Cryptids That Turned Out To Be Real
by Ryan Haupt
In the age of internet list-acles, it is easy to find information about mythical creatures that ended up being verified. Sometimes, these articles tout these discoveries as examples of the blindness of Western science and its unwillingness to consider alternative points of view. But is that really the case? Today, we'll look at some of the more popular examples of found cryptids and see if these truly represent failures of science, or if they actually highlight one of its greatest strengths.
To make sure we're all on the same page, some definitions. A cryptid is loosely defined as an organism, typically an animal but really any living thing, whose existence is suggested based on anecdotal evidence such as unverified sightings or mythology, but whose true existence has yet to be confirmed or accepted by the scientific community. This definition was greatly expanded by Cryptozoologist George Eberhart in an article for the Journal of Scientific Exploration in 2005. He classified 10 types of cryptids with six exclusions. We'll run through each briefly with an example to provide context for each of our own "discovered cryptids" later in the piece.
Eberhart also defines six exclusions to these criteria, which help narrow the scope of cryptozoology:
With those categories clarified, we can now turn our skeptical eye upon some real animals that were once the stuff of myth and legend.
The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatius) is a basal (which is a scientific way of saying primitive without the value judgement) egg-laying mammal in the order Monotremata. Native to Australia, it is semiaquatic, relatively small, only a few kilograms, and sports the flat paddle-like tail similar to a beaver but with a beak on its face similar to a duck. They hunt using electroreception which is only known from one other mammal and the males have a venomous spur with enough toxin to kill a small dog. They're really weird, if that wasn't abundantly clear.
The common narrative for the discovery of the platypus by Europeans is that it was widely considered a hoax fabricated by Asian taxidermists by stitching a duck beak to a mole in the same way the Feejee mermaid was made by stitching a monkey to a fish, I'm sure you can guess which half of each was used. The real story is a bit more nuanced but it is correct to put the platypus in the 10th category as a suspected hoax. There were indeed some who were willing to write off the platypus as mere hoax, but Keeper of the Department of Natural History at the British Museum George Shaw, the man who received the first specimen from Captain John Hunter and wrote the formal description of the animal from that specimen was a bit more cautious in his conclusions. As written in his 1799 article in Nature's Miscellany:
Of all the Mammalia yet known it seems the most extraordinary in its conformation; exhibiting the perfect resemblance of the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped. So accurate is the similitude that, at first view, it naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means: the very epidermis, proportion, features, manner of opening, and other particulars of the beak of a shoveler, or other broad-bill species of duck, presenting themselves to the view: nor is it without the most minute and rigid examination that we can persuade ourselves of its being the real beak or snout of a quadruped...
On a subject so extraordinary as the present, a degree of skepticism is not only pardonable, but laudable; and I ought perhaps to acknowledge that I almost doubt the testimony of my own eyes with respect to the structure of this animal's beak; yet must confess that I can perceive no appearance of any deceptive preparation; and the edges of the rictus, the insertion, and when tried by the test of maceration in water, so as to render every part completely moveable seem perfectly natural; nor can the most accurate examination of expert anatomists discover any deception in this particular.
To me, this reads as a man carefully examining something that might be a hoax but coming up short and thus concluding that however fantastical this creature is, it is still likely real. Considerate inquiry into something so new and strange is the benchmark of good science, not a flaw and I would say Shaw's efforts are all the more impressive considering he was working more than half a century before Darwin published The Origin of Species. The platypus does indeed represent a cryptid turned true, but I also think we can agree that it was OK for naive scientists to be more than a little skeptical upon first glance.
The Giant Squid
The giant squid are a small group of squids in the genus Architeuthis, which may end up being a single species though debate on that point is ongoing. They are the second largest squids in terms of mass, and possibly length, in the world after the less poorly known colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni). Giant squid can reach lengths up to 13 meters for females and 10 meters for males, when measured from the posterior to the end of the longest tentacles. They live deep in the ocean and for a time were only known in sailors stories and from the occasional carcasses that washed ashore already in very poor condition. A small number of specimens have been accidentally caught by fishing trawlers and only in the last decade have we been able to photograph or videotape them in their natural habitat of the deep sea.
