Myth, Legend, and... Reality? Part 2: Cryptids

Frame 352 of the Patterson-Gimlin film that purportedly shows Bigfoot.

Last week, I talked about some cool mythical creatures, and the even cooler real animals that they’re based on. That was all ancient history, though. What about more recent creatures of legend? What about Bigfoot, Nessie, el Chupacabra? From the Yeti of the Himalayas to the Australian Bunyip, people all over the world continue to tell stories of fantastic beings that have been unconfirmed or downright debunked by science. These creatures are collectively known as cryptids, and the “study” of them (which is mostly pretty un-scientific) is known as cryptozoology. This week, I’ll give you the lowdown on what some of these creatures actually are, and why people continue to believe, even in a time where people have access to more information than ever before.

Creature: Bigfoot (Sasquatch) and the Yeti (Abominable Snowman)

The real thing: Bears, humans, monkeys

A brown bear standing up, seen from a distance, could be mistaken for Bigfoot by a wishful thinker. Image by Malene Thyssen.

One of the world’s most recognizable film clips is the famous Patterson-Gimlin film from 1967. In it, an out-of-focus, large, hairy humanoid with long arms, strides past the camera and gives it a cursory glance before disappearing into the woods (skip to 2:40 in the video linked above). For many people, this clip is proof of the existence of Bigfoot, aka Sasquatch, a bipedal ape-like being that may or may not live in the northwestern US (although there have been reports of Bigfoot-like creatures from all over the US and parts of Canada). However, the film is all-but-confirmed to be a hoax, featuring a human in an ape costume. While there have been sightings, photos, and films of large hairy “humanoids” that weren’t hoaxes across the US, these are generally attributed to black bears and grizzlies, which are known to stand and walk on their hind legs. From a distance, a standing bear could be mistaken for a humanoid shape, especially if the bear is particularly skinny. Bears also have hind feet that leave tracks that could easily be mistaken for oversized human footprints.

This "yeti" footprint is probably from a bear, and may have been distorted by thawing and freezing.

Similarly, oversized “humanoid” footprints have been found in the snow of the Himalayas, home of Bigfoot’s cousin the Yeti. These footprints probably came from Himalayan brown bears or Tibetan blue bears (or possibly from other people), but were distorted by the melting and re-freezing of ice and snow (a phenomenon you can see with your own footprints during snowy winters). There was one study in which the researchers claimed that a DNA analysis on some hairs found in Bhutan revealed an unknown species, but during re-testing, the hairs were found to have come from two different bear species. A few yeti sightings have also been attributed to langur monkeys.

Creature: Loch Ness Monster

The real thing: Fish, seals, plesiosaur (sort of)

Many Nessie believers picture her as a plesiosaur. Image by Mr.TinDC.

The Loch Ness Monster, affectionately known as Nessie, is perhaps the best-known cryptid of them all. She has taken many forms in her depictions over the years, from a squat, toad-like creature to a “water-horse” to a long, undulating serpent (not unlike the giant oarfish discussed in last week’s post). These days, however, she is primarily depicted as a plesiosaur, an aquatic dinosaur with a football-shaped body, a long snaky neck and tail, and flippers. This depiction is probably partially due to the famous “Surgeon’s Photograph” (an admitted hoax), and partially due to the popularity of dinosaurs in pop culture and the human imagination. The plesiosaur was a real animal, but it’s been extinct for a long time.

This 2016 photo of three seals playing in Loch Ness was spread online as "proof" of Nessie. Image by Ian Bremmer, via Metro News.

Scientists have conducted dozens of searches of Loch Ness, with ever-improving techniques and technology. Most recently, Neil Gemmell of the University of Otago made international headlines with their search of the Loch using eDNA, or environmental DNA. The concept behind the method is that all living things leave behind genetic evidence of their existence wherever they go – termed “bio-shmutz” by National Geographic. DNA from all kinds of organisms can be found in soil and water, and used to determine the biological makeup of an ecosystem. Gemmell and his team aren’t actually looking for Nessie, of course, but by making her the main character in the story, they’ve done a masterful job of science communication.

Creature: Chupacabra

The real thing: Coyotes and wild dogs

This coyote with mange was identified (jokingly) as a chupacabra by the photographer, Wilson Hui.

El Chupacabra (Spanish for “the goat-sucker”) is a relatively recent cryptid, with the first report of them occurring in in 1995. In Puerto Rico, livestock were found with puncture wounds and with all of their blood drained. In the early days of the internet, stories of the Chupacabra spread like wildfire, all across Latin America and into the US. The Chupacabra was reported to be a 4-legged creature about the size of a large dog, with scales and spines and deep eye sockets – a description remarkably similar to that of an alien monster in the 1995 sci-fi thriller film Species. As it happens, one of the first eyewitness of el Chupacabra had gone to see the movie shortly before the reports surfaced. In the 23 years since those first reports, analysis has revealed that Chupacabras are none other than coyotes or wild dogs with bad cases of mange. As for draining the blood, there is no evidence that the killed livestock was missing any blood at all – this was probably a detail added for dramatic flair.

Creature: Mothman

The real thing: Sandhill cranes, owls

Illustration by Tim Bertelink

West Virginia is home to one of my personal favorite cryptids: the Mothman. The first sighting of this winged humanoid monster occurred in 1966, when some gravediggers supposedly saw a large creature fly overhead. A few months later, a couple driving at night reported seeing a giant bird-like creature with glowing red eyes, which then chased their car. Then over the next year other people in the area saw this giant flying thing, and started to blame electrical failures and animal disappearances on this creature. The following December, the Silver Bridge in West Virginia collapsed, killing 46 people. Clearly, this “Mothman” was a portent of death. Since the 60’s, Mothman has gained popularity (especially in the LGBTQ+ community for some reason), and there is now a Mothman Festival held every year in Point Pleasant, WV.

Many owls have reflective eyes. Image from Focused on Nature.

Bird-like creature with glowing eyes? Yeah, that’s probably a bird with reflective eyes, like an owl – barred, barn, and snowy owls have all been suggested as possible Mothman candidates. What about the giant wingspan, though? Owls can be big, but not human sized. Biologists speculate that the second sighting (from the couple in the car) was probably a sandhill crane off of its migration route. Sandhill cranes are quite tall, have large wings, and red rimmed eyes. As for the other sightings, we can turn to our old friends: hoaxes and dramatic flair. 

Sandhill cranes aren't native to WV, so residents could be caught off-guard by them, especially at night. Image by Steve Garvie.

Why do we continue to believe in these improbable creatures? We have so much evidence to the contrary. But we also have “evidence” that they do exist, in the form of anecdotes and photos. Even in the age of Photoshop, photos are often taken as the truth; in one analysis, researchers explained that “a photograph is considered to have the same evidential force as any specimen from nature” (Seppänen & Väliverronen, 2003, p. 63). As for the anecdotes, hoaxes, and embellishments… well, we’re human. Storytelling is just part of the gig.