Don't laugh. The quixotic quest for beasts of lore is not far from what drives zoologists to find new and incredibly rare creatures today.
Last year when a couple of Georgia men claimed to possess a Bigfoot body on ice, a surprising number of news outlets covered the story. CNN and CBS, National Geographic and Scientific American interviewed Bigfoot “experts,” such as members of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization — experts more likely found on “Monsterquest,” a TV show that covers werewolves and vampires. Plenty of readers expressed their outrage on comment boards. “Were you recently purchased by the National Enquirer?” wrote one reader to Scientific American. Another wrote, “This is far beneath what I expect to read about in SciAm.”
Of course, it is doubtful the reporters believed the story, even before Sasquatch researchers pointed out that the body lacked muscle tone and that its hair samples burned like plastic. (It turned out to be a sloppy hoax involving a gorilla suit.) Sasquatch, of all legendary creatures, has become a cliché of the absurd, and with good reason. The idea of a 7-foot-tall unknown primate skulking around the ever-shrinking wilds of the United States sounds as far-fetched as a farmer being abducted by aliens in the cornfields of Kansas.
But science journalists entertain the Bigfoot story (even with a wink) because discovering a new and shockingly strange animal in the farthest reaches of the wilderness remains possible. Today, amid the drumbeat of bad news of species being driven to extinction, scientists are discovering more new species — both curious and commonplace — than in any time in history. As recently as November, excited anthropologists found a pygmy tarsier in Indonesia, a spooky gremlinlike primate, the size of a mouse, not seen since 1921.
That means some of the most respected scientists in the world cannot help having an open mind when it comes to the zoological unknown. And a few fringe scientists, known as cryptozoologists, are actively in pursuit of beasts of lore on the outside chance that they may not be figments of our imagination.
Technically, cryptozoology is the study and search for bizarre or legendary creatures, known as cryptids. There are the classics: the Loch Ness Monster, Chupacabra, the Yeti. But there are many that are not as well known and not as unbelievable, like the Buru, a slinky 10- foot-long reptile that the Apatani, a tribal group in India, claim to have seen, or the Orang pendek, an upright gibbonlike creature said to stroll like a human in the forests of Sumatra.
The hunt for cryptids isn’t just quixotic. It’s motivated by the same ambitions that have led to key zoological discoveries. You might even say cryptid hunters keep warm that place in science where anything is possible. And it’s from that place where some of the most astounding advances in the sciences are derived.
At the turn of the 20th century, for instance, the Mountain Gorilla and the platypus were thought to be legend or hoax. Pearl fishermen of Indonesia told tales of enormous prehistoric-like creatures on a remote island; the stories turned out to be real and the animals were named Komodo dragons. (An animal, even today, has not been “discovered” until a bona fide scientist says so, no matter how many locals claim its existence.)
More recently, new animals are turning up at a rapid pace. “In the last 25 years, the number of species known to share the world with us has grown by 25 percent,” says Bruce Patterson, a curator of mammals at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. “This is a remarkable level of discovery, and a remarkable statement of our current ignorance about the other forms of life we share the planet with.”
Most of these animals are much smaller than a Loch Ness Monster; most are plankton, insects, small fish and amphibians. But a few new mammals are discovered every year. While rats and bats are the most common finds, some big surprises have turned up.
“The third largest land mammal in South America, the Chacoan peccary [which looks like a furry boar], was thought to be extinct for tens of thousands of years until it was discovered in 1972,” says Patterson. In 1992, the Saola, a 200-pound deerlike bovine (cow family!), was discovered in Vietnam. “It’s a beautiful little thing,” says Patterson of the Saola. “Maybe 1,100 of them known to exist in the world.”
A few years ago, he adds, “I think the most remarkable new mammal discovered was the Laotian rodent.” The Laotian rock rat, a squirrel- size, bushy-tailed rodent with a football-shaped head, was discovered in 1998. “It was found to belong to a family of animal that was thought to have gone extinct 11 million years ago. It is the only living representative of an otherwise extinct family.”
Animals like the rock rat — once thought to have been extinct — are known to biologists as Lazarus species, and are quarry for both cryptozoologists and run-of-the-mill zoologists. Most people are familiar with the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a large and colorful bird thought to have been lost forever that may or may not have been found in 2004 alive and flapping in the swamps of Arkansas. (This now-legendary species comes complete with its own controversial video footage, rather like the famous Patterson-Gimlin footage of a trudging Bigfoot.) In 1938, the coelacanth, a large fish that tends to dwell in deep-water caves, was found to be alive and flourishing. Ichthyologists had assumed it died out around 65 million years ago.
A find like the ivory-billed woodpecker or the coelacanth propels its discoverer to the top of his or her field, so the search for the oddest of creatures can be a long shot worth pursuing. Ian Harrison, a freshwater fish expert at Conservation International, has been hunting his own mini Loch Ness Monster, a hideous-looking fish called Rhizosomicthys totae, fondly known as the fat catfish.
