Consider the yeti. Reputed to live in the mountainous regions of Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal. Also known by the alias Abominable Snowman. Overgrown, in both senses: eight or ten or twelve feet tall; shaggy. Shy. Possibly a remnant of an otherwise extinct species. More possibly an elaborate hoax, or an inextinguishable hope. Closely related to the Australian Yowie, the Canadian Nuk-luk, the Missouri Momo, the Louisiana Swamp Ape, and Bigfoot. O.K., then: on a scale not of zero to ten but of, say, leprechaun to zombie, how likely do you think it is that the yeti exists?
One of the strangest things about the human mind is that it can reason about unreasonable things. It is possible, for example, to calculate the speed at which the sleigh would have to travel for Santa Claus to deliver all those gifts on Christmas Eve. It is possible to assess the ratio of a dragon’s wings to its body to determine if it could fly. And it is possible to decide that a yeti is more likely to exist than a leprechaun, even if you think that the likelihood of either of them existing is precisely zero.
In fact, it is not only possible; it is fun. Take the following list of supernatural beings:
Never mind, for now, whether or not you actually believe in any of these creatures. We are interested here not in whether they are real but in to what extent they seem as if they could be. Your job, accordingly, is to rank them in order of plausibility, from most likely (No. 1) to least likely (No. 20). Better still, if you are in the mood for a party game this Halloween season, try having a lot of people rank them collectively. I guarantee that this will produce a surprising amount of concord—who among us could rank the tooth fairy above the Leviathan?—as well as a huge amount of impassioned disagreement. The Loch Ness monster will turn out to have a Johnnie Cochran-level defense attorney. Good friends of yours will say withering things about mermaids.
What’s odd about this exercise is that everyone knows that “impossible” is an absolute condition. “Possible versus impossible” is not like “tall versus short.” Tall and short exist on a gradient, and when we adjudge the Empire State Building taller than LeBron James and LeBron James taller than Meryl Streep, we are reflecting facts about the world we live in. But possibility and impossibility are binary, and when we adjudge the yeti more probable than the leprechaun we aren’t reflecting facts about the world we live in; we aren’t reflecting the world we live in at all. So how, exactly, are we drawing these distinctions? And what does it say about our own wildly implausible, unmistakably real selves that we are able to do so?
In the fourth century B.C., several hundred years after the advent of harpies and some two millennia before the emergence of dementors, Aristotle sat down to do some thinking about supernatural occurrences in literature. On the whole, he was not a fan; in his Poetics, he mostly discouraged would-be fabulists from messing around with them. But he did allow that, if forced to choose, writers “should prefer a probable impossibility to an unconvincing possibility.” Better for Odysseus to return safely to Ithaca with the aid of ghosts, gods, sea nymphs, and a leather bag containing the wind than for his wife, Penelope, to get bored with waiting for him, grow interested in metalworking, and abandon domestic life for a career as a blacksmith.
As that suggests, for a possible thing to seem plausible it must be reasonably consistent with our prior experience. But what makes an impossible thing seem plausible? In a convoluted passage in the Poetics, Aristotle tells us that if an impossible thing would “necessarily” require something else to occur along with it, you should put that second thing in your story, too, because then your readers will be more likely to believe the first one. In other words, even something that is factually impossible can be logically possible, and how closely that logic is followed will affect how plausible a supernatural being seems.
There’s a reason Aristotle addressed this advice to writers and artists. Unlike most of us, they have practical motives for wondering how best to make imaginary things seem convincing, a problem that must be solved as much for “Vanity Fair” as for “A Wrinkle in Time.” Accordingly, creative types have done an unusual amount of thinking about plausible impossibility. In the seventeen-nineties, for instance, Samuel Taylor Coleridge set out to write a series of poems about “persons and characters supernatural.” To do so, he knew, he had to make the fantastical seem credible—“to procure for these shadows of imagination,” he wrote, in a soon to be famous phrase, a “willing suspension of disbelief.”
Coleridge was excellent at inducing a suspension of disbelief. That’s why we are as gripped by “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as the wedding guest within the poem who can’t tear himself away from the sailor’s tale—even though the tale itself is an outrageous one involving a magical albatross, a terrible curse, and a ship crewed by ghosts. Yet Coleridge was vague about explaining how exactly he did it. His only advice for making impossible things seem believable was to give them “a semblance of truth.”
A little more than a hundred years later, a very different kind of artist got somewhat more specific. Although Walt Disney is best remembered today for his Magic Kingdom, his chief contribution to the art of animation was not his extraordinary imagination but his extraordinary realism. “We cannot do the fantastic things, based on the real, unless we first know the real,” he once wrote, by way of explaining why, in 1929, he began driving his animators to a studio in downtown Los Angeles for night classes in life drawing. In short order, the cartoons emerging from his workshop started exhibiting a quality that we have since come to take for granted but was revolutionary at the time: all those talking mice, singing lions, dancing puppets, and marching brooms began obeying the laws of physics.
It was Disney, for instance, who introduced to the cartoon universe one of the fundamental elements of the real one: gravity. Even those of his characters who could fly could fall, and, when they did, their knees, jowls, hair, and clothes responded as our human ones do when we thump to the ground. Other laws of nature applied, too. Witches on broomsticks got buffeted by the wind. Goofy, attached by his feet to the top of a roller-coaster track and by his neck to the cars, didn’t just get longer as the ride started plunging downhill; he also got skinnier, which is to say that his volume remained constant. To Disney, these concessions to reality were crucial to achieving what he called, in an echo of Aristotle, the “plausible impossible.” Any story based on “the fantastic, the unreal, the imaginative,” he understood, needed “a foundation of fact.”
Taken together, Disney’s foundation of fact and Coleridge’s semblance of truth suggest a good starting place for any Unified Theory of the Plausibility of Supernatural Beings: the more closely such creatures hew to the real world, the more likely we are to deem them believable. But the real world is enormous, wildly heterogeneous, extraordinarily complicated, and, itself, often surpassingly strange. So if, indeed, the most plausible supernatural creatures are those which most resemble reality, the question becomes: which part?
The obvious candidate, at first glance, is the animal kingdom. Supernatural creatures are, after all, creatures, and we infer from them, or impose upon them, all kinds of biological characteristics. Like their natural counterparts, they can be organized by taxon (cervid, like the white stag; caprid, like the faun; bovine, like the Minotaur; feline, like the sphinx), or by habitat (alpine, like yetis; woodland, like satyrs; cave-dwelling, like dragons; aquatic, like mermaids). Given this tendency to situate unnatural beings in the natural world, it seems conceivable that our judgments about their plausibility might reflect how well they conform to the constraints of modern biology.
If that’s the case, our friend the yeti should rank very high on the believability scale. So, too, should giants, elves, unicorns, ogres, imps, sea monsters, and pixies. By the same token, this biological theory would deal a credibility blow to angels, demons, fairies, vampires, and werewolves, plus all those creatures assembled, as by an insane taxidermist, from the separate parts of real species: mermaids, griffins, centaurs, chimeras, sphinxes. It would also undermine the plausibility of fire-breathing dragons, there being no analogue in nature to a Zippo. In fact, biological limitations cast doubt on dragons in another way as well, since four legs plus two wings is not a naturally occurring configuration—a bummer also for harpies, griffins, gargoyles, and Pegasus.
If you couldn’t make it through that paragraph without starting to formulate an objection, you already know the first problem with this theory: it invites a lot of quibbling over what is and isn’t biologically feasible. As defenders of the supernatural will be quick to point out, many arthropods have six limbs; squids, skunks, bombardier beetles, and plenty of other real creatures spew strange things; nature sometimes contrives to recombine old animals in new ways (see the half-striped zedonk—part zebra, part donkey—or the recent emergence of the coywolf: part coyote, part wolf); and, considering the many kinds of metamorphoses exhibited by animals—tadpole to frog, caterpillar to butterfly, baby-faced to bearded—how far-fetched is it, really, for a bat to turn into a man?
Indeed, some fantastical creatures seem positively ordinary compared with the more byzantine products of four billion years of evolution. Consider the giant oarfish, a thirty-six-foot-long behemoth with a silver body, a bright-red mane, and a tendency to hang out in the ocean vertically, like a shiny piscine telephone pole. Or consider the blue glaucus, an inch-long hermaphroditic sea slug capable of killing a Portuguese man-of-war—a beast three hundred times its size—and then storing its poison for later use, including on humans.
Given so much natural extravagance, it’s not surprising that the real and the unreal are sometimes mistaken for each other. In 1735, when Carl Linnaeus organized all the species in the world into one vast taxonomy, he included a section on “Animalia Paradoxa”: creatures, common in folklore and myth or attested to by far-flung explorers, that he felt compelled to itemize yet deemed unlikely to exist. Among these were the manticore (head of a man, body of a lion, spiky tail), the lamia (head of a man, breasts of a woman, body of a scaly cow), and the Scythian lamb (like a regular lamb, except it grows out of a stalk in the ground)—but also, arrestingly, the antelope and the pelican. Conversely, a contributor to “This American Life” once recounted the experience of asking a group of strangers at a party, in all sincerity, whether unicorns were endangered or extinct. One sympathizes. Consider the giraffe. Consider the kangaroo.
The Science Behind Bigfoot and Other Monsters
Does Bigfoot exist? What about the Loch Ness monster? Or the Yeti? Or Mokele Mbembe, the Congo dinosaur?
There's ample circumstantial evidence for all these creatures: eyewitness accounts, blurry photographs, mysterious footprints. For many cryptozoologists—the people who search for legendary animals—that evidence is enough to confirm a monster's existence.
But it will take more than shadowy sightings to convince Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero that Bigfoot or any of the other monsters are real. What Loxton and Prothero want is scientific evidence. In their new book, Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, they analyze the history of mythic beasts and the clues to their existence.
Loxton and Prothero come at cryptozoology from different directions. Loxton, a staff writer for Skeptic magazine, was an ardent believer in monsters as a kid, having spotted a Bigfoot print in the woods and a pterodactyl winging over his backyard. (Now, he suspects the print was a prank and the pterodactyl was a great blue heron.) Prothero is a paleontologist, who is also trained in biology and geology. He has written over 250 scientific papers and 28 books, including five textbooks on geology.
National Geographic's Rachel Hartigan Shea spoke with the two authors about bringing skepticism and science to the study of cryptids.
First of all, what is a cryptid?
DP: A cryptid is any animal that has never been described by science, usually something very unusual along the lines of a Loch Ness monster or Bigfoot, something that stretches the limits of what is scientifically plausible.
DL: It's based on the word cryptozoology, which means hidden life or animals. It implies a creature that's been recorded through folklore, something that we have reason to suspect exists.
What can science tell us about cryptids?
