling, horse-like creature, which they called the okapi. Their stories were largely dismissed by the scientific world, until a specimen was trapped by white hunters in 1906.
Lords of the DeepPerhaps, some day, other legends will spring to life. According to Polynesian lore, there exists a colossal type of white shark, "The Lord of the Deep", one example of which purportedly floundered into the deep-water fishing grounds near Port Stephens on the coast of New South Wales, Australia, in 1918. The seasoned cray fishermen who watched it swim alongside them claimed it was as long as the wharf on which they stood – over 100 feet. This would have out it in the same league as the Megalodon, a massive shark believed to have been extinct for tens of millions of years.
The idea of discovering a new type of shark is by no means far-fetched. As recently as 1976 the world learned of the existence of Megachasma pelagios, otherwise known as the megamouth shark. With a bulbous head, huge and blubbery lips and a gaping jaw, this 14-foot-ong, deep-water, filter-feeder was unlike anything ever seen before. And, as an added bonus, upon examining its intestine, biologists found a tape-worm of a previously unknown family.
Lake monstersBy virtue of their size, the oceans undoubtedly hold the best hope of yielding large new animals. At the same time, at least 250 lakes around the world have legends associated with them which hint at the existence of unknown aquatic species. Of these, the most celebrated and intensely researched is Loch Ness. Much as been written and rumored about its supposed mysterious inhabitant, and well-equipped parties of investigators have gone in search of it with everything from submarines to sonar.
The modern spate of sightings began in 1933 when the proprietors of Drumnadrochit Hotel, on the loch's shore, claimed to have seen the beast. Their story was sapped up by the Inverness Courier, the editor of which, Dr. Evan Barr, first referred "The Loch Ness Monster" and in doing so triggered a general stampede by the press.
A year later, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Wilson, a Harley Street gynecologist, claimed to have caught the monster on film. The so-called "surgeon's photograph" created a worldwide sensation and, for many years, was touted as one of the most convincing and reliable pieces of evidence for the existence of Nessie. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a fake. Wilson had colluded in the hoax with the actor and adventurer, Marmaduke Arundell Wetherell. The serpentine head and neck rearing up impressively from the loch's deep, peaty waters were nothing more than a toy submarine in heavy disguise, a fact eventually revealed by Wetherell's stepson, Christopher, on his death-bed at the age of 90 in November 1993.
Hoaxes, cranks, and outlandish theories, all of which the Loch Ness phenomenon has attracted in profusion, have had the effect of turning away many serious investigators. few scientists, with reputations to preserve, want to be seen too closely associated with a subject so infiltrated by fanatics. As the mystery-mongers have moved in, those best qualified to carry out meaningful, high-quality research have shied away. And so the waters tend to become muddier than ever – which in the case of Loch Ness is both literally and figuratively a serious problem.
YetiIn a similar category to Scotland's famous Monster, though perhaps slightly higher up the credibility scale, are the various legends of wild men and large, hirsute humanoids from various parts of the world. Easily the two best known are the Yeti of the Himalayas and the Sasquatch or Bigfoot, of the American West. Both have a well-established reputation among the indigenous folk of their supposed range and both have been the subject of reported sightings, some more convincing than others, in more recent times.
The Yeti, in particular, has a long and complex history. Its alternative Western title, the Abominable Snowman, actually came about, like Percival Lowell's martian canals and Kenneth Arnold's flying saucers, because of a simple linguistic error. During the 1921 Everest expedition, Colonel Howard Bury sent a cablegram to Calcutta in which he hinted at the possible existence of a new species known locally by a word meaning "man-like creature". However, this native word was mistakenly translated as metch-kangmi: kang being Tibetan for "snow", mi for "man" and metch for "filthy" or "dirty". The translation of the mis-transcription was written down as "abominable snowman" – a name that, for all its inaccuracy, has stuck ever since.
In fact, the people living in the lands bordering on the Himalayas talk of a variety of strange creatures dwelling at high altitude in the mountains. As well as the original Snowman referred to by Bury, there is the dzu-teh, or "bear-like creature" and yeh-teh, or "little-man creature". From yeh-teh comes our "Yeti" – a different animal altogether from the Snowman as far as the locals are concerned. Distinctions are also drawn between black (rimi) and red (rachshi bompo) yeh-teh. Perhaps most significant of all, the monks and herdsmen living in places where these animals are supposed to roam regard them as completely normal inhabitants of the rocks and scrub.