“I saw an illustration of it in an old book at the Museum of Natural History,” says Harrison. “I thought, well, this can’t be accurate.” The animal looks like no other known fish. It is a 7-inch-long roll of undulating, chafed flesh, as if the fish had taken on human- like rolls of fat. A dried-out specimen from another museum confirmed that the drawing was accurate. “I was just captivated by these things,” says Harrison.
When he found out that there were some reports of possible sightings as recently as 1984, he traveled with a team to Lake Tota, in Colombia, to hunt it down. The expedition was cut short when the team suspected that a left-wing rebel group was sniffing around their site. “We didn’t want to get kidnapped,” says Harrison. The team came away with nothing, but Harrison wants to go back. “The evidence suggests that it’s not there,” says Harrison. “But the lake is deep.”
And the ocean is deeper. Two years ago, some Japanese researchers were the first to capture video footage of the famous giant squid — millions of dollars had already been spent on a generations-long pursuit of the 40-foot-long animal, which was known to exist but had never been captured or properly observed. It seems safe to assume that marine biologists have entertained the idea, at least in passing, that there could exist a deep sea animal whose body has yet to reach any shore.
“The larger something is, the more likely it is to be seen at some point in time,” says Harrison. “But it’s possible. There is a lot of water out there, that’s for sure. The megamouth shark was first discovered in 1976.” Today megamouths, which weigh in at 1,600 pounds, are known to swim in at least three different oceans. “That’s a substantial-sized animal that’s been cruising around, not being found, for a good few hundred years of marine research.”
Ironically, it may be that scientists who are the most experienced in exploring new species are the most sympathetic to the concept of cryptozoology. Eminent modern-day explorer Bruce Beehler maintains an open mind about the search for the strange. Beehler, a scientist at Conservation International, led an expedition in 2005 that uncovered some 40 species of animals that appear to have been unknown to science — including a possum and a rat — in the pristine forests of Mount Foja, Indonesia.
“I think we are near the end of the era of finds like the Mountain Gorilla,” says Beehler. “But I think there are definitely some surprises in store. Absolutely.”
Beehler says he would point cryptozoologists in the direction of the Amazon to maximize their chances, but he also recommends the Congo, Southern China near the Himalayas, and New Guinea. “There are not many big areas,” he says. “Most of them are little, like the Foja Mountains, which covers about 300,000 hectares [700,000 acres].”
The dense forests of Indonesia have their own Bigfoot legend: the Orang pendek. This creature has been described by generations of indigenous people in Sumatra as a short, bipedal apelike fellow possessing startlingly human-like characteristics. Because there have been many convincing eye-witness accounts, it is probably at the front of the pack of potential nonextinct missing links; so much so that National Geographic recently funded an expedition to track the thing down, with no success.
The Orang pendek was also promoted in legitimacy when, in 2003, anthropologists discovered the skeleton of Homo floresiensis on an island in Indonesia — same neighborhood. Homo floresiensis, nicknamed “The Hobbit,” is hypothesized to have been a dwarflike hominin that would have lived contemporaneously with Homo sapiens tens of thousands of years ago. So surprising was the discovery of a humanlike species from such a recent time, the editor of the prestigious journal Nature wrote, “The discovery that Homo floresiensis survived until so very recently, in geological terms, makes it more likely that stories of other mythical humanlike creatures are founded on grains of truth … Now, cryptozoology, the study of such fabulous creatures, can come in from the cold.”
By Jeremy Holden’s measure, the hunt for Orang pendek is at a rolling boil. Holden, a British photographer who now spends his time in the Far East, claims to have seen the Orang pendek with his own eyes, along with his colleague Debbie Martyr, a British journalist who now spends her time tracking tiger poachers. “I feel my greatest achievement in life was seeing the Orang pendek,” says Holden. “And my great failure in life was not photographing it.”
When he followed Martyr on her quest to find the Orang pendek, he says, he doubted the creature could exist. No hide, skull or other physical evidence had ever been recovered or seen by Westerners. But that skepticism evaporated when a gibbonlike creature passed him, walking upright in a way that seemed to him nothing less than human. He was so shocked, he didn’t get the shot. He froze, afraid that he might see its face, which seemed to him, in his terror, impossible to bear. He and Martyr had nightmares for weeks.
Without a photo, he knew, it was unlikely that anyone would take the sighting seriously, so the two never publicized their experience. Some may roll their eyes at the amateur explorers’ ability to bring home the goods, but to Holden it is not entirely surprising that there is a dearth of tangible proof that the Orang pendek hides in the forests of Sumatra.
“I had spent time in Guinea trying to photograph a habituated troop of 19 chimpanzees,” says Holden. “They were used to people. But sometimes we would lose them, and our guides [who were indigenous to the area] would say, ‘Well, you might as well go home now, because there’s no way we are going to find them again until they start making noise.’ So imagine if chimpanzees were solitary and they lived on the ground and they didn’t make any noise. Would we ever know about them?”
