Science versus Pseudoscience: Cryptozoology

By: Crina Silasi-Mansat

I. Introduction

Once in a while, newspapers will report facts such as “Two backpackers on a year long trip around Australia got the fright of their life last week while they were out trekking in bush land in the vicinity of the township of Leura, not far from the well known Katoomba landmark, “ The Three Sisters”. Admittedly we did not get a close look but we think what we saw looked like the American Bigfoot, basically covered in hair and about two meters tall. It definitely had no clothes on and was not human” (Wagner, n.d.), or “More evidence for the abominable snowman (more politely known as Yeti or Bigfoot) has been uncovered in Russia’s Kemerovo Region in Southwestern Siberia” (Mosnews, 2010). Have you ever wondered whether these reports are true or just the result of one’s rich imagination, or perhaps one’s desperate attempt to gain fame and gain a spot in the newspaper or on TV? Would your curiosity be strong enough to cause you to spend hours walking in an unfriendly environment searching for an elusive Chupacabra to find perhaps… nothing? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you should consider becoming a cryptozoologist.

What is cryptozoology and what exactly do cryptozoologists do? Cryptozoology is a search methodology used for zoological discovery, a lengthy and complex process to determine whether mystery animals can be considered new or lost species (Arment, 2004). A cryptozoologist’s job is to demystify the reports involving animals not supported by science and elucidate the identifications and misidentifications of such animals. These mystery animals are called cryptids, or hidden animals. Cryptids may become a new species or be recognized as an extinct species; the process involves, among other things, examining whether the alleged animals fit the environment of the sighting, evaluating testimony quality, and determining the probability of a potential hoax. As observed, cryptozoology might be more than the study of Bigfoot or Nessi as many people do believe; it is a complex, but still an adventurous process.

If we already have zoology as a branch of biology that studies animal kingdom, why do we need cryptozoology? In order to find and understand the rationale for an alternative approach to zoological discovery, we should understand how zoology and cryptozoology developed within a historical context. Each time period has its unique history of exploration, and even if expanding excessively on this topic exceeds the purpose of this chapter, it is still a relevant, informative, and, why not, extremely interesting reading.

II. History

Anyone who knows anything about human curiosity, especially when it comes to mysteries and our magnetism towards sensationalism, would reason that our interest in mysterious creatures is not a contemporary acquisition, but rather an interest that goes way back in time. There is no time period without its share of mysterious creatures, whether we look at the Babylonians in antiquity , or at the contemporary age (Dendle, 2006). Vampires, werewolves, or other “monsters” haunt our history, filling us with a strange, yet thrilling, sense of adventure.

A. Antiquity

Babylonians held a strong belief in evil creatures and spirits, especially ones that hurt mankind; evidence (e.g., cuneiform tablets) mention incantations against evil spirits and demons that ruled over mankind during night time (Thompson, 1904). In antiquity, humans showed a high interest in the world and its amazing diversity (Dendle, 2006). Pliny’s Naturalis Historia collection of travel writings, scientific tracts, or myths, dating from the first century AD, contains knowledge about several exotic species discovered in Rome (e.g., elephants, nightingales). He also mentions monsters suspected to live in India or Ethiopia (e.g., dragons), or monstrous races (e.g., human hybrids) (Bostock, 1855). These are writings that fall on the side of sensationalism, showing a great productivity and imagination, but a rather low accuracy.
Sensationalism was not embraced by everyone, the sensationalism versus skepticism opposition being present even in antiquity. Within the skeptic side, opinions were divided, some travel writers (e.g., Pausanias) considering sensational stories as exaggerations or distortions of truth (Jones, 1965), whereas others (e.g., Strabo) totally dismissing them and considering them lies (Jones, 1969). This opposition carried on until today, whether we consider the study of hidden animals folklore or science. However, if our ancestors were anxiously acknowledging the immensity and eeriness of our world, our interpretation of such mysteries show our tiredness of an exceedingly explored and explained world (Dendle, 2006).