In terms of myth, however, the giant squid has a rich history, placing it as a mix of categories 2 (an over-sized variation of a known animal) and 8 (a mythological animal with a zoological explanation). The earliest descriptions of large squids come from antiquity. Aristotle in the 4th century BC described two distinct size classes for squids, though probably not the size differential we're talking about here. Pliny the Elder in the first century AD was closer to the mark in his book Natural History, where he describes a squid with a head "as big as a cask" with arms up to 9 meters long, a surprising underestimation if nothing else. Many sea-faring cultures have tales of monster squids: the Scylla in Greek mythology and the Lusca of the Caribbean. Perhaps the most famous of all is the Norse kraken, which Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus classified as a cephalopod and even gave it the scientific name Microcosmus marinus in the first edition of Systema Naturae in 1735. Even though it was removed from later editions, this is a strong claim that some in the scientific community were willing to take this particular cryptid seriously.
It wasn't until over a hundred years later in the mid-1800s when boats and ships started capturing the occasional piece of squid and beached carcasses were identified and catalogued that the scientific community began to more widely recognize the animal, but recognize they did. To me, the most fascinating thing about the giant squid as a known cryptid is that we still barely know anything at all. The scientific community agrees that the animal exists, but they are so hard to research that we still know very little about them as animals. Regardless, given the appropriate level of physical evidence, the scientific community was willing to move the giant squid out of the realm of fantasy and into fact.
The okapi (Okapia johnstoni) is a mammal of the family Giraffidae, sharing the family with its only other member, the giraffe. For many years in the 19th century Europeans heard tales from Africa of an elusive forest beast colloquially called the "African unicorn" (Category 6, no fossil record but related to some known animal if you're keeping track). The animal was sensationalized in Sir Henry Stanely's travelogues of the Congo region in 1880s and 90s, where he described it as a kind of donkey which the natives called the atti. The story then goes that the British governor of Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston, rescued some pygmy inhabitants from exploitation by showman for exhibition and promised them safe return to their homes. In return, the pygmies showed Johnston the tracks of the animal he'd read about in Stanely's books, as Johnston was a naturalist (primarily botany) and curious. Based on the donkey comparison, he expected horse-like tracks but was surprised to discover a cloven-hoofed mark. He never saw the animal alive, but did find a skull and some skins, which were enough to have the animal classified formally in 1901.
The okapi is a fun example because it has a mix of traits that should make it easy but also very difficult to find definitively. The easy part is its size, ranging from 1.9 - 2.5 meters long and 1.5 - 2.0 meters tall at the shoulder with weights between 200 and 350 kilograms. It should come as no great shock that larger animals should be easier to find and verify than very small animals. The hard part is the lifestyle and habitat. These are solitary animals living in some of the densest and most remote rainforest in the world. The people native to this region had known of the animal for a long time, but had no history of scientific inquiry that early European explorers would have deemed valid, so acceptance of the animal was held off until physical evidence was provided. However, the cultural knowledge of the pygmies was instrumental in providing said physical evidence which upon presentation yielded a scientific description, species name, and acceptance among the European scientific community. While maybe a bit insensitive to the local people of the region, again not an example of poorly done scientific inquiry.
There are some other really great examples of found cryptids that we don't have time to get into here but by and large they fall into certain cryptid categories and not others. The mountain gorilla would fall into category 6, being related to the known species of the lowland gorilla. Sea serpents could fall into categories 1, 2, or 10, but I would argue for 10, a misidentification, if as some have suggested the majority of sea serpent tales were misidentified oarfish, which can grow up to 11 meters in length. The Komodo dragon is a clear example of number 2, a much larger version of the known monitor lizards. These animals all also have in common a very remote or difficult to access habitat with low human populations, especially Westerners with the ability to collect evidence that would be deemed scientifically valid. As we venture into the rainforest, we find new animals; as we venture into the deep ocean, the same. Depending on the animals found, these are considered victories for cryptozoology, but regardless they are always victories for science and show the power of careful inquiry, investigation, and the demand for reliable evidence in the exploration of life all around the world.
By Ryan Haupt
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