Indeed, last August, the Wildlife Conservation Society reported that a population of about 75,000 Western Lowland gorillas had been overlooked in a swampy area of equatorial Africa. “I’m not a Bigfoot fan,” says Patterson. “But the discovery of this population of gorillas in a relatively intact ecosystem is an indication that some large animals that may still be abundant can escape our attention, particularly in poorly studied tropical locations.”
Idaho State University associate professor of anatomy and anthropology Jeff Meldrum backs this concept. “Jane Goodall sat there for months and months in the hillside waiting for chimpanzees,” Meldrum says. “And all she saw was a moving piece of foliage, or heard a vocalization. They were just invisible to her for literally months and months before she got her first glimpse. And she was working with gregarious, social, loud, boisterous primates.”
It is not surprising that Meldrum is enthralled with Goodall’s story. As the foremost Bigfoot expert in academia, and perhaps the most credible specimen of a cryptozoologist, he himself has been hunting the beast for decades in the chilly forests of the American Northwest. His book, “Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science,” includes complimentary words from Goodall herself. (In fact, in 2002, on NPR, when asked about Sasquatch-like creatures, Goodall said, “You’ll be amazed when I tell you that I’m sure that they exist.” She went on to say that she has heard many authentic- sounding testimonials from Native Americans, which have her convinced.) In his lab, Meldrum has a collection of more than 200 so-called Sasquatch footprints, and believes that, surely, some of them are legit. They may be evidence, he says, of the existence of a peculiar great ape, or, more incredibly, a member of the Homo genus, the closest relatives to humans. As far as we know, no other animal of the Home genus currently exists besides Homo sapiens.
Most cryptozoologists are amateurs, not university professors, and for good reason. Despite Goodall’s endorsement, Meldrum has had to answer to concerns from the university’s administration and faculty, who worry that he is sullying the reputation of the school. As a researcher who specializes in the evolution of bipedalism, he is one of the few scientists that can project the aura of legitimacy on his cryptozoological side project.
“Twenty thousand years ago, Neanderthals and humans lived simultaneously and they didn’t mix,” he says. “Maybe relic populations [of the Homo genus] had to retreat to survive. You would think that a few thousand years would have done them in. But instead maybe it was just that they were out- competed to the point that they had to retreat to the furthest reaches of their habitat in order to persist.”
Beehler has his doubts about this hypothesis. “The real problem is glaciation,” he says. “So much of the northern part of America was glaciated. And that pushed everything that was hiding anyplace south. Eventually, the animals either went extinct or became widespread. We don’t have a lot of species in North America that have lived for a long time in one single tiny place. That’s why we look to the tropics, places that have never been covered in ice.”
He does agree with the “hide and seek” concept of missing primates. ”Thirteen new species of primates were found just in Brazil in the last decade,” Beehler says. “Those are small animals, but those are almost hominids. They are clever and they do hide and they probably know how to make themselves hard to see.” He then quickly adds: “In terms of discovering a hominid, of course, scientists are naturally skeptical. I have a residue of that skepticism.”
Patterson is also an open-minded skeptic. Of so-called cryptozoologists, he says, “They seem to be universal. I’m not a cryptozoologist, but I run into them all the time. There was a missionary, a Catholic priest, who works with indigenous communities in Amazonian Peru. He would occasionally stop by the museum to compare the bats and rodents he collected with the museum’s collection. He would tell me about these black jaguars twice the size of modern jaguars. I’ve also been told of a gigantic ape living in South America. You know, I keep saying to these people: All you have to do is bring back a skull, a scrap of skin, or even some poop and we can do something with that. But I can’t do anything with your story. And despite real interest and dedication, these people can’t produce the physical evidence that is needed to support their claims. I can tell you that I don’t lose any sleep worrying about this stuff at night.”
Skepticism sounds like a negative word, but in science it is often considered neutral — it is a necessary counterbalance, even when it seems certain that a hypothesis is true. Perhaps that’s where cryptozoologists can lend a hand. If nothing else, they can prove the negatives, making sure that the slim possibilities are checked off the list.
“I think there is a place for the cryptozoologist,” says Patterson. ”The organizer of a meeting for the American Society of Mammalogists called me up and said that they had an abstract for a paper to be presented about a survey for Bigfoot. I called the author of this paper [not Meldrum] and determined that they had actual data and methodologies, and they were not going to present it as if they had definitive evidence. They were going to approach it in a purely scientific fashion. So I said, yeah, go ahead, present the paper.” He laughs. “It was one of the best attended talks at the meeting.”
It may be impossible to know whether photographer Jeremy Holden saw a mere gibbon who, to an excited witness, projected the illusion of effortless walking, or saw something far more interesting that wants to keep to itself. Those few who are serious about finding improbable lost species insist that they deserve a place at the table with the Goodalls of science. But they also know that most scientists aren’t buying it.
“Until we have the Orang pendek, the animal itself,” says Holden, ”it’s just another cryptozoology story.”
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