by Shepherd Johnson
Cryptids are reclusive animals that for one reason or another remain hidden to humans and scientific scrutiny. The study of these reclusive animals is known as cryptozoology. The field of cryptozoology has drawn both followers and debunkers, scientists and showmen, hobbyists and researchers. Certainly the quest for an understanding of the unknown is something which draws people from a wide spectrum. Who doesn’t entertain the idea of the existence of Bigfoot when sitting around a campfire with friends? Like ghost stories, cryptids have become a part of our shared cultural imagination.
Biodiversity is diminishing at an alarming rate. Some scientists speculate that we are in the midst of a sixth great extinction. With that in mind, the opportunity to discover new species of plants and animals may seem hopeless. Yet, despite the depletion of known species at an unprecedented rate, the number of newly found species continues to grow. Almost always at a trickle, previously unknown insects, plants, and animals are being found in remote valleys, caves, and deep ocean vents, which have provided species a sanctuary from ever-increasing habitat destruction.
Recent finds in the greater Mekong River basin in Southeast Asia, where a diverse number of previously unknown species have been discovered in the last decade. This “Green Corridor” has been yielding thousands of new species with 163 discovered on a recent expedition. One expects new insects and smaller species usually found on such undertakings, but a newly found species of a bird-eating frog with fangs, a large flightless bird, and a bizarre leopard gecko are also among the creatures disovered.
What Is Cryptozoology?
Cryptozoologists search for plants and animals previously unknown to the fossil and scientific record. Struggling for legitimacy, cryptozoology is classified by most as a pseudoscience unworthy of examination.
As the discoveries in the greater Mekong region have revealed, however, there are a great many species of flora and fauna that have only recently been made known to us. Such finds give credence to the notion that there are more species waiting to be discovered. The scientists are reluctant to refer to themselves as cryptozoologists, yet that doesn’t diminish the fact that these species were cryptids up until the moment that they were discovered and classified by science.
They may still retain the moniker of “cryptid” after their discovery, as the name describes a particular flora or fauna’s history of remaining “hidden.” An example is a fish called the coelacanth. Though documented and “rediscovered,” many people describe it as a cryptid or former cryptid simply because of its elusive nature.
Cryptozoology has been in tug-of-war with itself since its inception: real-world creatures yet to be discovered versus speculative creatures. Many creatures which were thought to be the stuff of myth were later proven to exist, like the giant squid. Other creatures from mythology have also been proven to be something other than fanciful.
In antiquity, creatures such as mermaids and centaurs were thought to be real. Upon close examination, we see the underlying reasons behind the misidentification of such creatures, the mermaid simply being a manatee or dugong, which to the uneducated eye resembles a half-human, half-fish creature. The explanation for the centaur, a half-human, half-horse, lies in that, when horse-borne humans were first exposed to cultures unfamiliar with the horse, they simply thought this new conveyance to be a new creature delivered by the gods.
In both cases, creatures previously unknown were explained in the best terms available to the observers. Many of the mythical beasts described throughout history have their origins in folktales passed down from generation to generation.
Modern cryptozoology has borrowed extensively from these tales.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World is a wonderful example of the fascination with the unexplored areas of the globe. Writers tended to populate these mysterious locations with fantastic creatures.
Cryptids have left their footprint on many local areas and have become a part of the folk wisdom of many regions. Certain geographical places have become synonymous with an associated cryptid, such as Bigfoot festivals in Oregon or the Loch Ness monster.
There are some good examples here in Virginia, where a cryptid’s historical account became the stuff of legend and wild speculation. The New World discovery of a plant the properties and particular feeding habits of which nobody had ever seen before gave rise to the idea of “man-eating plants.” This was the Venus fly trap and other related carnivorous plants such as the pitcher plant found in the southeast United States. While the pitcher plant has relatives worldwide, it finds the most diversity in the bogs, pine barrens, and coastal swamps of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The Venus fly trap is found nowhere else on the planet except within a 100-mile radius around the city of Wilmington, North Carolina. Sarracenia purpurea, or the purple pitcher plant, is found in boggy areas of Virginia. These unique plants are a treat to discover in the wild. Reading about the fantastic speculative history of man-eating plants and then discovering the progenitor of such stories in the wild is very exciting. Our understanding of the genesis of folklore in relation to mythical creatures can also lead to greater conservation efforts for rare plants and animals.
Wild speculation about mythical beasts aside, where does this leave the practical cryptid hunter? Many look at the field as a hobby and never venture beyond their living room recliner. You can start in your own backyard using the tools and procedures used by naturalists for hundreds of years.
Searching for Cryptids
You should look for cryptids locally. Most people will never be “lucky” enough to have an encounter with a creature such as a Sasquatch, though the creature has been supposedly sighted in almost every state. Cryptids are alive in research papers, local folktales, urban legends, fossil beds, rural areas, and natural preserves. All of which are easily accessible with little effort to those who have a desire to search.
As with all scientific endeavors one should start with research. There are many good articles, books, and papers written about the subject which are of interest to cryptid hunters. The scientific journal Nature had extensive coverage about the discovery of Homo floresiensis, the so called “hobbit” or dwarf hominid. Many South Pacific cultures also have folktales concerning diminutive beings.
National Geographic and other scientific journals have extensive articles about cryptids and the coelacanth. Another place to find a wealth of information on cryptids is in the journals of western mountaineers who ventured to the Himalayas to explore and climb the highest peaks on the planet. Peter Matthiessen, Sir Christopher Bonington, and Reinhold Messner have written about their encounters with such creatures and provide credible testimony to the possible existence of the yeti. Mountaineers often immerse themselves in the culture of locals when conducting expeditions and return to the same region over the course of their mountain climbing careers. In such cases the investigator tends to be more receptive to the myths of an area, as exposure to local customs gives an insight that the casual observer would not receive.