DP: The first thing, of course, is that a cryptid can't be a single animal. If there's one of them, there's got to be many of them. You can talk about their population density, the size of range they should have based on their estimated body size. All of that tends to weigh against them being real because they should have had huge ranges, and they should have been spotted a long time ago if they really did exist. And then there's other aspects, like geology, something you never hear the cryptozoologists mention. All the lake monsters, not just Loch Ness but the ones here in North America, in Lake Champlain and Lake George, were all under a mile of ice 20,000 years ago. The cryptozoologists never asked the question, "Well, how did the monster get in the lake if the lake was completely under ice, the lakes are all landlocked, and there's no way for a marine creature to get there at all?" Those are all things that are not news to geologists, they're not news to biologists, but they're apparently news to cryptozoologists.
All the cryptids that you discuss in the book – Bigfoot, the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, Mokele Mbembe – are very similar to things that exist or existed in the past: bears, primates, plesiosaurs, sauropods. Why the similarity?
DL: In some cases I think it's because they are the same. Bears are often associated with ogres or wildmen in folklore because they're pretty humanlike. Once that folklore is underway, you have the opportunity for people to make these misidentification errors where they see a bear and think it might be a bigfoot. (Read a National Geographic magazine story about Europe's wildmen.)
DP: These animals look like something familiar to us because the myths grow around whatever we've already just seen. Daniel pointed out in the book that the Mokele Mbembe myth emerged right about the time that large sauropod skeletons were first mounted in New York City and illustrated by people like Charles R. Knight. Then lo and behold, someone starts reporting one in the Congo, where it doesn't have any history prior to that.
So Mokele Mbembe definitely does not exist?
DP: We have an excellent fossil record of Africa. We have very great confidence that there have been no dinosaurs around in the last 65 million years because we have bones of large animals from Africa of all kinds but they're all mammals. Same goes for plesiosaurs. Worldwide, there are no bones of plesiosaurs in any marine deposit after about 70 million years ago. There are plenty of places where they should show up if they actually lived, but they don't. That to me is not just absence of evidence, that's very strong evidence that they don't exist.
That sentence -- the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence – occurs a lot in the book.
DL: It's a really good thing for people to keep in mind, but it's not always true. If the claim that you are advancing implies some kind of evidence, then failing to find that kind of evidence is evidence that that thing does not exist. Take, for example, the idea that there might be plesiosaurs in Loch Ness. Well, plesiosaurs had bones. That implies that there should be bones littering the loch. Well, they've dredged the loch to see if there are any monster bones down there, any plesiosaur bones, and there aren't. That goes to the truth of the claim.
Do you ever encounter people who say, "No, I saw it!"
DL: Oh yeah. I have a lot of sympathy for that. If you have the experience of seeing something with your own eyes, it's natural that that should trump my "talking head" skepticism and Don's arguments about why that's probably not so. But there's only so much I can do with your personal experience that I did not share. I accept that it's compelling to you, but it cannot be as compelling to me.
DP: By and large, all of the evidence for these really strange cryptids is from eyewitness testimony. People are fooled by their senses, especially sight, because we are notoriously bad witnesses. One of the sightings of the Yeti, or the abominable snowman, turns out to be a rock outcrop. The guy saw it move the first time and then he had to leave. He came back finally a year later--after his sighting had been all over the media--and it turns out that it was just a rock he was shooting pictures of.
What do you think the connection is between people believing in cryptids and the level of scientific literacy among the general public?
DP: Lately cryptozoology has been connected to creationism in a lot of ways. People who actively search for Loch Ness monsters or Mokele Mbembe do it entirely as creationist ministers. They think that if they found a dinosaur in the Congo it would overturn all of evolution. It wouldn't. It would just be a late-occurring dinosaur, but that's their mistaken notion of evolution.
Is there any one cryptid that you wish was real?
DL: All of them.
DP: I'm a paleontologist. I'd love to have Mokele Mbembe and a plesiosaur!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Follow Rachel Hartigan Shea on Twitter.
How do we know that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist?
August 1933. It was a warm summer’s day when Mr and Mrs Spicer were driving along the road adjacent to Loch Ness.
Suddenly, lurching from left to right across the road, appeared an amorphous, monstrous apparition that moved with a peculiar bounding motion. An object that looked like the head of a small deer was located somewhere about its middle.
The Spicers’ sighting was one of the very first to describe the Loch Ness Monster, a creature known more popularly today as ‘Nessie’.
It’s a classic sighting, regarded as part of a field – cryptozoology, the hunt for unknown and typically monstrous animals – seen by its proponents as challenging mainstream science.
Read more about the search for the Loch Ness Monster:
The Spicers’ account is one of many Nessie sightings, and only one of thousands of monster sightings worldwide. Other famous monsters include Bigfoot (also known as Sasquatch), the Yeti, the dinosaur-like Mokele-Mbembe of the Congo, and the terrifying winged Ropen of New Guinea.
But in a way, the Spicer sighting epitomises cryptozoology as a whole. The more we’ve learnt and the more data we’ve gathered and analysed, the more it seems that all these accounts have logical explanations.
Founding the International Society of Cryptozoology
The Spicer sighting coincided with a specific cultural event, namely the release of the now-classic movie King Kong. Don’t forget, this film features dinosaurs and other animals in addition to its eponymous anti-hero.
Everyone was talking about King Kong in the summer of 1933, and we know that the Spicers had seen the movie. They’d been culturally primed: dinosaur-like monsters were metaphorically lurking in their minds.
Furthermore, the Spicer sighting can be explained if we just look at enough of the details. The bounding motion, that small ‘deer’s head’, and the location of the encounter (it occurred next to a track in the woods where a vegetated verge meets the road) all indicate that their ‘monster’ was simply a group of deer bounding in front of them, a fawn in its midst.
This is exactly what Rupert Gould, the investigator who brought the Spicer sighting to attention, concluded, later regretting his inclusion of the account in his 1934 book, The Loch Ness Monster And Others.
Additional Nessie sightings rolled in during the 1930s, laying the foundations for a school of thought in which the monster’s existence came to be taken semi-seriously. This phase persisted into the 1960s and 70s.
During these decades, rare snippets of film and blurry photographs were put forward as support for the creature’s existence. In 1972, underwater photos of Loch Ness appeared to show the flipper of a gigantic, plesiosaur-like creature.
Surely, believers said, confirmation of Nessie’s existence was but weeks away.
This might sound like an optimistic view today, but it shows the extent to which cryptozoology had captured the public’s imagination.
The man responsible for much of this excitement was Bernard Heuvelmans. In the mid-1950s, this Belgian-French zoologist published a successful book titled On The Track Of Unknown Animals, in which he put forward the case for the existence of mystery beasts neither accepted nor taken seriously by science.
He pointed to the 19th- and 20th-Century discoveries of a range of large animals – including the okapi, Komodo dragon and mountain gorilla – as support for his view that other large creatures were still out there to find. Heuvelmans’ writings developed a substantial following.
The daring proposal that giant mystery primates, lake and sea monsters, and surviving dinosaurs and pterosaurs might really exist – an idea that had always been present at the fringes of the zoological world but was dismissed due to lack of evidence – achieved a modicum of respectability when its proponents elected to form an International Society of Cryptozoology (or ISC) in 1982.
Over the years, scant fragments of data were put forward as support for the existence of the mystery creatures that Heuvelmans and the ISC endorsed.
Key among these were the alleged Nessie photos of the 1930s, 1960s and 1970s; a supposed Yeti footprint photographed in the Himalayas in 1951; the notorious film shot in California in 1967 said to depict a female Bigfoot walking alongside a creek; and tracks and other evidence also purported to belong to Bigfoot.
Nessie and other bogus beasts
Heuvelmans and his followers claimed that mainstream science displayed a disinterested, blinkered approach to these pieces of evidence, and to the study of mystery animals in general.
In reality, qualified scientists investigated this evidence to a considerable degree, concluding that all of it could either be completely explained or labelled as significantly problematic.
The photos that claimed to show Nessie all turned out to be hoaxes, or misinterpretations of waterbirds, waves, boat wakes or underwater objects like chunks of wood. Investigations published since 1999 show that the most famous Nessie photos variously depict a toy submarine, a blurry swan, a wave and an upturned kayak.
The alleged Yeti footprint of 1951 has irregular depressions at the left and right edges and heel, showing that it isn’t a real primate track but a hoax manufactured by human hands.
As for the 1967 Bigfoot film, an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence shows how Roger Patterson, the cameraman, planned for years to set up a hoaxed scene exactly like the one he filmed.
If photographic evidence has failed to pass the tests, what else might support the existence of monsters? An idea popular among cryptozoologists is that Nessie, Bigfoot and other mysterious beasts escape detection because they inhabit regions of the world that are remote and little explored.
But is this true? Loch Ness is no remote Highland refuge, but has long been an important place for military campaigns, transportation and settlement.
It’s regularly traversed by ships, and became connected with other waterways in the 19th Century, ultimately forming the 97km-long Caledonian Canal.
Loch Ness also fails as the sort of place where giant, unknown animals could survive. It’s home to birds, fish of several species and small crustaceans. Otters frequent its surface, seals visit on occasion, and deer sometimes swim across it.
But this is a scarce, low-diversity collection of creatures for a lake of this size and latitude. Indeed, the organic productivity of Loch Ness is so low that even the most optimistic calculations show that a population of large aquatic animals could not survive here, and certainly not for generations.
A giant, hairy, man-shaped monster famous for leaving human-like footprints. Originally associated with California, cryptozoologists believe that it occurs across North America and even beyond.
An animal – argued by cryptozoologists to represent an unknown species or subspecies – that has been described by witnesses but remains unconfirmed by science.
The investigative field that aims to discover and study animals that are alleged to exist, but are as yet only known from anecdotal evidence.
An elephant-sized water monster of the Congo region, imagined by proponents to be a long-necked herbivore and perhaps a surviving sauropod dinosaur.
A giant, winged beast of New Guinea, said to be bioluminescent and to eat human corpses. Its proponents – most of whom are creationists – believe it to be a surviving pterosaur, a flying reptile otherwise thought to have died out 66 million years ago.
Similar arguments can be applied to other monsters. It’s true that Bigfoot is associated with the wilds of British Columbia and Alaska, but what are we to make of the hundreds of reports from New York, Florida, and every other state across the US mainland?
It would appear to be the commonest, most widely distributed non-human primate on the planet, occurring in places that cannot reasonably be regarded as potential haunts for a huge, as-yet-undiscovered mammal.
Furthermore, it apparently lives right under the noses of hundreds of qualified biologists, conservationists and ecologists – any one of whom, make no mistake, would be rocketed to stardom (and, more importantly, tenureship) if they proved the beast’s existence.
