Searching for Fantastic Beasts

Cryptozoologists explore remote corners of the world looking for evidence of fabled species

Dragons, werewolves, yeti, trolls, and sea serpents — these are just a few of the mythical creatures that cause havoc in 1920s-era New York in the recent film based on JK Rowling’s book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

In Rowling’s fantastical story, the mythical creatures escape from another dimension through a magic briefcase, making their way into our universe. But could there be some realism behind the storyline? After all, there are some people who believe there really are weird and wonderful animals living, unbeknown to western society and mainstream science, in remote places all over the world.

photo of komodo dragonPhoto by Gary Ullah, FlickrThe Komodo dragon, once believed to be a mythical creature, is a large lizard found on several Indonesian islands.

Cryptozoology is the study of hidden animals, and cryptozoologists are the researchers who spend their lives looking for them. Over the last fifteen years, new species of deer, rat, civet, and countless lizards and insects have revealed themselves to mainstream science. Explorers have even found skeletons of tiny hobbit-like humans. Cryptozoologists, however, believe that other, larger creatures, are out there, too.

Could prehistoric marine reptiles exist in lakes all over the Northern Hemisphere? Are leopards and pumas really hiding out in the English countryside? Do huge hounds, far more terrible than any dog or wolf, lurk in the remote North American wilderness? Cryptozoologists say they just might.

Cryptozoology, however, is not recognized within academia. Where scientists wait for unequivocal evidence to emerge before drawing conclusions, cryptozoologists are prepared to speculate based on anecdotal accounts. Within mainstream fields, the study of hidden animals is often considered fantasy, folklore, mythology, or pseudoscience.

As might be expected, many cryptozoologists disagree. “I’ve read thousands of accounts, spoken to hundreds of eyewitnesses and I’m telling you, these creatures are really out there,’ says Richard Freeman director with the Centre for Fortean Zoology in the United Kingdom, an organization that studies, researches, and looks for unknown animals.

Freeman’s first expedition as a cryptozoologist, in 2001, was to find a giant snake said to inhabit the inland waterways of East Asia. Locals called it the Naga. “It was up to sixty feet long, as thick as a barrel with a green and black sheen, according to eyewitnesses,” Freeman says.

He explains that snakes like this evolved 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous period, and in Australia survived into the ice age. Freeman says that there have been sightings of similar creatures in the Sudan, Guyana, and the Amazon, and wonders whether some prehistoric giant snakes have survived until today.

Speculation about such creatures is nothing new: Humans have spoken and written about strange creatures for millennia. As far back as AD77, Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote about many unusual animals in his famed volumes on natural history. He mentioned dragons that preyed on elephants, giant grasshoppers, fire breathing basilisks, and dog headed men called cynocephalus. And at the time Pliny was a respected scholar.

Modern cryptozoology began in the 1950s, when French biologist Bernard Heuvelmans published a book called On the Track of Unknown Animals arguing that the press made such a mockery of the Loch Ness Monster — claimed to be a large aquatic animal in the Scottish Highlands — that no official scientific enquiry into the existence of unknown animals was ever undertaken. Since then, hundreds of researchers, scientists, and enthusiasts, have searched the wilds for all manner of fantastic beasts.

Freeman, for example, has been to the Mongolian desert in search of what locals call the death worm, but what he believes is just an undiscovered species of worm-lizard. He’s been to the Altai Mountains looking for the Almasty, Russia’s yeti, which, according to Freeman, is an offshoot of Homo erectus, the first of our prehistoric ancestors to walk upright. He’s been to Guyana to find the so-called water tiger, an undiscovered mustelid related to but bigger than the giant otter, he thinks. Freeman is also one of many who has travelled to Tasmania looking for thylacines. “There have been so many sightings and much of the island is wilderness with enough prey to support a medium sized predator” like the Tasmanian tiger, he says. The thylacine was declared extinct in 1936.

A few fraudsters, entrepreneurs, and wannabee celebrities, keen to make a name for themselves and a fast buck off of people’s interest in the unknown, have also staked out a place in this particular field. A New York tobacconist made and then dug up a stone giant in his garden, claiming it to be one of the stone giants mentioned in the Bible. A Dutch explorer propped up a spider monkey on a basket, took a photo and claimed he’d found a new species of giant ape.

“Cryptozoology does attract hoaxers and fantasists, but there’s a lot of good research going on too,” says Christopher French, Professor of Psychology, at Goldsmiths University, London, and an expert on the psychology of paranormal beliefs. “What we’re looking for as scientists is hard evidence that these creatures exist.”

Sometimes there isn’t any. Researcher and author Nick Redfern — who says that cryptozoologists “investigate the truths behind stories that seem mythological” — spent two weeks in Oklahoma’s Lake Thunderbird State Park in May and June of 2012 looking for the Oklahoma Octopus, supposedly a giant freshwater cephalopod. Instead of finding a new creature, or indeed any creature, his best guess was that a couple of local pranksters had probably thrown an ordinary marine octopus, or several, into the fresh water, perhaps to attract tourists.

Richard Freeman found that some of the stories he’d read about giant snakes were leftovers from ancient African snake worship cults, which had been demonized by Islamic clerics thousands of years ago. (The Christian church’s efforts to squash pre-Medieval Europeans affinity with animals similarly led to a rise in stories about werewolves and witches.)

