What Is A Cryptid? The Gizmodo Guide To Undocumented And Unusual Beasts

What Is A Cryptid? The Gizmodo Guide To Undocumented And Unusual Beasts

Scotland has the Loch Ness Monster, Australia the Bunyip and America, its Jersey Devil. All over the world you hear tales of mythical beasts, animals and monsters that might just exist, even if they’re not scientifically recognised. From lake monsters to living dinosaurs to creatures straight out of myth — we’re talking about cryptids.

What Counts As A Cryptid?

Contrary to popular belief, cryptids don’t have to be supernatural, mythical or even all that strange — though many popular creatures acquire these characteristics as their legends grow. In truth, the field of cryptozoology covers everything from scientifically plausible but poorly documented animals to demon-like monsters seen only in dark forests and shaky video footage. The term ‘cryptid’ can be applied to any of the following categories of unknown beasts:

  • Creatures from myth and legend
  • Supposedly supernatural or paranormal entities
  • Extinct creatures said to still inhabit specific areas
  • Known animals in areas they are not known to inhabit
  • Known animals of an unusual size or appearance
  • Animals that don’t resemble any known species
  • Known hoaxes, whether taxidermy, photoshop, false accounts or otherwise

One well-known cryptozoologist named George M. Eberhart has separated these further into ten distinct categories, with only slight variations on the categories listed above. He also adds a few exclusions — those that shouldn’t be considered cryptids. These include aliens, angels and demons, so-called ‘bizarre humans’ (such as zombies) and generally ‘insignificant’ creatures that aren’t “big, weird, dangerous” and controversial in a scientific sense.

In general, a creature is a cryptid when there is some evidence for its existence — whether it’s photographic evidence, footprints, remains or even an eyewitness account. When irrefutable evidence of a creature’s existence is found, it ceases to be a cryptid and moves into the realms of science. While rare, this has happened a few times — think the platypus, or the okapi (known as the ‘African Unicorn’), both strange animals that were once considered to be hoaxes by Western scientists. Even the famous Komodo dragon was once thought to be a myth.

Hominid Cryptids: From Bigfoot To Yetis

Hominids run the gamut from humanoid to giant apes, a category that is strangely over-represented in cryptozoology. Some of the best known cryptids in the world like Bigfoot and the Himalayan Yeti are hominids, but their human-like forms only add to the controversy around their existence. Many hominid cryptids are linked with ‘wild men’ legends, commonly found in the folklore of both indigenous populations and Western societies worldwide.

Bigfoot is a North American cryptid, also called the Sasquatch after the name of a ‘wild man’ type creature in the local Halkomelem language. Stories of wild men are particularly common among indigenous populations of America’s Pacific Northwest, and Bigfoot researchers claim that the distribution of these tales follow the same areas as later sightings of the creature by white men.

Some indigenous accounts purport to be more than just legend: the Sts’Ailes people of Chehalis claim that the Sasquatch are indeed real, but that they prefer to avoid white men and speak only the indigenous Ucwalmicwts language.

There is certainly enough evidence to fuel the belief that Bigfoot is real. The search for this mysterious hominid has led to numerous documentaries, TV shows and independent investigations, all trying to find conclusive evidence for Bigfoot’s existence.

The Patterson-Gimlin film shot in 1967, seen above, is one of the most famous pieces of evidence, though debate has raged for years over whether the being captured on film is indeed a Sasquatch or if it’s just an actor in a suit. While the footage has been studied by experts ranging from biologists to Hollywood special effects artists, a single conclusion has never been reached.

Many supposed encounters do in fact turn out to be black bears — often animals with mange that look different to healthy bears at first glance — but some grainy pictures and odd accounts don’t quite line up with any living animal. So if Bigfoot exists, what is it? Some researchers tout the theory that it’s a relict population of the ancient hominid Gigantopithecus, or else another type of extinct hominid such as the Paranthropus.