Unlike Nessie, Bigfoot at least has some hard evidence put forward in support of it. But none of this has withstood scrutiny, and a long history of hoaxing and misinterpretation means that there’s nothing convincing surrounding Bigfoot’s existence. Even excellent ‘gold standard’ tracks have been shown to be faked.
During the 1990s, anthropologist Grover Krantz argued that several plaster casts taken of Bigfoot tracks displayed marks made by the tiny ripples and grooves on primate feet, known as ‘dermal ridges’.
Similar marks were noticed on other tracks, and they were taken by proponents as powerful support for the reality of Bigfoot.
However, in 2006, investigator Matt Crowley showed via a series of experiments that the marks were actually ‘desiccation ridges’. These are formed in plaster as it sets: they are not proof of the biological reality of Bigfoot, but an accidental consequence of plaster casting.
More recently, the claimed discovery of Bigfoot DNA has been used to support the ape’s reality. A 2013 study claimed to have catalogued both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA from Bigfoot, showing that the beast is a hybrid between Homo sapiens and a second species of unknown ancestry.
But independent checks by several geneticists revealed the results to be bogus, with the DNA found to be a mix belonging to various North American mammals.
Why do people still report sightings?
Decades of investigation have shown that a significant percentage of classic monster sightings can be explained as hoaxes or confused encounters with known animals or phenomena.
What’s more, virtually all photographic ‘evidence’ can be explained or dismissed, and ecological problems are attached to the supposed existence of various monsters. For all this naysaying, however, the fact remains that people continue to report sightings of these beasts. Why?
For years, folklorists and anthropologists have argued that modern ideas about monsters represent the vestiges of age-old folk beliefs in which dangerous places – deep lakes, dark forests, treacherous mountains – are associated with frightening creatures.
The ‘biology’ and ‘behaviour’ of these animals is then reinforced by tales, anecdotes and artwork, passed down the generations.
This explanation has increased in popularity since 1988, when folklorist Michel Meurger showed how people’s ideas about lake monsters in northern Europe were linked to the folklore of their culture.
In other words, our cultures have primed us to imagine monsters whenever we see such things as dark shapes beneath the water, or shadows in a forest. The psychological term for this is ‘perceptual expectancy’.
Psychology provides support for the idea that monsters are almost hardwired into our consciousness.
Controlled experiments published since 2010 have shown how people ‘see’ monstrous apparitions, perceive frightening distortions of known objects, and have a distorted sense of size perception when they’re afraid or confused, or while making observations in dim conditions.
Read more about the Loch Ness Monster and other beasts:
So are we left with any compelling reason to think that massive, mysterious animals like Nessie and Bigfoot really exist?
No, and despite extensive work and decades of searching, both monster proponents and sceptics have failed to produce any positive evidence that’s even vaguely compelling. If there’s any answer to the vexing question of why people claim to see the monsters, it’s that we are all the products of those cultures to which we belong.
We are complex, deluded creatures, typically refusing to abandon the fact that we’re frequently tricked by our senses, our memories, and even our abilities to make sense of what we see.
Monster myths debunked: From Bigfoot to the Loch Ness monster
Every corner of the world has its own monster or - to use a more technical term - its own ‘cryptid’. Those who believe in them follow the pseudoscientific subculture known as cryptozoology, which aims to prove the existence of entities derived from the world of folklore and myth.
We’ve all heard of them, those mythical creatures that are said to share this world with us, roaming, swimming, and flying around our planet yet evidence of their actual existence is scant, to say the least.
Here we take a look at four of the most famous monsters from around the globe and uncover the truth behind each.
Fondly known as ‘Nessie’, the legend of the famous long-necked dinosaur creature swimming around Loch Ness in Scotland dates back over 1500 years. The first written record of the beast comes from the 6th century AD, however, Nessie mania didn’t kick off until the 1930s after a new road was completed along the Loch, which is situated around 8 miles from the city of Inverness.
Sightings of the prehistoric creature were said to have increased from that point onwards and a footprint was even discovered. That was quickly debunked as being the print of a hippo, most likely a stuffed one or from a hippo-foot umbrella stand.
In 1934, the most famous picture of Nessie was captured. The black and white photo showed a creature reminiscent of the extinct plesiosaurs, a lineage of dinosaurs that went extinct some 65 million years ago.
However, during the 90s the photo was proved to be a hoax and subsequent expeditions using the latest in sonar and underwater technology have failed to provide any evidence that Nessie lives.
In 2019, a scientific study took an environmental DNA survey of Loch Ness to determine what organisms lived in the waters. It concluded that the loch was not home to ‘any giant reptiles or aquatic dinosaurs’. It did discover that the loch contained a large number of eels leading to one theory that the monster was in fact an oversized eel.
If Nessie does exist, not only is she incredibly good at hiding but she’s also equipped with the skills to elude modern science.
If Nessie takes the crown as the most famous of water-based monsters, Sasquatch is surely her terrestrial counterpart. Stories of bipedal hairy creatures are known from around the world. Indonesia has the Orang-pendek, China the Yeren, Australia the Yowie, the Himalayas have the Yeti (more on that later) and America has the Sasquatch.
Also referred to as Bigfoot, the humanoid is described as a large ape-like creature that walks on two legs and inhabits the forests of North America. The modern legend stems from a 1950s newspaper article written in the American Humboldt Times that highlighted the story of Californian loggers who discovered large footprints, hence the nickname Bigfoot.
In 1967, Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin captured the most famous video of the creature in an area called Bluff Creek in northern California. The minute-long clip allegedly shows a Sasquatch casually strolling across a creek bed in a wooded location.
In the years that have followed, not a single shred of irrefutable evidence has been discovered to prove the existence of Sasquatch. Videos always seem to be blurry, hair samples are always proven to be from other creatures and in 2002 the family of a deceased logger claimed the original footprints that sparked the whole Bigfoot craze were fakes carried out by their father.
The scientific community have questioned how a large creature, such as Bigfoot, could sustain a breeding population with all the requirements of food, territory and shelter and still remain hidden in the process. ‘There are lots of undiscovered things, particularly in the natural world,’ said Dr Eric Rickart, the curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Natural History Museum of Utah. ‘But they don’t take the form of giant apes running around in largely settled areas of the world.’
The most likely explanation for Sasquatch sightings is misidentification, bears being the most likely candidate.
The mountainous snowy cousin of Sasquatch, the Yeti (or Abominable Snowman) is another ape-like creature, this time said to wander the Himalayan mountain range in Asia.
The creature has its origins in folklore and is an important part of the legends and myths of Sherpa communities. When Western mountaineers began exploring the Himalayas in the early 20th century, reports of the Yeti started coming in thick and fast and each one more sensational than the last. Even famed explorer Sir Edmund Hillary conducted an expedition to find the Yeti in the early 1960s.
Ever since then, grainy footage, large footprints and eyewitness accounts have become the supposed backbone of Yeti evidence. Bones and hair samples have been found but all have been attributed to other animals such as bears and antelopes. Just like Bigfoot, scientists have argued that such a large primate would need to roam widely to find enough food, making it hard to stay hidden for so long.
Misidentification is the probable explanation for Yeti, bears again proving to be the most likely candidate.
Heralding from Latin America, Chupacabra’sname means ‘Goat Sucker’. With origins in local folklore, it wasn’t until 1995 that the creation burst into life and the world’s first eyewitness bore testimony to what they saw. After several sheep were killed in Puerto Rico, the creature was supposedly seen in the town of Canóvanas. Described as a medium-sized reptile-like creature with spines running down its back and tail, the monster is said to attack and drink the blood of livestock.
Since that initial sighting, others have cropped up across the world but none have provided any concrete evidence of the creature's existence. It seems that humans love a good old-fashioned monster story and have the propensity to indulge and embellish details along the way. Just like the other cryptids mentioned, a large portion of the evidence about the existence of the Chupacabra comes from witness testimony, which has led to an array of ever-changing descriptions about the creature.
However, so-called Chupacabra bodies have also been discovered but none were of the mythical creature. All turned out to be dogs, coyotes or raccoons with sarcoptic mange; a skin disease caused by mites that causes the animals to lose their hair.
Scientists have argued that most sightings are likely to be of these infected creatures, which would also explain their propensity of attacking livestock as they make easier prey for a predator that is severely weakened.
American writer and investigator Benjamin Radford spent five years looking into the creature and concluded, ‘From my perspective, there is absolutely no reason to believe that anything out of the ordinary is involved in the attacks on livestock.’
Ness monster bigfoot vs loch
Throughout history, stories have been told about fantastical creatures that spark the imagination. From Bigfoot to the Loch Ness Monster, from mermaids to the Kraken, tales of supposed firsthand accounts have been passed down through generations. Although there is no evidence backing the existence of these creatures, either in present day or at any point in the past, there must be a reason why such legends were created in the first place. In most cases, the legends are grounded in fact.
During this Halloween season, Third Pod from the Sun is highlighting four stories from scientists who know a little something about the real-life animals that inspired these legendary creatures. In the first episode, Cristina Brito, director of the Centre for the Humanities at NOVA University of Lisbon, and Ryan Haupt, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wyoming and cohost of the podcast Science…Sort Of, talk about the connections between mermaids and manatees, as well as the connections between Bigfoot and prehistoric giant sloths, respectively. In the second episode, Rodrigo Salvador, curator of invertebrates at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and Danielle J. Serratos, director/curator of the Fundy Geological Museum, describe the connections between giant squids and the Kraken, as well as between prehistoric aquatic reptiles and the Loch Ness Monster, respectively.
These episodes were produced and mixed by Shane M. Hanlon.
—Shane M. Hanlon (@EcologyOfShane), Program Manager, Sharing Science Program, AGU
Shane Hanlon (00:00): Hi Nancy.
Nanci Bompey (00:01): Hey Shane.
Shane Hanlon (00:03): So it is, well, I guess it’s mid-October right now. With this is will be coming out around Halloween. What are your feelings on Halloween? Some people love it. Some people are completely indifferent about it.
Nanci Bompey (00:14): Yeah. I’m in the latter camp, I guess. I just, I’m not like a big fan of dressing up and things. I just like don’t care that much about it.
Shane Hanlon (00:21): There are some times I wish that like people could see the video recording of what we’re doing and just like your face. You’re like, “Eh, not really.”
Nanci Bompey (00:27): Yeah.
Shane Hanlon (00:28): You and I live pretty close to each other out here in Arlington. Do you get trick or treaters at your place?
Nanci Bompey (00:35): Not many. I mean here and there but we didn’t get a ton just because like, we’re not on the main, we’re not on the street where like towards the woods and stuff, but did you get a lot? Do you get a lot?