B. The Medieval Age

The Middle Ages bring us closer to today’s natural history, being based more on observational rather than experimental methods of study. Writers (e.g., Magnus) of this period of time attempt to be more objective, distancing themselves from the reported stories, and attempting to approach such mysteries from a rational perspective. The anonymous collection of mysterious stories, Liber monstrorum, using sources such as Pliny's or or Virgil's scripts, contains writings about famous beasts, such as leopards or minotaurs. However, it also displays skepticism and disapproval towards its own content, stating up front that most content is probably fiction (Dandle, 2006). Along with this tendency towards rationalism, a strong tendency in favor to the use of allegory emerges from The Middle Ages literature. The use of animals to draw moral lessons represents a tool for expressing individual, social, or political tensions, using zoological natural history as cover.
Medieval cryptozoology has its similarities and differences from contemporary cryptozoology. As mentioned before, the sensationalism versus skepticism debate continued throughout this period, the interest in the mysticism of large paradoxical creatures developing along with the attempts to demystify these creatures. However, considering that today’s cryptozoology deals with animals not supported by science, and that central organization of scientific knowledge was lacking during that period, it seems that cryptozoology is a premature concept for The Middle Ages.

C. The Contemporary Age

From the 15th century, massive expeditions in search for zoological discovery not only led to discoveries of new land but also led to discoveries of a vast amount of new species. New discoveries animated natural sciences, any land encountered was mapped and catalogued, and by the 20th century little nature remained untouched by humans and few large species remained undiscovered (Dandle, 2006). New discoveries required attention from people in the field. As a result, academic research became more specialized, leaving little room for amateurs in the field. If before, people were encouraged to partake in field studies, in contemporary age, laboratory science (ran by specialized scientists) overtook the field. With so much available to study, the search for mysterious, hidden animals declined.
Thus why do we need cryptozoology when we already have zoology? The line of events across history provides us with a plausible answer. As mentioned before, curiosity is inherent to human nature, and mystery of any kind is still intriguing. When natural sciences took the path of specialization and the interest leaned towards the study of animals already discovered, the need to have a field of their own emerged within those interested in hidden animals. As a result, cryptozoology developed as the study of hidden animals, being more a discovery science, and not a research science (Arment, 2004). Whether it is a true science, or not, is still debated.

III. Science versus Pseudoscience

Now that we know what cryptozoology is, and how it developed throughout history, it is time to proceed to the next important question. Is cryptozoology science or pseudoscience? The issue has been long debated, arguments on both sides being presented. However, before we can choose one side or the other, we should understand what exactly science and pseudoscience is.

“Science is not the affirmation of a set of beliefs, but a process of inquiry aimed at building a testable body of knowledge constantly open to rejection or confirmation” (Shermer, 2002, p. 124). More specifically, science is a methodology, a tool used to gain knowledge about the world, knowledge tested in order to be confirmed or rejected. Science is self correcting. Science uses its own mistakes to improve its tools and theories, the possibility of today’s findings becoming tomorrow’s mistakes being present. Scientists should be open to criticism, peer review playing an important role in the survival of a theory. Science needs to be falsifiable. Popper’s falsifiability principle states that a theory should be tested in such a way that the results could confirm or disconfirm it. Science needs testable hypotheses. Testability is related to empiricism, the methods usually used by scientists to test their hypotheses being empirical methods (Pelham & Blanton, 2007). Without testable hypotheses, science could not confirm or disconfirm assumptions. Replication is another key ingredient of good science. A phenomenon observed once, can only tell us so much. Replicating an experiment will provide information about its validity and reliability. These represent the key elements of what we normally label as good science.

Pseudoscience has the appearance of science. It pretends to be science and it could be said that it has face validity; but at a closer look, it lacks what it takes to be true science. There are major differences between science and pseudoscience. These differences involve need of evidence before accepting any hypothesis, testability, plausibility of arguments, and the amount of skepticism and criticism required (Kida, 2006).

Science requires evidence before accepting a hypothesis, whereas pseudoscience functions based on a strong belief system. Scientists are usually accused of not being open enough regarding, for example, alien encounter. I disagree with such a statement. Astronomers do show interest in such topics, hence the elaborate telescopes and advanced technology meant to scout what is “out there”. However, scientists can not dismiss the lack of evidence regarding this issue. Pseudoscience does. Pseudoscience seems to forget that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, belief being sufficient for claims such as existence of alien communication.