Stories of the Himalayan Yeti are similar to America’s Bigfoot. White men first came into contact with the beast and its legends in the early 19th century — when strange tracks were encountered in the snow, their Sherpa guides identified them as belonging to the ‘Wild Man Of The Snows’. Most local names for the yeti refer to it as some kind of ‘wild man’ or ‘man bear’.

Unlike the Bigfoot and its numerous videos and images, the yeti comes with physical evidence — sort of. The Pangboche monastery of eastern Nepal boasted ownership of what was said to be a yeti scalp and hand. Hairs from the scalp were taken for testing in 1954, and though no conclusive answer was ever given on their origins, Professor Ferderic Wood Jones was convinced that they neither came from a bear or an ape, and were instead from a coarse-haired hoofed animal.

Despite the inconclusive results, interest in the yeti was widespread in the 50s and 60s, and the United States Government even created official rules for the numerous American expeditions that went searching for it. The Pangboche hand was later stolen by an American actor, James Stewart, who smuggled it out of the country in his luggage. Numerous tests have been done on the hand in the years since, with the most recent identifying it as containing human DNA.

The most compelling evidence for the existence of a real yeti came in the form of a study that studied various hair samples attributed to Yetis. While most of the samples matched known mammalian species, two particular samples were unknown, their closest genetic similarity being matched with a type of Palaeolithic polar bear.

While conclusive evidence has never been found for the existence of either the Yeti or the Sasquatch, another similar cryptid studied in the late 19th century did indeed turn out to be real — the mountain gorilla. Though these animals are now widely known to exist, they were once considered a myth. In fact, they used to be described as wildmen in the same vein as the creatures above — large hairy men with huge strength and violent tempers.

Close study of the animal eventually proved that there was nothing legendary about them — could the same one day be said of the Yeti or Sasquatch?

Supernatural Cryptids: Demons And Monsters

Sometimes cryptids can only be described as monstrous — and this is where the realm of cryptozoology collides with the study of the paranormal. These are cryptids whose very presence creates odd physical and mental effects on their victims.

The Jersey Devil is well known in American cryptozoology and urban legend, with its story stemming from sightings and livestock killings as early as 1820. Jersey Devil fever really took off in 1909, when one week in January produced hundreds of supposed sightings of the devil across the entire state of New Jersey. The coverage led to such widespread panic that schools were closed and workers were advised to stay home. But what could they have seen that would prompt such panic?

The Jersey Devil is said to have batlike wings, a horse’s head, long claws and a draconic appearance, while others describe it as a kangaroo with wings (one of which was at one point set up as a hoax). It was said to have attacked trolley cars and social clubs, with the police firing on the supposed monster with little to no effect. Footprints have been seen in the snow, but with the bulk of this cryptid’s activity occurring in the early 20th century, there is very little photographic or physical evidence for its existence.

This doesn’t stop people from talking about it. The Jersey Devil is an icon for the state, and organised groups and enthusiasts still go searching for it in the Jersey Pine Barrens.

Another terrifying creature in contemporary American folklore is the Goatman. Appearing in a number of different urban legends, the Goatman is usually some kind of goat-human hybrid. Maryland’s version of the story says that the Goatman wields an axe as he walks up and down the back roads of Beltsville, Maryland, attacking cars as they pass by. The story was popularised in 1971 when the death of a dog was blamed on the Goatman, and from there it only grew in infamy.

This type of cryptid isn’t exclusive to Maryland, however. Another Goatman-like creature is said to haunt the Pope Lick trestle in Louisville, Kentucky. The legend of this creature says that it lures people onto the trestle to meet their death from oncoming trains, or even that the sight of the creature is so unsettling that it causes people to leap off the trestle in fear.

Unfortunately, at least part of the legend is true — the Goatman of Pope Lick does in fact lure people onto the dangerous railway trestle.

Most of the time, however, these are people who have come looking for the monster after hearing the numerous myths about it. Earlier this year on April 23 a 26-year-old woman was hit by a train while looking for the Goatman on the trestle, while her boyfriend escaped getting hit by hanging from the side of it. While the trestle itself has claimed many lives before, this is the first to have been connected with the Pope Lick monster.