Shane Hanlon (00:45): Well, no one’s getting any this year, right? But-
Nanci Bompey (00:49): We’ll see what happens. I mean I don’t know.
Shane Hanlon (00:50): I guess that’s true. We usually get a decent amount. Yeah. We have a house on a main street, but I will say so okay, we don’t know actually what’s happening with trick or treating in our neighborhood, but my partner volunteered to essentially like bag candy for some charity drives. And so last night we were just hanging out, watching TV and she said, “Oh, by the way, there’s a big box of candy on the front porch. Can you grab it?” And I literally opened the door and there is a giant box of just like 10 bags of trick or treating candy. And I just bring it in and plop it down and say, “What is this?”
Shane Hanlon (01:25): She said, “Oh yeah, I’m doing this thing.” I can’t have candy in the house. Like I have zero self-control. So I was like, “Can I eat any of this?” She’s like, “No, you can’t. That’s for charity.” And so I had to watch, and I couldn’t take part in that either, so I had to watch her do this because I have zero self control and like the moment I literally got my hands on candy, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself.
Nanci Bompey (01:46): I do love candy. So I do love that part of Halloween. Yeah.
Shane Hanlon (01:50): There’s something everyone can love, right?
Nanci Bompey (01:52): Exactly.
Shane Hanlon (01:55): Welcome to the American Geophysical Union’s Podcast about the scientists and the methods behind the science. These are the stories you won’t read in the manuscript or hear in a lecture I’m Shane Hanlon.
Nanci Bompey (02:04): And I’m Nancy Bompey.
Shane Hanlon (02:06): And this is Third Pod from the Sun.
Shane Hanlon (02:10): All right. So our episode, I guess, corresponds with Halloween, let’s say, but we’ve had this idea at the podcast for a while about talking to folks who study things that have roots in kind of myth and legend. Like these creatures that have inspired things like mermaids or Bigfoot and I feel like a lot of times these legends, they don’t just pop up out of nowhere, right? They have to have something that inspires them. And in many cases, there’s kind of these prehistoric reasons why folks thought of these things, why folks created these legend. And so we figured since it’s Halloween season, we put out a couple of episodes where we interviewed a handful of scientists to talk about these linkages between science and monsters.
Nanci Bompey (02:55): So we have two interviews for this episode, right? And the first comes from a researcher who knows a little something about mermaids.
Shane Hanlon (03:03): How do you pronounce your name?
Cristina Brito (03:05): Cristina.
Shane Hanlon (03:06): And your last name?
Cristina Brito (03:07): Brito.
Shane Hanlon (03:09): Brito. Okay. I didn’t know if it was Brito or Brito.
Cristina Brito (03:14): Listen to the rs as I do in Portuguese. It’s Cristina Brito.
Shane Hanlon (03:15): Okay. Yeah. Thank you. I am very American with my speech, so I just want to make sure I get the vowel sounds right.
Cristina Brito (03:22): Don’t worry. No worries. Okay. So I’m a researcher on mostly early modern marine environmentalist history. Currently, I’m the director of CHAM, which is the Center for the Humanities of Nova University in Lisbon but my background in marine biology. So earlier in my career, I was working on field with ecology behavior conservation of [inaudible 00:03:54] and then I flipped into history. So history of marine environment, as well as the history of marine animals and the history of relationships with people with the ocean and the animals.
Shane Hanlon (04:09): What inspired your shift from doing more of the hard science field work type stuff into more of like what you said from the looking at things from the more historical aspect of things?
Cristina Brito (04:22): There was a shifting moment. I was doing field work in Sao Tome which is an archipelago in the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa and we were doing field work, going out to the sea to spot while record sounds. That is a breeding ground for humpback whales and I do get terribly sea sick. So one of the days I stayed home and I went to [inaudible 00:04:56] and pick up some books and start reading them and they were full of animals. Descriptions of large whales, large animals that people thought they were strange. They were different, they were scared and so that was it. And then I changed completely from biology into history.
Shane Hanlon (05:17): And it’s probably helpful now that you don’t have to go out on ships because that’s not necessarily a great thing when you get seasick pretty easily.
Nanci Bompey (05:23): So I know we’re going to talk about the linkage between mermaids and manatees. So how did she get interested in this question?
Cristina Brito (05:31): The first thing was data. When I start doing early modern history of natural history and coming back from reading classical antiquity and many best theories or natural history treaties in medieval times in Europe, mermaids or other beings, either beings from the water or from the aquatic bodies are present a lot, many times. They are described as these creatures that come out of the water and people do have a reaction to them, either positive or negative. And then I thought, well, most of our myths that are related to nature, they come from a sighting of something in nature and observation. And when we are dealing with marine animals that are harder to spot and to see and to comprehend in the marine environment in comparison with, for instance, birds or terrestrial mammals, people do tend to add to their own observations features that they have in their minds, in their own perception of the world, in their world views.
Cristina Brito (06:39): And so I sought well, so people thought there that there were mermaids because they weren’t sure of what they were seeing. And from the moment on, they realized that there are these animals that may look like a mermaid, that a shift would occur into the perception of what the mermaid is from a mythological being into a real animal. So this was my starting question and the fact is that that’s not the case. So yeah. So mermaids are always side by side, either with seals, sea lions, manatees, sometimes whales, and sometimes they are presented as real animals at the same time as you described for instance manatees.
Shane Hanlon (07:21): That’s interesting. So it’s actually the reverse for a lot of creatures out there. So manatees were actually, at least the name and comparison we’re influenced by the mythological creatures of mermaids.
Cristina Brito (07:36): Yeah.
Shane Hanlon (07:36): Oh, that’s fascinating. So how far back, so for mermaids, how far back are we talking? Like when is the first kind of mention or mentions of mermaid sirens, whatever it might be in history?
Cristina Brito (07:47): Way back to the beginning of human history. Yeah.
Shane Hanlon (07:50): Really?
Cristina Brito (07:51): Yeah. There are gods for ancient Mesopotamia for instance, that we can relate them to the figure for what would become the Greek or the Roman mermaid, for instance. And we can somehow follow the path of understanding of these gods of the water. So those that were hybrids of human or animal of the sea. So and mermaids are present across time and across societies. Every time there’s this connection of people with the water, this relationship, there’s not always mermaid per se as we could imagine them today. But if hybrid figure of a God, a semi God, mythological being that relates to the water and is represented partially by an animal. For instance, in the Renaissance, natural history, encyclopedia, naturalists might describe side-by-sides are real animals, real manatees, or dugongs and then have another entry for mermaids.
Cristina Brito (08:59): And this could be one of two situations, either because they believed that they existed in a similar way. So they were equivalent to one another or it might be that even though they knew that sirens weren’t real, they wanted to keep it there so that the readers would be fascinated by these tropical exotic, different and strange animals/creatures out there. And just another example, for instance, in West Africa, where manatees, the West African Manatee, although being endangered, do occur. You see a kind of disconnection in between the understanding of the animal as a resource. It used to be hunted and used for their meat, for their bones or for defense hence the symbolic animal, so like a deity. That still exists today. Maame Water, which is an African origin deity of the waters and that’s still there. So in some cultures they are present at the same time, but they are different entities. I’m seeing is like a fish from the ocean that we can use as food and the other is our deity that we venerate for many different reasons.
Shane Hanlon (10:23): I was wondering if there were folks out there who are trying to show mermaids exist in a scientific way, like the folks on, I don’t know, Discovery Channel or something like that. Are there people saying or there’s fossils out there or bones out there that might show that mermaids actually do exist now?
Cristina Brito (10:42): Not so much these days. That was really a thing until at least middle 20th century. And there are several, at least European zoology or naturalists that were trying to prove that mermaids existed back then and across time and in different places, both in Europe, in Japan and other areas, people tend to put together these siren puppets. So it’s to prove that they were real. So they will take the hand of a monkey, the body of an aquatic animal, the legs, and they would just put them all together and create an animal that’s not real, but that would be there in exhibition for people to go and see. That is until kind of the late 19th century.
Cristina Brito (11:33): But for instance, in the US, there was this, how do they call it mockumentary I think not the true documentary that is entitled the Body Found. And it’s something about mermaids, these aquatic humanoids. It has a couple of years. It was from 2016, something like that. It came out and Noah had to release a statement stating that mermaids are not real because the documentary, which is just putting together loose pieces of information in one place, made people believe once again that mermaids were a possibility, a true possibility.
Shane Hanlon (12:21): Yeah, actually, so I just looked it up and looking at the art for it. I remember this, it was 2011.
Cristina Brito (12:27): Yes.
Shane Hanlon (12:27): And yeah, because it was on, it was on the Discovery Channel, which isn’t quite, yeah. It’s not people understand now that Discovery doesn’t really do science anymore but-
Cristina Brito (12:37): Yeah and people saw it as a real thing, as a real documentary and that they were taking the lead on that.
Nanci Bompey (12:43): I don’t recall this show. Sorry.
Shane Hanlon (12:47): I actually, so like I said, I had to look it up while we were talking and I do kind of remember it, but the only kind of mermaids I can think of now is I was going to say Harry Potter, like, of course you, Nancy B you don’t really like Harry Potter, do you?
Nanci Bompey (12:58): I just never read it, so sure, great Harry Potter.
Shane Hanlon (13:02): Right. Well, so in addition to kind of the, let’s say mermaid truthers, I was fascinated by how maritime folks let’s say, saw mermaids as signs of maybe good omens or bad omens. Why are mermaids seen in some cases as a good luck charm and in some cases seen as a bad thing that would lure fishermen in and kill them or whatever.
Cristina Brito (13:30): Yeah, that’s true. And they have … these both sides are always present, but I think they do represent much of what the open ocean represents to people, which is at the same time, a place of wonder and discovery and good fortune. Something can come out of it as good but at the same time, it’s a place of danger and often known and off the great depths and the darkness and so on. And so I think these double view, the double aspect of the ocean has to it in terms of attraction to people, how people see the ocean as good and as bad as light and dark is also reflected in the mermaid very well. So the mermaid does encompass all the ways that people can see and perceive the ocean and you can see at the same time.
Cristina Brito (14:20): So you have mermaids that … So there are several mermaid sirens, selkies and so on, well across different cultures. And one of these creatures can be all good and represent all the goods. And then you can have another one that represents the bad, but then you ask them and there’s really no explanation or reason for that, that in the same reach and in the same meeting being the good and the bad is there. So if you do good things, if your behavior is good, you will get all the good parts of being in touch with the mermaids. But if you do something that’s not good, you can get the other part. So it just relates the beat with the [inaudible 00:15:09] of humanity, who we are and how humans see themselves reflected on the ocean.