Science uses testable hypotheses so that they can be disconfirmed. Pseudoscience uses either nontestable hypotheses (e.g., string theory, existence of God), or they refuse evidence disconfirming their beliefs. Astrologists, for example, when challenged with a real experiment concerning the accuracy of their predictions, if they do not refuse to partake, end up dismissing negative evidence. The reasons for dismissing empirical evidence are usually implausible (e.g., some energy interfering with the phenomenon). Moreover, hypotheses are formulated in such ways that they are nontestable (Sagan, 1996).

Pseudoscience is lacking one of science’s cornerstones, skepticism. Science is not a selfish entity, but rather a sharing, disclosing one. Scientists share their discoveries, thus being open to criticism. As well known, science is not an error free field. Criticism, expressed through peer review, helps minimizing occurring errors. Pseudoscience is self-protective with regards to opposing views. Criticism usually involves contrary empirical evidence, which pseudoscientists tend to disregard. Therefore, the belief system is usually strong enough and implausible arguments are plenty to defend their views.

IV. Cryptozoology - What believers Say

Knowing now what science and pseudoscience is, and that the most fervent criticism concerns the lack of scientific methodology, can cryptozoology expect to be treated as science? Is imagination or reality its ground? Are its methods scientific or bogus? If you have not made up your mind yet, perhaps some insight in believers’ or nonbelievers’ arguments will help.

A. Is scientific

Arment (2004) argues that cryptozoology is a science which uses speculation as a tool of scientific creativity. Speculation allows access to places where logical deduction cannot reach. However, these speculations are based on facts, not beliefs. Establishing the facts and interpreting them as objectively as possible is the beginning of cryptozoology, as well as the beginning of science. Both cryptozoology and science require more than a simple statement of the facts, specifically the will and methods to go beyond what is known. However, judgment and interpretation of the facts and the finding of the premises used to reach conclusions could be an erroneous process, just as errors within the scientific field are not uncommon. The instability and fallibility of science is often used by cryptozoologists, in order to counteract the criticism that cryptozoology is not a science. Just as science is not infallible in its findings or predictions, cryptozoology is allowed to err without the price of the “scientific” attribute being taken away from it. Erring and correcting errors advance science by eliminating obstacles from scientific progress.

Accused of not grounding their conclusions on empirical evidence, but rather on beliefs, cryptozoologists resort to the omnipresence of belief. “We are incapable of acquiring knowledge of the true nature of reality. Science itself is irrational or mystical. It’s just another faith or belief system or myth, with no more justification than any other. It doesn’t matter whether beliefs are true or not, as long as they’re meaningful to you” (as citied in Sagan, 1996, p. 246). Belief is considered and interpreted as an inherent human trait. Not one person, whether we refer to skeptics, scientists, or cryptozoologists, being able to affirm that their opinions and findings did not involve, at least at a certain level, some sort of belief. Beliefs are opinions (Humphrey, 1968). Everyone has opinions, therefore everyone believes in something.

Is cryptozoology self-correcting? Believers would say it is. Cryptozoologists (e.g., Arment, Coleman) believe and support the necessity of revealing and discarding errors, especially in a field like cryptozoology, where misidentifications or even hoaxes are not uncommon. Without the ability to distinguish truth from hoax, cryptozoology’s credibility as a scientific field is undermined. But what leads to misidentifications? What are hoaxes?

Misidentifications can occur due to a large range of factors, from one’s physical or psychological ability to observe or identify a cryptid, to witnesses’ expectancies. Hoaxes involve intention, either for fun or profit. There are three main categories of cryptozoological hoaxes (Arment, 2004). The first category targets innocent people who have no knowledge about what is happening; they call investigators to elucidate the mystery. The second category involves fabricating evidence by the hoaxers in the hope that investigators will be fooled. The third category is the easiest to generate and difficult to separate from a naïve misidentification, therefore the most encountered. It involves extraordinary tales reported by hoaxers, with no evidence presented. It is obvious that discerning what is true or not is no easy task. Nevertheless, cryptozoologists have been apparently successful in identifying and revealing such mistakes or tricks throughout history. The 1998 Ozark Howler impersonator, a student in search for fun, was exposed in his attempts to trick the cryptozoological community; Williams discovered in 1958 that a dugong was mistakenly identified as Ri, a marine cryptid sighted in Papua New Guinea; Winn disclosed in 1993 that Bigfoot’s allegedly collected hair was in fact a synthetic fiber planted by hoaxers (Arment, 2004); these are only a small part of the evidence brought forward by cryptozoologists in support of the claim that cryptozoology is self-correcting.