The most recent iteration of the Goatman legend was a ‘creepypasta’ posted to 4chan’s paranormal board, detailing a close encounter with the Goatman. While creepypastas are known more for their entertainment value than their truthfulness, it’s still a great read to see the kind of terror that this particular legend can inspire.

Prehistoric Cryptids: Do Dinosaurs Still Walk The Earth?

If dinosaurs still lived with us on this planet we would know, right? Some cryptozoologists think not. The most obvious example of a dinosaur-esque cryptid is of course the Loch Ness Monster. Nessie has long been said to be a plesiosaur, a dinosaur that had somehow survived through extinction in its highly isolated loch.

The documented history of the Loch Ness monster is one of the oldest of any cryptid, with the first mention being made all the way back in the seventh century AD. In this story, an Irish monk supposedly encountered the local Pict people burying a man by the River Ness. The man was said to have been attacked while swimming in the river by a ‘water beast’, which was later repelled by the monk making sign of the cross in what was perceived as a ‘miracle’.

After this early sighting, other accounts were rare up until the early 20th century. Sightings began to be reported after a road was built by the loch in 1933, with many of the early ones describing motorists who encountered a strange beast on the land, crossing the road from the loch.

The first photo taken of Nessie was in 1933, which was a blurry, low quality image, but the most famous was the ‘surgeon’s photograph’ of 1934. This is the iconic, grainy black and white image of a long neck and head rising from the waters of the loch, which was supposedly taken by a London gynaecologist named Robert Kenneth Wilson. While most now agree that this photo was an elaborate hoax, it was enough to take Nessie to infamy.

While many disputed videos and photos have been taken of the supposed monster — with some being debunked and others being hotly debated — many investigations into the monster have found something. The earliest sonar readings done while looking for the monster in 1954 noted a large object keeping pace with the vessel at a depth of 146 metres. One investigation set up a sonar ‘net’ that would catch anything that went through it. Multiple targets 6m in length were noted rising from and diving to the bottom of the loch, though they never surfaced or moved to shallow waters.

Nothing conclusive has ever been found, though some Nessie fanatics have suggested that whatever was living in Loch Ness has gone extinct since it was first detected. Since 2008 there has been a lack of sightings or sonar readings to suggest a creature still living there.

Lake monsters, or stories of them, are common across the world, however — many of them fitting the plesiosaur or sauropod description. Others supposedly exist in Lake Tianchi in China, Lake Brosno in Russia, Payette Lake in Idaho, and even the shallow waters of Central Africa.

Africa has many tales of dinosaur-esque beasts roaming its lands — though perhaps it’s not surprising in a place where you can find everything from elephants and rhinoceroses to crocodiles and hippos.

Of Africa’s cryptozoological occupants, there’s the Emela-ntouka, a rhino-esque creature whose name means ‘killer of elephants’. It’s supposedly the size of an African elephant, with a single horn and a long, lizard-like tail. Another is the Mbielu-Mbielu-Mbielu, which was researched by cryptozoologist Roy Mackal. Local villagers told him that it was an animal ‘with planks growing out of its back”, leading some to suggest it may be an extant Stegosauridae.

One of the oddest is the Ngobou, a six-horned beast that fights elephants despite being significantly smaller than them. This one has been associated with a Styracosaurus, with six horns growing from a bone frill on its head. A sighting of this creature by a white explorer in the Belgian Congo was reported in 1919.

Mythical Cryptids: Creatures Of Legend

Could tales of legendary creatures have been inspired by real life encounters? Some cryptozoologists believe so. Here in Australia we have the bunyip — a water or cave-dwelling monster often appearing in the Dreaming stories of Aboriginal peoples across Australia. Early European settlers even believed that the bunyip was a native Australian animal that had yet to be properly discovered, and ‘encounters’ were well-documented through the 19th century.