Shane Hanlon (15:14): I wanted to know, of course we were talking to her about mermaids and manatees. So I was personally interested, but do people out there and kind of popular culture still care about and are still fascinated by mermaids?
Cristina Brito (15:27): People still are very interested in them and the fact is that both myself and other colleagues in my research group, we do a lot of research on animals, real animals, but also on sea monsters. And that’s what people will recall the most, the mermaids, the sea monsters and everything and they try to find an explanation for that. And our viewpoint is just going both to the natural sciences, what biology and ecology and environmental knowledge tell us about the animal populations, where they were in the past, how abandoned were they, how were their behaviors similar to present-day alongside with the historical sources and we will find these in written letters, in natural treaties, in several documents. And there we have many, many accounts of mermaids and sea monsters in maps and drawings and representation in sculptures, in poetry. So they are everywhere.
Cristina Brito (16:34): It does show us that people were very eager to know more of what this being was. And today we can have this double disintegrated view and kind of understanding both the cultural aspects-
Shane Hanlon (16:50): Sure.
Cristina Brito (16:51): … of a mermaid, which is a symbol which is a deity even today, so it’s present. It’s still in some cultures as a religious symbol in Africa, in Brazil, for instance, in other parts of the world. But the animal is the only thing that still remains. So there are no extant evidence whatsoever of a mermaid and what people would think a mermaid was. So we are relying on written accounts mostly, and that’s the source of our research. And then I think that’s still a topic that will come to be addressed in many different ways. The fact that the mermaids are hybrid or are dual in many aspects, does relate to many aspects of how today we are say society and some societal issues of groups of people that are somehow not understood and mermaids can be used as a framework of thinking all of these. Yeah. So I think there’s still a long way with mermaids ahead of us.
Shane Hanlon (18:01): I have to say, when I first reached out to Cristina, I didn’t quite understand the direction of things, meaning that, what’s unique I think about mermaids is that the myth of mermaids has been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and was probably inspired by fish and sharks and different things. But when they got to the new world, they actually, like folks actually thought that manatees were mermaids. Usually it goes in the opposite direction I think when you have someone who knows something about, say, prehistoric creatures inspiring the myth or the legend.
Nanci Bompey (18:36): Right. And I think you also talked to someone who can tell us a little bit about something along those lines.
Ryan Haupt (18:42): My name is Ryan Haupt. I’m a vertebrate paleontologist. I’m at the very tail end of my PhD at the University of Wyoming, depending on when this episode comes out, it might already be done, which would be awesome. And I’m spending the year as the science policy fellow for the Geological Society of America and that is also coming to an end. So I’m soon to be on the market as a vertebrate paleontologist. So I usually self-identify as a paleontologist. So I studied the, and I sometimes we’ll put paleo in parentheses because I actually kind of do modern ecology too and so I sort of studied the connection between modern ecosystems and past ecosystems. And the part that I focus on specifically is sloths.
Ryan Haupt (19:21): I don’t only study sloths, but that’s sort of the main thing that I focus on and the aspect of their ecology that I’m the most interested in is diet. So I really try to figure out what the life of a sloth was like based on their diet. And I use a variety of techniques, principally stable isotope analysis, and dental microwave texture analysis, to sort of unlock the secrets of what sloths were eating today and in the past.
Shane Hanlon (19:43): So I haven’t even ever actually asked you this. Did you do field work, like actually interacting with sloths?
Ryan Haupt (19:50): Yeah. I’ve done both field work at different fossil sites looking for fossils, and I’ve done field work with wild and captive sloths.
Shane Hanlon (20:00): Interesting. And so you were saying kind of how you’re dating them. So the historic stuff, the prehistoric, I guess, are you, the isotope things, like that’s just your dating teeth, essentially? You are-
Ryan Haupt (20:14): So the stable isotope stuff, it’s actually the, getting dates you use the radioactive isotopes, stable isotopes just tell you about various aspects of their ecology and life histories. Actually the primary source of my stable isotope data for my dissertation, at least for the fossil component were coprolites.
Shane Hanlon (20:33): Which are?
Ryan Haupt (20:34): Fossilized feaces.
Shane Hanlon (20:36): Nice, of course. I do love the jargon phrase for a lot of these things.
Ryan Haupt (20:42): Yeah. So coprolite literally means poop rock.
Shane Hanlon (20:46): So Nancy, did you know what coprolite was?
Nanci Bompey (20:48): I mean, no. Who would know that?
Shane Hanlon (20:51): Ryan knows it.
Nanci Bompey (20:52): Like two people in the world.
Shane Hanlon (20:56): Well, I found learning about coprolites fascinating, but I was really interested. So what do you picture now, when you think of sloths? Like, if I say picture of sloth, what are you picturing?
Nanci Bompey (21:09): There was like, I feel like there’s sloths like people have them, like they’re a funny thing, right? Like my friend has one, like a big one that she puts like in the back of her van and it’s like waving at people. Do you know what I’m saying?
Shane Hanlon (21:20): Yeah. Like the things that stick on the window?
Nanci Bompey (21:22): Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I feel like people use them in a funny way now.
Shane Hanlon (21:26): Yeah, sloths are really having kind of a moment, I feel like in pop culture. And I feel like at a zoo or something, if you see a slot, people will put up egg crates and they’ll like curl up into a small little thing. So sloths, they’re not huge, but the sloths that Ryan study and potentially where the inspiration for some of these legends were very, very different from that. When thinking about you and your work, I’m really fascinated by this idea that pre historic sloths, who for the record are much larger and much different than the sloths we have today. Correct?
Ryan Haupt (22:02): Yeah. So we’re living at a weird time for sloths is something I like to say, because sloths are as small and undiversified and geographically restricted, as they’ve basically ever been. The fossil history of sloths is one of great success. They evolved in South America and then spread all over that continent and then as soon as that continent, actually before that continent was even connected to North America via the Panamanian Isthmus, they had distributed over the shallow sea, into North America and all throughout the Caribbean and lived as far North as Alaska, the Yukon territory of Canada, up in the mountains of Colorado, like they were everywhere.
Shane Hanlon (22:42): Oh, okay. So, all right. So much more diverse and in many cases, or at least in some cases larger-
Ryan Haupt (22:49): [crosstalk 00:22:50]. the ones today really are as small as they’ve ever been.
Shane Hanlon (22:53): Oh, okay.
Ryan Haupt (22:55): And they got as big as a modern elephant, but walking around on two legs because we have fossil trackways.
Shane Hanlon (23:02): Oh, wow. Okay. Well then that leads into kind of this next point. That there’s, well, you can explain this more, but potential that our modern, again mythology is not the right word, cryptobiology, cryptozoology, I guess. Things like Sasquatch and Yeti and all of the different names, we have Bigfoot, they may have been inspired in part by prehistoric sloths, right? Or maybe,
Ryan Haupt (23:33): Yeah. It gets a little complicated and part of it is cryptozoology has this really weird relationship with paleontology because there’s … So cryptozoologist are people who look for animals that according to “science”, sky quotes on science don’t exist. And sometimes the reason that they’re claimed to not exist is because other types of scientists, biologists, and paleontologists say that they’re extinct. So if you think about like mega megalodon shark, right? Most scientists say that’s extinct, cryptozoologist say, well, maybe it’s not, let’s go look for it.
Ryan Haupt (24:08): So those kinds of animals are referred to as cryptids. And there’s Bigfoot is a cryptid and Bigfoot is not necessarily based on an animal that we know existed and a lot of people will turn to giant apes that lived in Asia. Aegyptopithecus is the extinct genus of giant ape, similar to like a really large orangutan and Bigfoot doesn’t … that’s sort of the claim, but like there’s no fossil evidence of that. And so it doesn’t really hold a lot of water to me. And I’ll just go ahead and say, I don’t put a ton of stock in the modern conception of Bigfoot as this animal that is still existing out in the Pacific Northwest that’s being seen and heard and interacting with people-
Shane Hanlon (24:53): Pictured in a fuzzy way?
Ryan Haupt (24:54): Right? Yeah. I love the mid shepherd joke, like maybe Bigfoot is fuzzy. That’s the problem. There’s a large out of focus monster. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that the initial stories of this animal came from First Nations peoples and, and First Nations is the term that often gets used in Canada and since they kind of crossed the border, it’s just a catch all term that I use as well, just to be as respectful as possible and these people still exist. And so it isn’t really fair to say that it’s strictly a legendary claim because these people still exist in these beliefs may still exist, and I don’t want to denigrate that at all.
Ryan Haupt (25:30): And so when the white people in this region were first collecting these stories, it was offensive to the First Nations people to say that these stories were legendary of these forest people living out in the forest away from humanity. And so I think that’s fair enough. And different groups obviously had different names for the race of beings that they said lived out in the forest or up in the mountains. But the term Sasquatch was borrowed from the Halkomelem language, and I’m probably butchering the pronunciation of that, and that’s sort of become the default term when we first referred to more of the tribal First Nations concept of this animal.
Shane Hanlon (26:05): Sure, all right.
Ryan Haupt (26:05): And so my sort of take on the whole thing is, and I’ve been a fan of cryptozoology since, before I was going to be a paleontologist. I think my love of like undiscovered animals came both from like, what’s out in the forest and what’s under the ground as a fossil. Like I kind of come at it from both directions. And so I have this deep fascination with all this stuff from when I was a kid and I don’t necessarily believe in it now, but I’m still fascinated by it. And so my view is, I don’t think there’s a Bigfoot out there today. I’ve not seen any good evidence of that being the case, but I do want to take the stories at face value and think about the reality of that and then work sort of from that perspective,
Shane Hanlon (26:45): Nancy?
Nanci Bompey (26:46): Yeah.
Shane Hanlon (26:47): Do you think that Bigfoot exists?
Nanci Bompey (26:50): No.
Shane Hanlon (26:53): That was very quick. And like, there’s just no possibility, not even an inkling?
Nanci Bompey (26:57): Nope.
Shane Hanlon (26:59): I appreciate your certainty in this. I have to say I’m probably on the no spectrum as well, but there’s been some actual scientific evidence to back up your assertion.
Ryan Haupt (27:12): So this paper came out a little while ago where these ecologists wanted to show that if you just look at like self-reported occurrence data where people say they saw an animal, you can create an ecological niche model for an animal that doesn’t exist. So they did that for Bigfoot. So like, cause there are databases out there where people will say like I was camping and I heard the call, right? And I saw the footprint.
Ryan Haupt (27:38): So all these databases of evidence, and you can use that to build a pretty convincing model of what’s the prime Bigfoot habitat and that’s what they did and then once they built it, they were like, “This looks familiar.” And they realized that they had just made a pretty convincing plot of where black bears live, which is not terribly surprising when you think about it, because like we’ve got a large fuzzy animal that can move around on two legs, however awkwardly. And I think you work with students and you do ecology. Like it takes a lot of time in the forest and a lot of expertise to be good at identifying things, especially things you only see briefly and that you’re not super familiar with.