Is cryptozoology testable? Believers, of course, say yes. Testability is perhaps the most important canon of science (Pelham & Blanton, 2007). A testable hypothesis should be confirmable or disconfirmable via available methodology. Cryptozoology argues that its hypotheses are testable. For example, we could search for the Loch Ness monster in the Scottish Highlands. We could search the entire lake. We will either find it or not. However, there is a possibility that we do not have the means and tools necessary for such a task. Such an obstacle does not hold in a cryptozoologist’s view. Simply because the means to execute a certain task are not available does not necessarily infer that the hypothesis is not testable.

Popper described falsifiability as a tool to separate science from pseudoscience (Still & Dryden, 2004). A methodology used in an experiment must be able to confirm or disconfirm its own predictions. Cryptozoology thrives with hoaxes, misidentifications, and unsuccessful searches for cryptids, which disconfirm their hypotheses. However, cryptozoologists accuse scientists of closed mindedness, arguing that even if the results are not supportive of their hypotheses, it does not imply that the hypotheses are wrong. We should not dismiss a hypothesis simply because the results of a field search, for example, ended with a hoax or misidentification. The hypothesis might just as well still be valid.

When we think of replicability within psychology, for example, we refer to the idea of running an experiment more than once, usually changing some aspects of the design, in order to observe whether a hypothesis still holds. Within the field of cryptozoology, replicability would refer more to a repeated search for a specific cryptid. Cryptozoologists argue that replicability does characterize their field, hence the repeated searches organized in an attempt to acquire evidence for cryptids’ existence. In psychology, not finding the same results in several experiments would mean that the hypothesis regarding an observed or inferred phenomenon cannot be generalized. In cryptozoology, repeated searches without any findings do not result necessarily in the questioning of a cryptid’s existence, but the failure will rather be attributed to, perhaps, a witnesses’ error or lack of appropriate technology or methodology. As Arment (2004) argues against Shermer’s accusation of lack of evidence within the cryptozoology field, cryptids “ethnoknowns, through cultural, physical, and biogeographical impediments, are far more unlikely to be discovered through traditional methodology” (Arment, p. 147).

Cryptozoologists gather information with every possible true sighting, resulting in a specific profile that characterizes a possible cryptid. Just as various sciences attempt to take into account new and old findings within a specific domain of interest when they formulate their hypotheses or theories, cryptozoologists compile all known information on a cryptid, whether it refers to its environment, behavior, looks, and determine a profile which will help the identification of a cryptid, or in discerning hoaxes and misinterpretations from truth. Such an approach shows the comprehensive aspect of cryptozoology, another main characteristic of science.

Cryptozoology argues for its objective trait (Arment, 2004). Its argument is based on cryptozoologists’ openness to criticism and to be proven wrong in their findings. Not to say that dismissing certain evidence means discarding the entire hypothesis. “Scientific objectivity, like liberal democracy, is constituted by free criticism…” (Still & Dryden, p. 272). Objectivity and openness to criticism is a mark of science. Thus cryptozoology, in believers’ eyes, wears another imprint of science.

Compiling the alleged evidence brought by cryptozoologists, we could conclude that, in believers’ views, cryptozoology deserves the rank of science. They argue cryptozoology is self correcting, testable, falsifiable, replicative, based on facts, comprehensive, and open to criticism, thus uses a scientific methodology. Their arguments do not end here, later in the chapter discussing other claims which should, if true, place cryptozoology in the line of science.

