Updated: Aug 2, 2022
Cryptozoology is a subculture (and pseudoscience) that looks into proving the existence of mythical creatures from folklore legend. The Loch Ness monster or bigfoot are two examples that most likely come to mind.
Ok, I’ll be really honest. Cryptozoology is not something I take as fact or even something that I take as a unique possibility. Anyone who knows anything about aging and procreation knows that a singular loch ness monster or bigfoot can’t exist and if there are many of them, we certainly would’ve seen more than a blurry photograph from the early to mid 20th century. Even without ever laying eyes on them, such significant creatures would have a massive impact on their surrounding ecosystem (I’ll go more over that later).
However, just because their existence is extraordinarily unlikely, it doesn’t mean they can’t offer a fascinating look into alignment with real organisms, historical interpretations and human psychology. This isn’t a ‘top insert number here’ list, but I have segmented this post up like one, using some examples of cryptozoological creatures (‘cryptids’ as they’re often referred to as) and what they can teach us about zoology and ecology. Please note that I won’t be going into detail of individual claims, they’re likelihoods or proven hoaxes to dismiss anything, rather use this as an opportunity for some light education in extinct and extant fauna.
So are animals like Sasquatch or the Loch Ness Monster real? No, but maybe they were once upon a time...
The Loch Ness Monster
Arguably the most well-known cryptid. The Loch Ness Monster, or ‘Nessie’, is a creature that is said to live in the Scottish Highland lake known as Loch Ness. Accounts of the creature stretch back as far as 565CE, with descriptions ranging slightly but generally depicting an aquatic organism with flippers, roundish body and a long neck with a small head. The size of the creature is one factor that is the least clear, ranging anywhere from 2 ft to 100ft long.
Many other accounts exist world-wide of similar creatures, such as the Brosno Dragon, Caborosaurus or America’s own version of Nessie, known as ‘Champy’.
You probably have an idea of what it looks like without the description, with pictures like the ‘surgeon’s photograph’ above (now found to be a hoax) being synonymous with the famous creature. Though it does help to perpetuate the myth no matter what your belief, as tourism can be a powerful thing.
The closest thing, extinct or extant, to Nessie you’ll find is a plesiosaur. As for which plesiosaur? Who knows. It all depends on which depiction of Nessie you look at and which species of plesiosaur you compare it to.
If we ignore the fact that no evidence of a plesiosaur has been found past the K-PG mass extinction event (the one that wiped out the dinosaurs) and the fact that these were marine reptiles (found in the sea, not freshwater, though that isn’t to dispute that a freshwater plesiosaur might be found at some point) and humour the idea of Nessie being a plesiosaur descendant, there’s probably no point in comparing it to prehistoric plesiosaur, as evolution would mean it would have changed profoundly. For example, whilst the wildlife around Loch Ness is beautiful and diverse, there’s not really enough there to feed several creatures of that size. They would have to get smaller (probably a similar phenomenon to island dwarfism) and even then we wouldn’t miss other pieces of evidence. Nessie carcasses would have shown up here and there, along with what remains of the otters or whatever else it might be eating. Remember, animals show more evidence of their existence than just physical presence.
I couldn’t leave out the biggest urban legend from our friends across the pond. If, by some microscopic chance you haven’t heard of Bigfoot, AKA Sasquatch, it is an urban legend of a hominid creature that inhabits the forests of North America. Another urban legend with a famous photograph, alleged sightings and accounts are in far too much abundance to mention.
I’m not going to bore too many people with a long description of Sasquatch, but generally it appears to be a thickset, tall ape-like creature, likely omnivorous and able to even mimic other hominids like humans. Now, this is where the ecological evidence argument is slightly weaker than it is with Nessie, as North America is a VERY big place. The forests span for thousands of acres with an extraordinarily vast diversity of fauna and flora (seriously, I think that the natural beauty of North America is incredible) and, depending on where you are, also varies in climate. Evidence other than direct physical presence is much harder to disprove just because it isn’t found.
It’s not like such a creature couldn’t exist either as...well….something very similar actually did. Gigantopithecus blacki was a relative of the modern orangutan from Eastern Asia and existed during the early to mid Pleistocene (approximately 2.5 million years to 11,00 years ago).
G.blacki was a big boy, standing at around ten feet tall on average, given the (at least the skeletal) similarities to accounts of Sasquatch, a bigfoot isn’t too hard to imagine. The only differences being that it is likely that G.blacki was most likely quardepedal due to its size and would have resembled a giant orangutan.
Having said that, if any Sasquatches were out there it’s likely that, after a century plus, at least one would have officially been found. Put it this way, there are only 100 adult Amur lepoards in the world…
……..100………..in the world.