Shane Hanlon (28:18): Sure.
Ryan Haupt (28:19): So I think a lot of big foot sightings today are probably coming from people just not being as familiar with bears as, as they ought to be because I think bears are great. And I started thinking about like, how does that work 11,000 to 10,000 years ago when people were coming across the Bering Land Bridge into North America for the first time and I’m thinking, okay, they’re probably not going to be super surprised by a bear. Bears live in Asia, that’s an animal that they would have been familiar with.
Shane Hanlon (28:45): Right.
Ryan Haupt (28:46): But we do have fossils showing that one particular type of ground sloth called Megalonyx, which means great claw, which was a very large animal easily maybe grizzly bear sized and it’s at its biggest about 10 feet, maybe a couple thousand pounds, 2000 pounds or so. That is an animal that is only found in the Americas, right? It’s only in North and South American. Megalonyx is an iconically North American sloth. It’s the one that’s found … it was the first one found in the caves of what is now West Virginia, what was then Western Virginia. We find them in the La Brea Tar Pits, we find them up on mountains in Colorado. The sloth just got everywhere.
Ryan Haupt (29:25): So that’s the sloth that’s up in Alaska and the Yukon territory and it probably could move around on two legs as well. It was probably pretty shaggy. Modern sloths are pretty shaggy and in those cave deposits where we have the coprolites, we also get fur fossils. And so we, that the ground sloths were also shaggy. And so to me, it makes at least it connects logically that this is an animal that they wouldn’t have been immediately familiar with coming over from Asia and shares some of the same characteristics that we think of as the Sasquatch.
Shane Hanlon (30:00): Is there evidence of them coexisting?
Ryan Haupt (30:02): Oh, that’s a great question.
Shane Hanlon (30:04): Early sloths and early human ancestors, essentially?
Ryan Haupt (30:08): There is surprisingly little evidence of that. We don’t see a ton of sloths in cave art, which is kind of interesting. There’s not a ton of convincing evidence of like butchery sites where bones are cut with tools that way we can then infer hunting occurred. There’s a very recently discovered fossil site in Arizona, New Mexico that is a footprint of a Nothrotheriops, which is the psychotic Southwestern American sloth. And then there’s a human footprint inside that footprint and footprint fossils have to occur pretty quickly together. It’s not a thing where like, it could have been a couple of days or even, would have been within hours. Right?
Shane Hanlon (30:54): Okay.
Ryan Haupt (30:55): And so one possibility is that the humans were stalking this sloth, but that’s, again, it’s still a little bit circumstantial, but we do know that they overlapped. And there’s a lot of debate in the paleontological community about like, why did these animals go extinct? They went extinct at the same time, all these other giant American taxa, the Sabretooth cats and the mammoths all went extinct. And so the debate is, was it the end of the last Ice Age and this period of great climate change or was it hunting pressure from humans or was it a combination of both?
Ryan Haupt (31:27): It’s harder to figure that out on a continent scale, but in the Caribbean, there were also ground sloths that lived in the Caribbean and those sloths actually survived up until about four, four and a half thousand years ago. Pretty recently.
Shane Hanlon (31:39): Okay.
Ryan Haupt (31:39): Like the Great Pyramids in Giza were finished and there were still ground sloths walking around.
Shane Hanlon (31:44): That’s wild.
Ryan Haupt (31:45): And they go extinct almost exactly when humans first arrive on those islands. So like the case on the islands is pretty cut and dry, but islands work a little bit differently. But we do know that that humans and slots overlapped, interacted to some extent that the extent of those interactions is up for some debate.
Shane Hanlon (32:02): What’s the most … do you know what the most recent fossil is like date-wise for any species of giant sloths?
Ryan Haupt (32:12): Well, so we have fossils from the Caribbean that are recent as recent as that four and half thousand year mark. Generally in paleontology, we have sort of a soft cutoff at around 10,000 years. So anything younger than 10,000 year, we might call a sub fossil. So it has to reach that 10,000 year mark to really be considered a part of the fossil record, truly. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but that’s sort of how we work.
Shane Hanlon (32:36): When Ryan and I were talking, we very cognizant that much of what we were talking about are, is North American centric and coming at it from a strictly scientific point of view. But these myths and legends are global and rooted in a lot of cultures that are not ours.
Ryan Haupt (32:54): One other interesting part of this story, and again, it’s something that because of my own limitations as a researcher, I haven’t been able to dig into very much is there is a sort of South American component to this called the mapinguari and again, I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly, but it is a folkloric entity said to live in the Amazonian Rainforest that is sort of a large, hairy smelly and it’s weird that there always a smell associated with it. Like I’ve been around a lot of modern sloths. Modern sloths actually don’t smell. They smell better than a lot of other wild animals I’ve worked with just because not smelling like anything is another defense mechanism when you don’t want to be eaten. And a lot of times they got algae growing on them. So they got kind of like an algae smell, not like a weird, and they don’t have like an animalistic musk or funk like we think of with a lot of other mammals.
Ryan Haupt (33:43): So I think a lot of the information on the mapinguari is very limited in English. And maybe if I spoke Portuguese, lik my Spanish is pretty good, but I don’t really speak Portuguese. And I obviously don’t speak any of the many languages that are spoken throughout the Amazon by the peoples who live there. But it is sort of said to be this large lumbering, hairy entity, and the thing that gets really wide with the mapinguari is it is said to have a stomach or a mouth on its stomach. So it just shovels food right into its stomach, which is kind of crazy. But there are people that say that it, that have noticed that it maybe shares some characteristics with ground sloths. The information in English just isn’t that out there for me to do much with that though.
Shane Hanlon (34:23): Well, Nancy, have you enjoyed your time learning about mermaids and giant sloths?
Nanci Bompey (34:29): Yes, very much.
Shane Hanlon (34:32): It’s kind of a unique episode and we don’t necessarily talk about … we don’t get a lot of biology in I feel our episodes, which is fine.
Nanci Bompey (34:40): We do from time to time.
Nanci Bompey (34:42): But yeah,
Shane Hanlon (34:42): I’m excited for this. And just a reminder, this is the first in a two-part series. So we’ll have another one of these coming out.
Nanci Bompey (34:51): Excellent.
Shane Hanlon (34:52): For now that is all from Third Pod from the Sun.
Nanci Bompey (34:56): Thanks so much Shane for bringing us this story and of course, to Cristina and Ryan for sharing their work with us,
Shane Hanlon (35:03): This podcast was produced and mixed by me.
Nanci Bompey (35:06): We would love to hear your thoughts, please rate and review us. And you can find new episodes wherever you get your podcasts or at thirdpodfromthesun.com. And as Shane alluded to, be on lookout for part two of our Monsters and Myths series that’ll drop in a few days.
Shane Hanlon (35:24): All right. Thanks all. And we’ll see you next time.
Ryan Haupt (35:29): Can I plug Science Sort Of?
Shane Hanlon (35:31): Oh, sure. Yeah, go ahead.
Ryan Haupt (35:34): So people if want more of my sort of ramblings on topics like these, I do a podcast that is actually quite appropriate as a companion piece to this conversation called Science Sort Of where we talk about things that are science, things that are sort of science and things that wish they were science. We did actually cover this Bigfoot story of the black bear paper that came out, that is episode 205, chemical free Sasquatch.
Shane Hanlon (00:00): Hi Nanci.
Nanci Bompey (00:02): Hi Shane.
Shane Hanlon (00:03): So, today, I have a little quiz for you.
Nanci Bompey (00:08): Oh, I love the quiz times.
Shane Hanlon (00:10): Yeah. So, we should say, this is the second part of a two-part series where we’re talking about mythical monsters and the real life animals that inspired them. And so, my first question for you is, what two creatures make up a griffin? Can you picture a griffin?
Nanci Bompey (00:31): Yeah. Aren’t those the things that sometimes are on Gothic buildings?
Shane Hanlon (00:37): Sometimes.
Nanci Bompey (00:38): So, it looks kind of scaly, right? Dragony?
Shane Hanlon (00:44): It flies.
Nanci Bompey (00:45): It flies. So, it has wings. So, we’re going to go with bird.
Shane Hanlon (00:50): Bird, sure.
Nanci Bompey (00:52): And a lizard or a dragon, but a dragon is not a real thing. I don’t know.
Shane Hanlon (01:01): No. So, a griffin is traditionally an eagle and a lion.
Nanci Bompey (01:09): Oh, okay.
Shane Hanlon (01:12): Yeah. Not quite as scaly.
Nanci Bompey (01:13): Okay.
Shane Hanlon (01:15): All right. I have a multiple choice for you. Which of these is not a nickname for mermaids: siren, a nyad, a kelpie, or a sirenia.
Nanci Bompey (01:30): Kelpie.
Shane Hanlon (01:33): No, actually sirenia.
Nanci Bompey (01:33): What?
Shane Hanlon (01:39): Sirenia is-
Nanci Bompey (01:40): I knew the first two were.
Shane Hanlon (01:42): Sirenia is the order that manatees are in. It’s a scientific name.
Nanci Bompey (01:47): Kelpie? I never heard of kelpie.
Shane Hanlon (01:48): Kelpie. Yeah. So we could dive deep into this. People in mythology would argue with kelpie, because it’s a shape-shifting thing that oftentimes takes the form of a mermaid.
Nanci Bompey (01:59): Okay, that just went down a weird route.
Shane Hanlon (02:01): I know. I did a lot of research for these questions. All right. One more quick one. What region do these bigfoot names come from? There’s a lot of different names for bigfoot, so where’s Sasquatch from?
Nanci Bompey (02:14): What part of the world?
Shane Hanlon (02:15): Yeah.
Nanci Bompey (02:18): The Western United States. Canada.
Shane Hanlon (02:20): Canada.
Nanci Bompey (02:22): Nice.
Shane Hanlon (02:22): What about Yeti?
Nanci Bompey (02:24): Yeti. Canada.
Shane Hanlon (02:26): No. Think Himalayas.
Nanci Bompey (02:32): Oh, the Himalayas. That’s my answer.
Shane Hanlon (02:36): Nepal. What about a yowie?
Nanci Bompey (02:36): A yowie?
Shane Hanlon (02:39): A yowie.
Nanci Bompey (02:40): Maybe Australia.
Shane Hanlon (02:42): Australia.
Nanci Bompey (02:43): Oh my gosh. That was totally a guess.
Shane Hanlon (02:45): And the last one, a skunk ape?