The bunyip never seems to have a single agreed-upon description, aside from the fact that it lives near rivers. Common features in early Victorian accounts tended to include descriptors such as “a dog-like face, a crocodile like head, dark fur, a horse-like tail, flippers, and walrus-like tusks or horns or a duck-like bill”. While many of these characteristics fit with various Australian animals, no known species ever had all of those features together

Early accounts of the bunyip mainly involved the discovery of strange remains — such as a set of large bones discovered at Lake Bathurst that looked to be similar to a hippopotamus or a manatee. In the Wellington Caves, explorers found fossilised bones that looked to belong to a huge quadruped — these bones were later identified as belonging to giant marsupials Nototherium and Diprotodon.

A later find of similar fossils included an account gained from an Aboriginal man local to the area, who claimed that an Aboriginal woman had been killed by a bunyip, and that he had several wounds on his chest from one such attack. In 1847, a large crowd was said to have gathered upon seeing a living bunyip sunning itself on the banks of the Yarra in Melbourne.

The bunyip has not been studied or hunted as much in contemporary times as its American counterparts have, and considering how remote parts of Australia are, it could be possible (if highly unlikely) that some unique animal still waits, undiscovered. Most accounts of bunyips have been chalked up either to seals coming upriver, or to the remains (or possibly relict populations) of now-extinct marsupials.

The Americas also have their share of legendary cryptids, and two of the most well-known are also two of the most feared. The first of these is the chupacabra — the feared blood-sucker of Central America. Accounts of the chupacabra are widely reported, ranging north into the United States and as far south as Chile. The first sightings originated in Puerto Rico, however.

In the March of 1995, eight sheep were discovered dead from mysterious injuries — three puncture wounds to the chest, through which the animals were completely drained of blood. Only a few months later the accounts escalated — an eyewitness claimed to have seen the beast in a town where as many as 150 domesticated animals fell victim to the creature. While it was initially suspected to have been carried out by a Satanic cult, the blame was eventually put on a vampiric type of creature dubbed chupacabra, translated as “goat-sucker”. In the first year it was sighted, over 200 different reports of chupacabra were made in Puerto Rico.

Aside from the blood-sucking aspect, the chupacabra is generally described as reptilian, with leathery of scaly skin and sharp spines running down its back.

Other descriptions peg it as looking like a wild dog with a pronounced spinal ridge. Skeptical investigator Benjamin Radford went in-depth into the legend of the chupacabra, and concluded that many sightings were actually dogs or coyotes with mange, which contributes to their strange appearance.

The odd events in Latin America — where livestock animals are killed and their blood is drained through perfectly circular holes — has little agreed-upon explanation, however, and the legend of the chupacabra is still going strong throughout the Americas.

Further north, Native American legend gives us another fearsome cryptid — the wendigo. This creature comes from Algonquian folklore, and is a cannibalistic monster native to the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes region of North America. While sometimes described as a spirit, sometimes as a twisted human being and only sometimes as a cryptid, the story of the wendigo is still an interesting one.

The wendigo is humanoid, and has an intense craving for human flesh. It is usually described as tall and emaciated, with skin stretched tight over its bones. Sightings are occasionally reported and even for white populations in areas where the wendigo myth is strong, local legend says not to say its name out loud lest you risk calling down the wendigo upon you.

The legend of the wendigo continued strongly among indigenous populations even into the 20th century. One famous case involves a Cree wendigo hunter named Jack Fiddler, who was arrested and put on trial for killing people he claimed were either wendigos or about to become them. Some of these were euthanised on request of the supposed wendigo’s families or the people themselves, while others he claimed were sent against his people by enemies.

The wendigo is one of the few cryptids for which verifiable evidence exists — in a manner of speaking. This is wendigo psychosis, a documented phenomenon where human beings turn cannibal and eat human flesh even when other options are available to them (though the situation might still be dire). Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, though relatively little evidence exists for wendigos appearing as per their physical descriptions.

While we know that humankind hasn’t discovered all the creatures that share this planet with us, we’re still not sure whether creatures as fanciful, impressive or downright odd as the ones listed here can actually exist. A number of cryptids have been proven to exist over the years, while others have been proven imaginary — who knows what new discoveries the future will bring?

This post was originally published on 25/06/16.

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