They are also lone hunters and nocturnal animals, making spotting them even harder. A simple google search will still give photographs that have been taken of this endangered species despite that AND that’s in an area covering parts of Russia, China and North Korea. If we can still manage to get excellent pictures of these animals despite their rarity, how has no one ever caught a Sasquatch on film other than that one video from the 60s? You can’t say that it’s because they’re rarer than the leopards, because there is no way a species with less than 100 members can continue for generations whilst still keeping numbers low enough to never be seen.
Once more, whilst sasquatch of the USA is the most famous example, there are claims and folklore legends of similar creatures across the world, such as the Yeti or Almas.
Here is a particularly fascinating one. Rather than modern accounts and claims gaining renown, griffins are mythical creatures from stories and legends generally accepted to be fictional. Whilst the legend of the griffin could have originated entirely from someone’s vivid imagination, the perpetuation of the creature wasn’t from a hoax, but in fact stemmed from actual fossil evidence!
Ever heard of the silk road? If not, it is a very long network of roads running across all of Asia and connecting the East to Europe via land. It is one of the most economically important historical methods of commerce as it was originally used as a trade route spanning continents from around 200 BCE right up until the 18th century. Precursors to this also existed for millennia before that. It was around 700 BCE that Greek explorers/traders told stories of this chimera, claiming to have found bones from a creature the size of a wolf, quadrupedal in nature and clearly shown to have had claws, a bird-like beak and wings. This became known as a griffin. If that sounds familiar at all, take a look at this guy:
That is a Protoceratops andrewsi. A wolf-sized ceratopsian from the Cretaceous found across Asia, in many locations close to the silk road network, complete with claws, beak and quadrupedal gait. The wings? Ok not so much, but it was suggested that it was in fact the neck frill or shoulder girdle that was misinterpreted as wings. Now, the suggestion that the legend of the griffin stemmed from a Protoceratops has been disputed. However, if it was, it makes a nice change that an ancient cryptid was stemmed from actual fossilised remains, rather than someone seeing a pretty picture of a prehistoric animal and wanting it to still exist, or a coincidently similar organism being discovered after the fact.
This also begs the question of the origin of other mythical creatures. Were various depictions of dragons inspired by fossilised remains? Makes sense, especially when you look at a sauropod neck or a theropod skull. Another popular theory is that the legend of the cyclops (a one-eyed giant from Greek and Roman mythology) was born from the remains of a mastodon or mammoth skull, with the nasal passages being mistaken for eye sockets.
Slightly lesser known than the others, the Mokele-mbembe is a cryptid from the Congo river basin and is….well, flat out a sauropod:
The name roughly translates to “one who stops the flow of rivers” and, depending on who you ask, is either a physical entity or a spirit. An expedition was once made by a group of cryptozoologists, funded by the Young Earth Creationists, to find the Mokele-mbembe in an effort to disprove the theory of evolution. Of course, no matter the outcome, this would always have failed, as put by palaeontologist Donald Prothero, who said that even if it was found, there would nothing that disproves evolution, just that a sauropod descendant had survived (not a direct quote).
This particular dinosaur-based cryptid (I believe) reeks of creationist pseudoscience. Firstly, the first account is from 1909 when big-game hunter Carl Hagenbeck heard two separate accounts from locals of a river dwelling creature that would attack all who were unlucky enough to come across it, known as Mokele-mbembe. He said they described it as ‘half elephant, half dragon’ and immediately decided that can only mean some sort of sauropod. This was obviously a biased interpretation of an extraordinarily vague description during a time when dinosaurs had first become a word-wide sensation. I doubt the locals even meant what he had interpreted, since that description could conjure up any number of beasts if one didn’t know what a dinosaur looked like. He coupled this description with the fact it was semi aquatic, which was a belief about sauropods at the time. It just so happens that all accounts that describe it as being dinosaur-like were from around this time, after the idea was already planted.
Secondly there is the depiction. The Mokele-mbembe is described (later on) as having four legs, a roundish body and a long, slender neck, with sketches such as this:
being reported as looking just like it. When you consider it was also a semi aquatic animal, it becomes very clear that this ‘sauropod’ was conveniently just like the depictions of sauropods that paleontologists thought to be true AT THE TIME. We now know that their bodies didn’t look quite like that, their tails didn’t drag across the floor, their necks were not that skinny and noodle-like and they were most certainly not semi aquatic (thought once upon a time to be the only way to support their massive weight, before the discovery of the avian air-sac system).
THIS is a more accurate depiction of a sauropod:
Now the depiction of Mokele-mbembe is no longer based on a creature of the past, but on a dated (therefore fictional) interpretation…..not that the Young Earth Creationists would know that…..
These are just a few examples of cryptids and I certainly don’t want to come across as either perpetuating these myths or insulting those that believe in them, nor was this discussion supposed to be about proving or disproving the existence of these organisms. This post is simply a fun look into the intertwined nature of cryptids and real life counter-parts, along with an interesting look into how mass hysteria and the power of suggestion (or just hoaxing for attention) can create myths like these.