Nanci Bompey (02:48): A skunk ape. I’m going to go Africa.
Shane Hanlon (02:50): Nope.
Nanci Bompey (02:51): Somewhere. A skunk ape, Mexico.
Shane Hanlon (02:57): Florida.
Nanci Bompey (02:58): Florida?
Shane Hanlon (03:04): Welcome to the American Geophysical Union’s podcast about the scientists and the methods behind the science. These are the stories you won’t read in the manuscript or hear in lecture. I’m Shane Hanlon, and I’m Nanci Bompey, and this is Third Pod from the Sun. So like I said up top, this is a second episode in a two part series where we’re looking at mythical creatures and the animals that inspired them. And this is just coincidence, but we’re talking about two sea creatures. And so we’re going to start with the Kraken.
Nanci Bompey (03:39): What’s a Kraken? I heard [inaudible 00:03:42] bring on the Kraken. Isn’t that from a movie?
Shane Hanlon (03:45): Yeah, well, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies had that in it. It’s a mythical sea creature that we’re going to learn more about. And so we’ll bring in our first interviewee to talk about it.
Rodrigo Salvado (04:00): So my name is Rodrigo Salvador, and I’m a curator of invertebrates at the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington. And I actually specialize in snails, land snails mostly. And as a curator, my job is to conduct research on mollusks and to look after, take care, and expand our collection of mollusks and also do outreach activities in the museum.
Nanci Bompey (04:33): Okay. That still does not explain what a Kraken is.
Shane Hanlon (04:35): Oh, we’re getting there. All right, just wait.
Rodrigo Salvado (04:38): Let’s start in the beginning. As for my interest, it kind of started very early. The first memory of receiving a book as a gift was a book about Greek mythology that I got from my sister and I immediately got into it. And ever since then, it’s just been a sort of expansions of it. So I’ve always liked to read about these monsters, the stories about the gods, et cetera.
Shane Hanlon (05:14): And this was independent of your scientific interest. You just have this interest in Greek mythology?
Rodrigo Salvado (05:14): Completely independent.
Shane Hanlon (05:20): Okay.
Rodrigo Salvado (05:20): Because when I was a child, of course I was interested in dinosaurs. As all children are, but then that faded away a little bit. I got into a computer, I got into engineering and university actually. And then I dropped out and changed to biology. So I lost interest in all the dinosaurs and the living word at some point, but then got back in it. In between there was Dungeons and Dragons, of course. And I suppose that after I started biology, one thing just led to another, in a natural way.
Shane Hanlon (06:05): The initial interest then was in Greek mythology.
Rodrigo Salvado (06:08): Yeah. I suppose that that has to do with Dungeons and Dragons. I’m always stuck as the dungeon master. So I have to prepare adventures, come up with monsters, et cetera. So I already had an interest in mythology. So I was looking into several monsters that started off as a common animal and the legend just built up and the Kraken was just one of them, but then there came one day that I, that I thought, well, I could actually write an article about this Kraken, I’m already studying [inaudible 00:00:06:51], so it just felt natural. And so I started to investigate it, the story behind it, all the reports that we have in the literature about sightings of these monsters, et cetera. And that goes back to the 12th century in Norway. So that’s the first actual reports of the Kraken, if you believe it.
And the thing is, back then there were several sea monsters around. And there is this very old manuscript written by a king of Norway in the 12th century and he lists all sorts of sea monsters, a Kraken is just one of them. But I think what happened in time as the centuries past, all these monsters, some of them, they were not strong enough, I suppose, in the folklore, in the people’s minds, et cetera. And they just faded away and the Kraken was a strong enough monster to survive in people’s memory, I suppose.
Shane Hanlon (08:01): There was mention of Kraken and going back hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, right? The connection you’re making, and I want to ask, is this a connection unique to you or are there other folks out there who have looked at Kraken and thought, okay, these people are probably seeing a giant squid.
Rodrigo Salvado (08:22): So yeah, in the very first reports, we don’t have actually much information besides the fact that the Kraken was gigantic. So at first it had a sort of a morphous quality to it. Some people said it was like a mounting or an island, so you can also imagine the proportions of the monster. But then it started to evolve along the centuries, so we have representations of the Kraken as a giant humanoids, like a giant lobster, and a giant cephalopods too, of course. But the thing is, by the time you reach the 18th century, the Kraken already had a established cephalopod look. And it was such a strong image in the minds of the Nordic countries that Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, the modern biological classification, he actually included the Kraken as a cephalopod in his book. The original book Systema Naturae that defined and started the system of biological classification, it had the Kraken listed as real animal under cephalopods.
Shane Hanlon (09:44): I found it really interesting that the Kraken was listed as a species in and of itself, but it turns out there’s a lot of murkiness in the… is it a squid or is it a Kraken realm? So I asked Rodrigo for some clarity. When was the first description of a giant squid as something separate and apart from this, as itself, when did that first description happen?
Rodrigo Salvado (10:07): That was in Greece actually. So it’s Aristotle, I think fourth century BC.
Shane Hanlon (10:13): God, long time ago. Okay.
Rodrigo Salvado (10:15): So, that’s funny because back then they knew that it was the word squids, normal squids, and there was a giant version of squids that was a different animal and they actually just treated it as an animal, not a monster. And they had plenty of monsters, so you are left wondering why this one is not a monster, but anyway, they treated it as a real animal.
Shane Hanlon (10:42): Was there Kraken, and then as people found out that there’s also this thing out there that potentially could be the Kraken, did they come together separately? Because I think in my mind it was, giant squid and it turns out the thing that people thought was a Kraken was actually always just a giant squid. But from the way you describe it, it’s that the Kraken wasn’t always a squid, it was this thing in the sea that was destroying stuff.
Rodrigo Salvado (11:09): So, it’s very possible that the animal that started the whole thing was actually a giant squid. We can never be a hundred percent sure about it, but there are good indications of it. So if you go back to other reports of the Kraken along the centuries, you will find… there’s a Bishop Pontoppidan in Norway, and he wrote extensively about the Kraken. And that was the first moment when it was clearly a cephalopod. Despite the huge colossal size he assigns to the monster, there are some things, the fact that it could make the waters around it dark. So that’s a cephalopod thing, expelling ink to warn off predators, et cetera. I think those were the very first signs that it was related to a cephalopod. Of course, anything back then in the 12th century, even before that, anything that people would see, while they were like crossing from Norway to Iceland, anything that they will see floating around and it was kind of big, people would get scared of it.
Shane Hanlon (12:29): I know with Kraken, there are these myths and stories of Kraken taking down ships and causing all of this damage. So assuming that giant squids are actually Krakens, is there evidence that giant squids have ever done anything like this? Have they ever taken down a ship or anything like that? Is there any validity to the myths that were told in the past?
Rodrigo Salvado (12:59): No, definitely not. So I suppose that seeing one of those on the surface of the water might scare you quite a lot, especially if you’re traveling around in a flimsy wooden boat back then. But the reality is that when squids are floating on the water like that, especially the giant squid, which lives deep under water, they usually reached the surface when they have already spawned their eggs and are dying. So they would not be able, in any sense, to attack a ship or anything. But the thing is they still have the defense mechanisms. So that includes of course, releasing ink on the water. And they can also spout water through a structure called the funnel, that’s how they move, which adds propulsion, but if they do that in the surface and people see like just a jet of water, that might scare someone. And it’s very likely that when they got back home, they wanted to tell the story and this story is increased a little bit every time they were told. And then that’s how we wind up with a monster.
Shane Hanlon (14:21): Yeah. I can imagine over the years, they become more and more exaggerated as the stories get passed on.
Rodrigo Salvado (14:29): Yeah. I would just add one other detail, and of course, if you’re telling a good story about monster, it needs to be big, it needs to be able to sink a ship and eat its entire crew, that sort of thing.
Shane Hanlon (14:43): So Nanci, now do you know what a Kraken is?
Nanci Bompey (14:45): Yes, I do.
Shane Hanlon (14:50): Do you enjoy learning in our podcast interviews?
Nanci Bompey (14:55): Always learn something new.
Shane Hanlon (14:56): Well we happened to end up sticking with this theme of aquatic monsters, and we talked to someone else who has some expertise on these linkages between real life animals and the mythical monsters.
Danielle Serrat (15:12): So my name is Danielle Serratos, I’m the Director Curator at the Fundy Geological Museum, which is located in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia on the Bay of Fundy, which is worldwide famous for having the highest tides in the world. I specialize in researching Mesozoic marine reptiles, which would include plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, and mosasaurs. Mosasaurs have been fairly popular in media for the past couple of years due to Jurassic World. And the quite voracious mosasaur that’s in the water pen in that movie. But more recently I’ve been working on Canada’s oldest dinosaurs, the prosauropods, and the earliest reptiles, as well as the reptiles that were living alongside Canada’s earliest dinosaurs. So moving more into the land environments.
Shane Hanlon (16:07): I think it’d be helpful to place folks in time. So when was the Mesozoic? When is the period where these animals that we’re going to be talking about lived?
Danielle Serrat (16:20): So I’m actually going to go on a bit of a tangent here because-
Shane Hanlon (16:24): Perfect.
Danielle Serrat (16:24): Providing a quick overview of Mesozoic marine reptiles is not really all that quick.
Shane Hanlon (16:30): Fair enough.
Danielle Serrat (16:32): So the Mesozoic was the geological era from 252 to 66 million years ago and includes the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. So, that’s the Mesozoic part. The marine reptiles is a bit more complicated. So they’re reptiles the same way that dinosaurs were, but there are some pretty significant differences between marine reptiles and dinosaurs. The biggest one is marine reptiles, there’s a lot of fossil evidence that they gave birth to live young. So instead of laying eggs, the way that dinosaurs did. A notable exception would be turtles, which just goes to show that classifying animals can be a really tricky problem. Marine reptiles, they also lived in the ocean, or at least in brackish waters, like an estuarian system.
The only aquatic dinosaur that we currently know of is the spinosaurus, and it seems to have stuck to freshwater. So that designation of mostly being on land versus mostly being in the ocean is a pretty clear delineation. And then lastly, marine reptiles had fans or flippers, whereas dinosaurs had and have toes with claws. So it’s important to keep in mind that these evolutionary relationships are incredibly complicated and general statements and science should always come with a caveat. For example, dinosaurs evolved from some reptiles the same way birds evolved from some dinosaurs, but that doesn’t mean that birds are actually reptiles. They just share many characteristics due to sharing ancestors.
Shane Hanlon (18:14): Nanci.
Nanci Bompey (18:16): Yes.
Shane Hanlon (18:18): Do you know your geologic epochs? Your timescales?
