Episode 46 – Cryptozoology

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The world is full of strange and miraculous creatures, but some believe there are even stranger creatures yet to be discovered. Mysterious beasts have been in human stories since we started telling them, and even today, there are still tales of animals hidden from science. This is the focus of Cryptozoology.

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Bite marks from two predatory fish found on the bone of a pterosaur.
What can blind cave fish teach us about mammals’ nocturnal past?
A new study on fossil teeth suggests kangaroos diversified along with grasslands.


The search for mysterious creatures is known as cryptozoology, which means “the study of hidden animals.” Cryptozoology is typically described as the search for animals that are known only from anecdotes. Some definitions call it a science while others refer to it as a pseudoscience.

Stories of sea monsters have been part of human societies ever since we first started sailing and traversing open water. These represent some of the oldest anecdotes of hidden creatures. Image by Carole Raddato from Flickr.

There are some who do their best to legitimize the discipline of cryptozoology, but many scientists do not regard the field as a whole to be properly scientific, and instead consider it to be plagued by biased research and thus a pseudoscience. Pseudoscience attempts to provide scientific-sounding results without fully following the scientific method. Cryptozoology is such a diverse subject, and views on its legitimacy vary.

The Creatures

Cryptids are the animals that form the focus of cryptozoology. Some are just large versions of already known animals, such as giant snakes, crocodilians, cephalopods, or arthropods. Others are more fanciful or unusual, and some are very famous, including familiar names like Bigfoot, the Yeti, Nessie, Mokole-mbembe, and the Chupacabra. These cryptids are so well-known each has starred in their own movie, some multiple times.

The Chupacabra is one of the most famous of these hidden creatures. It is said to roam Mexico and feed on the blood of goats. Image by LeCire from Wikimedia Commons.

There are also some animals that historically may have been considered cryptids, but which we now know to exist – animals that researchers learned about from locals before actually discovering one alive. The okapi is one such example. These cases, though very rare, are often cited as proof that some cryptids may be worth searching for.

Fossil Cryptids

This topic becomes particularly interesting (for us!) when fossil organisms are suggested as the ancestors or potential identities of particular cryptids. These are sometimes called “prehistoric survivors.” The poster child of this concept is the coelacanth, a type of fish previously thought to have gone extinct 66 million years ago before living individuals were discovered off the coast of South Africa in 1938 and since then near Indonesia. As with the okapi, these rare “lazarus taxa” suggest that it isn’t out of the question that some groups of animals may have evaded fossilization for a long time.

Since at least the 1800s, many cryptids have been linked to fossil animals. In fact, many cryptid discoveries or rises to fame line up with new fossil finds. Sea monsters, for example, were long described as long serpentine creatures, but around the mid-1800s, as plesiosaurs became more well-studied, popular descriptions of sea monsters shifted to a more plesiosaur-like shape.

Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus. This is the popular image of a plesiosaur and a common morphology of the group. Image by Adam Stuart Smith from Wikimedia Commons.

The Loch Ness Monster has also been suggest to be a surviving population of plesiosaurs. Sightings of this creature started surprisingly recently, in 1933. This is also the year the original King Kong was released, a film that features a group of explorers being attacked by a long-necked, large-bodied monster (meant to be a sauropod dinosaur) in the water. It may not be a coincidence that this animal bears a striking resemblance to popular descriptions of Nessie.

Sauropods also seem to be the inspiration for Mokele-mbembe, a large, long-necked beast said to roam the swamps and marshes of the Congo region. When this cryptid was first “discovered,” it closely matched many artistic depictions of sauropod dinosaurs – living in the water, dragging their tails – though we now understand these to be outdated ideas.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, sauropods were often depicted wading in shallow waters, a portrayal closely matching the descriptions of Mokele-mbembe. Image by Charles R. Knight from Wikimedia Commons.

Bigfoot and the Yeti also got a paleo-makeover when Gigantopithecus became popular in the media. Gigantopithecus is the largest ape yet discovered, estimated to have weighed over 1,000 pounds and potentially standing up to 10 feet tall, and has been speculated by some to be a likely candidate for the many large-footed, bipedal apes that are seemingly roaming the planet today. Once again, this is largely based on inaccurate portrayals of Gigantopithecus, which was very likely a knuckle walker as it seems to be most closely related to modern orangutans. 

And some cryptids are simply species for whom stories of their extinction has been – allegedly – exaggerated. These famously include the thylacine and megalodon. The last known thylacine died in 1936, but unconfirmed sightings are claimed to this day, and the giant shark C. megalodon went extinct over 2 million years before a handful of recent TV programs brought it back into the cryptid spotlight.

Unconvincing Data

So why do the vast majority of scientists dismiss the existence of cryptids?

The main issue with cryptozoology in the eyes of most scientists is that, by definition, almost all of the existing evidence for most cryptids is completely based off of eyewitness accounts. The problem with this is that humans are notoriously poor sources of reliable data in this field. There are numerous reasons that humans make bad eyewitnesses.

Some examples are:

These reasons, and more, make anecdotal evidence of this kind very unreliable. This is why data based off of unbiased and quantifiable sources and measurements are always preferred in scientific research. A DNA sample or ruler has no opinion on the data it supplies.

For this reason, some people have begun to view cryptozoology as more of a study of human psychology and sociology than of hidden creatures. This view looks at why we as peoples and societies continue to create and search for these mysterious animals. From this mindset, cryptozoology gains a new significance in the modern day as a look into the collective way we view creatures and monsters.

If you would like to explore this subject further, we highly suggest reading Darren Naish’s book Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths. This was a great source of info while researching for this episode and it covers much more than we have time for in our episode!
Darren also has a number of other articles on his blog, Tetrapod Zoology:
Is Cryptozoology Good or Bad for Science?
Cryptozoology at the Zoological Society of London.

If you enjoyed this topic and want more like it, check out these related episodes:

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