B. Is a zoological discovery

There are several methods for new animal species discovery, the most common in zoology field being area specific surveys and traplines used for recording living creatures at a specific location (Arment, 2004). Knowledge about a species’ habitat, behavior, aspect, and success of methods for collection makes it reasonable to believe that the same “rules” will apply for similar species. This line of thought seems to be successful enough within zoology and the rate of discovery is high enough to maintain it and to be used worldwide. However, it also seems reasonable to think that not all species will follow zoologists’ whims and fall straight into their traps. Moreover, some species escape zoologists’ scrutiny by displaying a strong resemblance to an already known species (e.g., Pionopositta auranticephala, Gaban-Lima, Raposo, & Hofling, 2002). When knowledge and planned methodology fail, serendipity comes into play. I would not dare suggest that chance has no importance during a planned search. Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the cases, and they are not few, in which discoveries resulted from a hunter’s, fishermen’s, or a simple traveler’s random encounter with a specific unknown species. These are zoology’s tools for new discoveries, cryptozoology arguing for a rightful place on its side.

Should cryptozoology argue for a place in the zoological field? Believers say it should. Cryptozoology uses all the zoological methods, the hunt for cryptids involving gathering and using knowledge about its environment, behavior, and all information obtained being used to eliminate hoaxes and misidentifications. What cryptozoology has different, and what, according to cryptozoologysts, should be considered an additional method to zoological discovery, is the fact that it concentrates on unknown species, and is basing its searches on sightings and animal reports instead of random collection or chance. Once evidence is obtained, similarly to zoology, it uses available tools (e.g., genetic examinations) to solve the puzzle. In conclusion, cryptozoology should be, according to cryptozoologists, recognized as a scientific methodology, along with zoology.

C. Is ethnoknown

Cryptids are folkloric. Is that good or bad? It depends on the meaning. Cryptozoologists argue that a lot of cryptozoology’s bad publicity is due to the misunderstanding of what folklore is. Even if the term is used in a denigrating way, and it does not always entail the whole truth or any truth for that matter, folklore is a generic term for a culture’s customs, traditions, and beliefs. It represents shared thoughts, principles, beliefs that survive and perpetuate from generation to generation. Some beliefs are less anchored in reality than others, hence the large amount of erroneous beliefs about animals. However, not all errors emerge from misunderstandings. Some emerge within a culture’s constraints and beliefs (Bulmer, 1968). Bedouins have the ability to detect a viper hiding in the sand. However, this knowledge is accompanied by the erroneous beliefs that vipers eat sand and their entire bodies are poisonous (Goodman & Hobbs, 1994). This is a perfect example of the interaction between real knowledge and erroneous beliefs that developed around that knowledge. When this kind of blend is transmitted from generation to generation, it is easy to understand how even today, individuals have the tendency to believe certain extraordinary stories.

Cryptozoology attempts to solve these historical puzzles. The process involves collecting ethnobiological data, meaning the way society classifies encountered living creatures (Atran, 1990), testing and questioning the informants, studying their culture, and deciding what information should be retained and what is just a story. Myths and legends are also permeated by unknown creatures, such as dragons or sea monsters. Dealing with such an impressive amount of information, cryptozoology has the difficult task to discern truth from false beliefs, or to determine whether underneath the many layers of cultural influence, myths or legends, there is the possibility of finding a real biological species. Thus cryptozoologists argue that even if cryptids are folkloric and ethnoknown, that does not imply that it is interested solely in stories and tales, and that cryptozoologists are merely imaginary monster hunters. Tales, myths, legends… yes, they are usually involved, but that is not all. Critical thinking, logic, and scientific methods aid in their task. And it is no easy task indeed!

D. Is distinct from paranormal folklore

If there is something out there, why is there no evidence to prove it? This question can be answered in more than one way, depending on who we ask. Skeptics would say that without evidence, it is unlikely to find something out there. Cryptozoologists would say that just because there is no evidence yet, there is still a possibility that something is out there. However, believers in paranormal activities would state that there is no need for evidence, and they would argue that there is probably something out there, and it is of paranormal and not biological nature. Cryptozoology suffers again, believers argue, because often it is misinterpreted as paranormalism. Cryptozoologists work hard to detect and eliminate false alarms, especially by determining whether any physically and logically reasonable explanation could account for the sightings or other alleged evidence. In this direction, cryptozoologists attempt to explain such events (e.g., disappearance of noise during the sightings or resistance to certain firearms), by giving a reasonable, physically possible explanation (e.g., for the aforementioned examples, cycles of vocalizations, or gun effectiveness in some situations). Unfortunately, there are enough attention seekers that report multiple sightings to harm cryptozoology’s credibility, surrounding the field in a mystery aura.