Nanci Bompey (18:24): Mesozoic, Jurassic, centazoic… I have no idea, I’m just saying words.
Shane Hanlon (18:30): This is why we had Danielle. What about your different aquatic reptiles, right? Like mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs?
Nanci Bompey (18:38): Dinosaurs, mirasaurs, no.
Shane Hanlon (18:45): We got a quick background on the eras, now I really wanted to ask Danielle to dive into plesiosaurs in particular and their influence on these myths that we’re going to be talking about.
Danielle Serrat (18:59): Plesiosaurs were around mostly from the end of the Jurassic through the end of the Cretaceous, or the mass extinction event that wiped out almost all the dinosaurs and all the marine reptiles that we were talking about as far as plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs and mosasaurs go. So when we talk about marine reptiles, especially during the Mesozoic era, so during the age of dinosaurs, we’re talking about four major groups, plesiosaurs being my area of interest, but there’s also mosasaurs, which people would associate with the Jurassic World movies.
Shane Hanlon (19:37): I was going to ask about that, all right.
Danielle Serrat (19:40): Yeah. And then ichthyosaurs, which are very popular in England because the first ichthyosaur skeleton was found on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, and turtles. So of course, turtles are still around today, but they look vastly different than they did during the age of dinosaurs. In fact, archelon, which was a turtle that is hundreds of millions years old at this point, was roughly the size of a Volkswagen beetle.
Nanci Bompey (20:11): So she’s interested in these prehistoric reptiles, but how does that lead to her interest in Loch Ness monster, these other kinds of things?
Danielle Serrat (20:20): I have been a science communicator for the majority of my career in paleontology, and inevitably when you work with plesiosaurs, you have to learn about the Loch Ness monster. It’s just something that comes with the territory. So the Loch Ness monster is a story that most likely dates back about 1500 years ago to the Pictish standing stones and the Scottish Highlands. So nowadays these Pictish standing zones are more frequently associated with the term water horse or kelpie, but these depictions have fans and flippers, which really encourages that connection to prehistoric plesiosaurs and other Mesozoic marine reptiles to some extent as well. Like you alluded, the ichthyosaurs, while they look different, a lot of these mythological creatures have a weird accumulation of different types of body parts. So it’s totally fair game to say that ichthyosaurs would be a part of this inspiration as well. Well, ichthyosaur skeletons and fossils would be.
Shane Hanlon (21:31): Right, there was like a lot of chimeras, right? Essentially just pulling different body parts from different organisms to make the thing of your choosing almost.
Danielle Serrat (21:39): Absolutely. And that totally makes sense when you think about it from a paleontological perspective, because so often the fossils that we find are not articulated, which just means that we find individual bones scattered about and moved in different areas relative to how they would have been connected when the animal was still alive. So, going back to the Loch Ness monster, there’s this story of a missionary who in the year 565 claims to have come up on a swimmer being attacked by a monster in the lock, which was recorded in his biography. And then the history of digging up fossils predates the written word, but there were significant advances in what would become the field of paleontology in the early 1800’s. When Mary Anning, who we talked about before, when Mary Anning discovered the first ichthyosaurus and the first complete plesiosaur at the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, which is now a UNESCO world heritage site, because it’s so incredibly important for the fossils that we find there.
So 110 years later from her discovery of that plesiosaurus, a local couple made newspaper headlines, claiming to have seen an enormous animal rolling and plunging on the lock surface. A year later, so this would have been the early 1930s, a physician published a picture of the long neck monster, but a deathbed confession from a stepbrother 60 years later revealed that the photo had been an elaborate hoax that they had made with wood and a toy submarine.
Shane Hanlon (23:27): Oh, wow. That’s dedication.
Danielle Serrat (23:30): It is. And it’s funny how that part of the story is not commonly known. A lot of people know about the surgeon’s photograph, but very few people know that there was an official retraction of that photograph.
Shane Hanlon (23:42): That’s how retractions work, unfortunately.
Danielle Serrat (23:46): True. Yeah. So, while we’re drawn to this idea of prehistoric monsters, especially in the ocean. I think it really draws from this idea that humans love a good mystery, right? They really love the idea of this is phenomenal or extraordinary. And let’s tell this story and not worry about the pesky facts that redact it later.
Shane Hanlon (24:14): Sure. When were the first connections… so people talking about stories for what you said, 1500 years almost, when did the connections first start happening between the stories and these supposed firsthand accounts to, oh, but it could actually be this, or it could be backed up by the fossil record or whatever it might be. When did that start happening?
Danielle Serrat (24:51): I would say that the first well-documented evidence that people were tying fossils in the rock record to these mythological stories like the Loch Ness monster probably weren’t appearing until the early 1900’s. Fossils were really being bought and sold for museums and private collectors in the late 1800’s, but it was mostly a hobby for people, especially in the UK at that time. Yes, there was scientific research going on, but it was a beginning field at that time. And it was very insular. It was very classist. It was very sexist. So there were very few people that had access to that information, even though they were being put in museums, the fossils weren’t necessarily being put together accurately. There was a lot of confusion and building from the ground up in that field at that time. So I would say fairly confidently that those sorts of interactions or relations between mythological creatures and actual fossils, full fossil skeletons at least, being compared wasn’t happening until the early 1900’s.
Shane Hanlon (26:14): When talking to Danielle, I found it interesting that the Loch Ness monster truthers, they like to use fossil evidence to say that yes, the monster existed and may still exist. And that was the case dating back hundreds of years, using these fossils to support their claims. I wanted to know though, the opposite. I was wondering when folks started looking at the fossil record and using current technology to say yes, something like this may have existed our history, but most certainly does not now.
Danielle Serrat (26:46): I think when you talk about using scientific evidence of fossils, specifically with plesiosaurs, to debunk this idea of the Loch Ness monster, that idea had been around probably as long as the surgeon’s photograph had been a thing. However, the evidence has really accumulated strongly and been strongly presented in the last probably 30 to 40 years. So there’s this desire for this compelling horror story that there’s this Lake monster that’s going to come out and attack innocent bystanders, right? But extensive LIDAR sweeps across the Loch Ness and the surrounding area have pretty definitively verified that nothing near the size of plesiosaur is living in that lake. And nothing really on that size scale would even be possible to survive and Loch Ness, at this point, just because we have really good understanding of what size these animals would have been on a global distribution, not just in the UK.
And these were large Marine reptiles. We’re talking anywhere between three and 11 meters long, they were sizeable creatures. And the fossil evidence shows us that they all lived in salt water to brackish water. And of course the Loch Ness is freshwater, so that’s another indicator that there’s no scientific evidence to really support this idea that they’d still be living in a freshwater environment. Now to top it all off,. there’s also this idea that we really understand ecological niches and food webs and these big picture ideas about how animal communities live nowadays. And yes, that’s comparing them to modern species, but we have enough fossil evidence to talk confidently about what resources would be necessary for animals like plesiosaurs to have survived. And the Loch Ness simply doesn’t have that size or that level of resources to support even one plesiosaur let alone generations needed to survive at least the past 66 million years.
Shane Hanlon (29:09): Are there still people out there who fervently believe that Loch Ness is still there? Can you speak to… do you know any of their arguments or why they would still think this?
Danielle Serrat (29:23): There are definitely people who still believe the Loch Ness monster is real. Even people who are not invested in it, they just casually assume that’s true because they know someone who have said it or they read some article online or watch some fake documentary or something. So there’s definitely people who are casually interested in that idea and also vehemently believe that the Loch Ness monster is real and it’s simply outsmarted everyone who’s gone looking for it. You know, the excuses abound, right?
Nanci Bompey (30:02): So we’re talking about the Loch Ness monster, but do other countries have these kind of same, similar myths like the Loch Ness?
Danielle Serrat (30:08): So one of the most famous examples of people thinking they had found a live plesiosaur would have been in the seventies off the coast of Japan. There was a fishing vessel that brought up a carcass that, when they pulled it up with their, I believe it was a trawling net, it had this really elongated neck. The skull still had some dead tissue on it and the fins did as well, but a lot of the ribs were exposed and a lot of the cartilage and bone like structures were exposed. So it was very decayed and it had been scavenged upon. So it wasn’t clear what the animal was. So people took photos from the docks when the boat came in and it just plastered global newspapers. It was this massive headline of fisher folk discover prehistoric ocean dinosaur or something.
Right. And it actually took a little while to figure out what was going on there. So they did end up contacting some of their local scientists there in Japan. And they did some DNA testing of course, which the technology was not as advanced as it is today, but in the seventies, that was still a possibility. Right? So they eventually figured out that it had been a thrasher shark skeleton that the cartilage that makes up their bones of a shark were still fresh enough that the skeleton stayed together, still held together mostly by muscle that had not yet been scavenged and eaten. And so a lot of the exterior, the skin and a lot of the soft organs were missing, but that musculature and that cartilage was still there enough to kind of keep it together. And thrasher sharks actually, when you take away a lot of their ribs and organs, they look like they had a really long necks.
Shane Hanlon (32:09): Throughout this conversation, I was really interested. Why do folks find this so intriguing? I wondered why people still really want to and do believe in things like Loch Ness monster.
Danielle Serrat (32:22): As far as why people choose to believe those stories, I think human civilization has a very long and storied history of believing things that the evidence just simply isn’t there for. And that’s okay, right. Because if we don’t that sense of wonder and sense of discovery, what are we doing? Right. You talk about being a scientist, that literally is the driving force for most scientific breakthroughs and endeavors, is that sense of wonder, that desire to discover new things, to make new understandings and share them with the world. So I can’t fault people for wanting to believe something extraordinary because that’s what makes the world interesting, right?
Shane Hanlon (33:11): Yeah. Nanci, do you believe in anything unexplained, like mythical creatures or ghosts or something like that?
Nanci Bompey (33:23): No, definitely not. Do you?
Shane Hanlon (33:28): I don’t believe in the stuff we’ve been talking about. I don’t not believe in ghosts.
Nanci Bompey (33:34): Oh, that’s interesting.
Shane Hanlon (33:36): Again, I said this before, but I wish people could see the shade that you’re throwing at me with your eyes. Well, all right, folks, that’s all from Third Pod from the Sun.
Nanci Bompey (33:47): Thanks so much Shane for bringing us this story and of course, thanks to Rodrigo and Danielle for chatting with us.
Shane Hanlon (33:57): This podcast was produced by and mixed by me.
Nanci Bompey (33:57): We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please rate and review us wherever you find your podcasts and check us out at thirdpodfromthesun.com.
Nanci Bompey (34:00): Thanks all and we’ll see you next time.
Hanlon, S. M. (2020), Podcast: Mythical monsters and their real-life inspirations, Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO151053. Published on 28 October 2020.
Text © 2020. AGU. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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