The Smithsonian Institution’s Natural History Museum and the National Zoological Park, both in Washington, D.C., have ample information. For a more aquatic flavor, the paleontological museum at Calvert Cliffs, Maryland, provides quite a bit of material regarding ancient marine sea creatures, and the Virginia Marine Science museum gives a hint at what may lurk in the depths of Norfolk Canyon, just off the Virginia capes in the North Atlantic ocean.
Museums are a good resource for practical research. Many cryptids have been collected and are on display in the nation’s many fine natural history museums. The best example of this is the giant squid preserved under glass in a cryogenic chamber at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. The display is in the Great Hall as part of an exhibition on the world’s oceans and is undoubtedly the centerpiece.
Geography is the next concern. This speaks to the dilemma of whether to look for fanciful creatures or to look for more practical animals, plants, and insects. There are many myths and legends about fantastic creatures and most are highly localized. Lake Champlain has “Champ,” and Lake Okanagan in Canada has Ogopogo. There are also the occasional Bigfoot sightings in Virginia, with one such sighting prompting a local Virginia man to invest heavily in equipment and a technical support vehicle to engage in the hunt for the legendary creature.
The hunt for more practical creatures would be an endeavor that would seem not to yield many results. With federally protected national forests, mountains, and valleys, and a plethora of cave systems in the west and vast underwater canyons submerged off the Atlantic coast, many biological treasures may yet hidden from science. Of course finding a cryptid which inhabits the lowest reaches of the deep ocean, would be extremely hard with funding, scientific equipment, and obtaining a ship being major obstacles, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility that cryptids from the depths might wash up on the shore.
I have found many dead sea creatures washed ashore after violent storms, from loggerhead sea turtles to dolphins to starfish. The romantic notion of an expedition for legendary creatures may fill one with the ideas of venturing to far-off corners of the Earth, but the fact is that discovery may also lie right outside your own back door.
There are several adjuncts to the field that are of interest to the practical cryptozoologist. One of them deals with “living fossils.” The name lends itself to the study of cryptids, but these species of plants and animals have been identified, some being very rare while others are plentiful. They are species that have changed very little over the course of their fossil record. Living fossils have also survived various mass extinctions. While these species are not technically cryptids, they have no close living relatives and understanding their unique properties may lead to a better understanding of various cryptids when they are in fact discovered.
Which brings up paleontological investigations in the study of cryptids. This is an area which has great potential for cryptozoology. There are a great many animals that are known to us solely through their fossil record. The question of cryptid fossils has entered the debate over the existence of Bigfoot. Skeptics ask if Bigfoot exists, then why haven’t we found the bones of such a large hominid in its supposed range? Believers fire back with the discovery of Gigantopithecus. At 9.8 feet tall, it is an enormous ape ancestor whose bones were found in China and who is thought to have lived between one million and 300,000 years ago. Could the holdout Gigantopithecus be the mysterious modern day Sasquatch?
In addition to Gigantopithecus there are many other species which have been discovered through their fossil record. A previously unknown bivalve was discovered in Virginia in 1967, found in deposits laid down during the Paleocene epoch. While a clamshell isn’t as provocative as Sasquatch, it is nonetheless an interesting discovery. Cryptozoologists on the hunt for new cryptids might have some luck scouring through exposed fossil beds. If you are lucky enough you may find a giant tooth from C. megalodon. Megalodon is the largest shark that has ever lived and is thought by many cryptozoologists to still exist. Perhaps Megalodon still exists in Norfolk Canyon off the Virginia coast.
Another area of interest to the practical cryptid hunter is rediscovering species that are thought to have gone extinct. These are species that are known to science and that are thought to have remnant populations, but the sightings of which have been reduced to zero or near zero. Such a species may not have been reliably sighted for more than 20 years. When trying to find a dormant species thought to have gone extinct, results are only known if one actually rediscovers a species previously thought to be extinct.
Science within Group
Undertaking the role of a cryptid hunter can be some what unnerving. To be taken seriously, one must have a knowledge of biology, paleontology, botany, and various other scientific fields. One must also have a rudimentary knowledge of the scientific method. There is a gray area which is the overlap of professional scientists and amateur enthusiasts in fringe sciences such as cryptozoology, and the two can compliment one another.
Wayne A. Covington, a prison inmate in Pennsylvania, discovered dinosaur tracks while working on a prison farm. He read about paleontology, and within the confines of the prison and having only the prison’s property available to him for field work, has become a leader in the field, obtaining a bachelor’s degree. He has been offered a scholarship from Villanova University to continue with master’s work.
While an extensive understanding and background in biology and zoology will likely be necessary to differentiate a suspected new species of plant or animal from a currently identified species, such knowledge is not beyond the grasp of an amateur. While such observations might be daunting for somebody without an academic background in the fields of biology, such scrutiny is not impossible.
Conclusive and scientific proof of a large cryptid hominid would undoubtedly bring great notoriety and were such proof to emerge it would of course be heavily scrutinized by the scientific community. The existence of a newly discovered species of salamander would also be scientifically noteworthy, though not as newsworthy as the discovery of Bigfoot. At the very least in both cases the discoverer would have the honor of getting to label the discovered creature with its new scientific name.
Shepherd Johnson is a writer and photographer who splits his time between Central Virginia and the Big Island of Hawaii. His articles and photography have appeared on CBS News, Coast to Coast AM, and Cryptome websites. Most of his material deals with political subjects and national security. He is currently researching the U.S. government’s involvement in UFO investigations. This is his first foray into the Fortean realm.