The earliest documentary evidence for the existence of the yeti and its cousins comes an old Indian maps which refer to the mountainous frontier region as the Mahalangur-Himal, or the mountains of the big monkeys. The monkeys in question could simply be langurs (Simnopithecus) which, though not actually big, do range up to an altitude of 12,000 feet. Or they could be something larger and as-yet unidentified living even higher up. Contributing further to the mystery is an 18th century Tibetan book found by Emmanuel Vlech of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. Vlech unearthed the text, called the Anatomical Dictionary for Recognizing Various Diseases, in the library of the former lamaistic university of Gandan in Mongolia during an archeological visit in 1958. Printed from woodcuts on long, narrow strips of paper, it contains a treasury of zoological illustrations including monkeys, small carnivores, birds, reptiles, fish, and a number of invertebrates, all drawn with a keen eye for detail and anatomical accuracy. The mouth-parts of an orb-weaving spider, the fins of a catfish, the posture of a gibbon, and the antennal plates of a scarabid beetle are all perfectly recognizable. Yet among the familiar specimens displayed is a curious stranger – a large, hairy, primate identified in the text as a bitchun or "man-animal". According to the commentary, "[the bitchun] lives in the mountains. His origin is close to that of the bear. His body resembles that of a man and he has enormous strength. His meat may be eaten to treat mental diseases and his gall cures jaundice." The bitchun is depicted with its knees slightly bent, standing on a rock, suggesting a bare mountain habitat. The head and body, together with the heavily developed chest muscles, are totally covered with hair and only the hands, feet, and a portion of the face are bare.
Further clues to the Yeti mystery take the form of enigmatic footprints in the snow, first noted by Europeans as long ago as 1887. Droppings, fur, and at least one scalp have also been cited as evidence of an unidentified biped in the mountains – though the scalp subsequently turned out to be made from the skin of a serow goat.
Id the Yeti real? And, if so, does it represent one or more new species, or an animal already known to science? Among the familiar candidates put forward as a possible Yeti imposter are the Tibetan blue bear or barlu, the langur monkey, the snow leopard, the lynx, the ibex, the gray wolf, the yak, and a human hermit. Of these, only the Tibetan blue bear, a very rare animal, warrants serious consideration: its size is about right and it has several other characteristics which suggest that it might indeed by the legendary Snowman. A blue bear held in the Dalai Lama's old zoo at Shigatse was described as walking regularly on its hind legs and, in so doing, standing over six feet tall. It was also said to have an ape-like face. Moreover, the footprints of blue bears, like those claimed to be of the Yeti, have "reversed toes" – that is, the position of the big and little toes are swapped over relative to a human (or other primate) foot.
The classical large Snowman of legend may well prove to be the blue bear. But what of the smaller yeti – the yeh-teh –the existence of which is suggested both by sightings, ancient and modern, and snow tracks? This is rumored to be an aggressive ape-like creature with red or black hair – apparently, a very different animal to the barlu. Its habitat is also said to be at lower altitudes, less than 13,000 feet, though in April 1986, the British mountaineer Chris Bonnington photographed yet tracks at 15,000 feet in the Menlung Valley on the Nepal-Tibet border. This was in the same area where a previous climber, Eric Shipton, had taken pictures of unusual prints in November 1951. Conceivably, the "small" yeti is a large vegetarian ape which occasionally strays from its forest home into the higher snowfields.
Monsters hold a special fascination for human beings, and they will always exist for some of us – at least in our imagination. Yet today's monsters, whether they eventually turn out to be real or not, lean toward the rational and scientifically respectable. The bunyip, Mokele-mbembe, the Loch Ness Monster, the various breeds of wild-men, and the rest are not assumed by the majority of those hunting them to fall outside the laws of logic or nature. If they exist, they're expected to fall reasonably well within the genetic, evolutionary, and zoological schemes already devised to fit known species. Monsters still to be discovered might be huge, bizarre, and terrifying to behold. They might be unexpected surviving relicts from the past. But beneath their unfamiliar skin and scales and body plan, at the cellular and subcellular levels, modern biology insists, they're not likely to differ much from any other life form on Earth.
Related category SCIENTIFIC MYSTERIES
Home • About • Copyright © The Worlds of David Darling • Encyclopedia of Alternative Energy • Contact