Sometimes, however, cryptozoologists do find something. Freeman’s colleague, and CFZ founder, Jon Downes, visited Texas several times between 2004 and 2012 looking into sightings of strange, hairless blue-skinned dogs.

Downes found video footage, stills, a dead stuffed dog, and a mounted head, all consistent with the stories he had heard. He also came across a hind leg and an eyeball, both of which ended up in his fridge. DNA analysis showed that these animals were part coyote, but there was other genetic information in the samples that the analysts didn’t recognize.

From this, Downes hypothesized that these blue-skinned dogs were related to ancestral dogs or wolves. Modern day canines evolved from ancestral dogs in southern Texas 25 million years ago. Their ancestors are known only from their skeletons — no one knows if they had fur or were blue skinned. Downes wonders whether the gene pool of Texan wolves has depleted to such an extent that ancestral DNA is re-emerging. Other researchers have suggested that the blue dogs are just coyotes affected with mange or some other skin disease.

Sometimes however, mainstream science has to admit that the cryptozoologists have got one right. The giant squid, the Komodo dragon, and the okapi, a giraffe relative in Central Africa, were all once believed to be mythical creatures. In the early 19th Century, western scientists scoffed at an African legend about a creature called the Pongo, described as a huge, viscous wild creature that lived in jungles and mountains, a cross between a man and a monkey that ate humans and had magical powers. In 1847, American naturalist Jeffries Wyman discovered the first mountain gorilla.

Occasionally, however, stories emerge that are as fantastic as anything JK Rowling could ever dream up.

In the late 1980s, Linda Godfrey was working as a reporter for the Walworth County Week, a local Wisconsin newspaper, when a local man called the office and said that he’d seen a werewolf. Although naturally skeptical, Godfrey looked into the story and was astonished to discover that lots of locals had seen a similar beast, one that was big, with grey or brown fur, and a wolf- or Alsatian-like head. “People had seen it eating road kill, one witness had found scratches on his car,” Godfrey says. “There had been so many sightings that the local animal control officer even had a file marked ‘werewolf.’”

Godfrey wrote about the creatures in her newspaper and the story took off. The regional papers got hold of it, then the nationals. She wrote a book about the animals, and eventually gave up reporting and began researching werewolves fulltime. “Over the last 14 years, I’ve spoken to thousands of witnesses around Wisconsin, Michigan, and further afield,” she says. “I’ve investigated countless numbers of sightings, seen footprints too big to be an ordinary wolf, scratch marks that couldn’t be made by a bear or a mountain lion, and seen dead animal carcasses torn to shreds in a way that no known North American predator could have managed.”

Witnesses have told Godfrey that these creatures are aggressive, like any other wild animal, but she adds that there’s only one report of someone getting injured. “A man in Quebec got a nasty gash across his rib cage and hips as one of the creatures leapt past him,” Godfrey says. “He didn’t think it meant to attack, though, [he] said that the animal was just trying to get away.”

Godfrey believes these animals are some sort of evolutionary off-shoot of wolves and dogs that can walk upright, as bears do. Others are more sceptical. Darren Naish, a paleozoologist affiliated with the University of Portsmouth believes they are more likely malnourished bears. “Without body fat, a bear’s snout and legs would be slimmer, making it appear wolf-like,” Naish says. Naish attributes big foot sightings to malnourished bears, too.

Christopher French believes “the more fantastic cryptozoological stories are simply tricks of the mind. “Such creatures, should they exist, would make the world a more exciting place,” French says. “This implies that there’s more to life than meets the eye, more than science knows.”

French explains that our evolutionary survival instincts tell us that if the bushes rustle, there must be something in the bushes rustling them, and it must be dangerous. “These instincts were born of a time, many thousands of years ago, where humans did live alongside dangerous predators,” he says.

Matthias Burgard, a German cultural anthropologist, adds that people today are so far away from nature that they fear its unknown potential. “Stories about weird creatures became more popular in the 19th Century, a time when Europe was industrializing, and people living more in towns and cities,” he says. “Before industrialization, when smaller communities lived alongside animals, people weren’t so afraid of and fascinated by nature and the dark. Both were part of their everyday lives.”

Mainstream science might scoff at cryptozoologists and their fantastic beasts, but Richard Freeman believes that dismissing the possibility that such animals might exist, just because no one has produced a live or dead animal, is itself unscientific. “A quantum physicist can write a paper about a miniscule particle that no one has ever seen and they get a Nobel Prize,” Freeman says. “A zoologist writes a paper about an animal that hundreds, even thousands of people have seen, and is called a crank.”

Freeman believes that longer, more thorough expeditions are needed to gain conclusive evidence that other mythical creatures do in fact exist. “It took seven years [of] round the clock filming before the first snow leopard was caught on camera,” he says. “Our expeditions last only a couple of weeks. If we could get the funding to mount a proper expedition, we’d have a chance of finding something.”

For now, however, cryptozoology, cryptozoologists, and the fantastic creatures that they search for sit at an intriguing crossroads between what is known, what is not known, what can be imagined, and what can and proved. But this crossroads is dynamic — it changes shape as new discoveries are made.

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