To reiterate, cryptozoologists and their followers argue that cryptozoology is science, even if its interest does not emphasize research, but rather discovery of hidden animals. They argue that it is scientific, meeting the key elements of scientific methodology (e.g., testable, self-correcting). It should be considered a zoological discovery, an alternative method for the traditional zoological methodology. Cryptids are folkloric and ethnoknown, and distinct from paranormalism. All these claims being true, according to believers, cryptozoology should indeed be called science.

V. Cryptozoology - What Nonbelievers Say

At the opposite side of the spectrum, nonbelievers, perhaps skeptics, or even cynics, give cryptozoology the stigma of pseudoscience. If so far, the presented arguments possibly biased you towards seeing cryptozoology as science, criticism might have just as much weight in your final decision. Thus do not be in a hurry to make up your mind. There is more to the secret archives of cryptozoology!

A. Is not scientific

Scientific methodology involves, as mentioned before, empirical evidence. Even if cryptozoologists argue that their hypotheses are based on actual facts, critics (e.g., Kida) emphasize cryptozoology’s reliance on anecdotes (Dash, 2000). Anecdotes are important in cryptids’ discovery, state cryptozoologysts. They are only the starting point in a search, the actual search involving a valid methodology. However, argue nonbelievers, a starting point or a simple result of someone’s rich imagination, it still is reasonable to assume that with so many anecdotes, and if cryptids are out there, some sort of empirical evidence would have emerged. Yet, in many cases, none has been found. Moreover, for cryptids to reproduce and survive, a relatively large number of specimens should live at a specific location. That they exist undetected for centuries perhaps is hard, if not impossible to believe. At some point, some evidence would have emerged. “Anecdotes do not make science. Ten anecdotes are not better than one, and a hundred anecdotes are not better than ten” (as cited in Shermer, 2002, p. 42). This seems to be the core idea regarding cryptozoology’s lack of empirical evidence.

Does cryptozoology learn from its mistakes, is it open to criticism? Whereas cryptozoologists would argue that it does and it is, nonbelievers would reject such an affirmation. Many erroneous beliefs and statements find their way within the cryptozoology field, and too little internal criticism is present. (Naish, 2006). Cryptozoology is bombarded with external critique, and apparently not enough internal critique. It should be the other way around! And this is something possible to achieve, yet it is not happening at a scientific level. Thus is cryptozoology self-correcting and open to criticism? Nonbelievers say no.

If you remember, cryptozoologists’ argument regarding testability was that lack of technology to test a hypothesis is no excuse to affirm that a hypothesis is nontestable. Following this line of thought, this idea could be generalized to any nontestable hypothesis. Let us take God for example. Do not misinterpret me. God’s existence or nonexistence is an issue beyond the purpose of this chapter; therefore, my intention could not be further away from attempting to debate it. The purpose of this example is purely scientific. There is no empirical evidence for God’s existence, and I would dare to say that there will be no evidence any time soon. There is also no evidence for so many of the alleged cryptids. What does this mean?

To answer this question, cryptozoologists follow, I would say, a somehow optimistic approach. Just because evidence has not been found yet, or because our level of development does not allow such a test, does not mean it is not true. Skeptics follow more of a pessimistic approach. No evidence implies a high likelihood that it does not exist. With such a state of matter, cryptozoology is bound to lose this round. Science works and relies on empirical evidence, and anything that pretends to call itself scientific needs to meet this expectation. I would not necessarily assert that a nontestable hypothesis is definitely not true. However, a nontestable hypothesis is not bringing any new knowledge, thus being not scientifically useful. After all, why would anyone waste time and financial resources on a hypothesis that cannot be demonstrated?

Popper’s falsifiability principle, being related with testability, puts cryptozoology again in a difficult position. A nontestable hypothesis cannot prove, but cannot disprove either its claims. Cryptozoology’s attempt to escape falsifiability relies on the same arguments as its attempts to escape testability. If results do not support a hypothesis, there are various excuses to explain the results without rejecting the hypothesis. Therefore, nothing is discovered, nothing is elucidated. Then the question rises again. Why waste time and resources on meaningless tests?

What about replicability? We use the same arguments as before: keep trying until something will be found at some point. Are cryptozoology’s searches replicable? Of course they are. Is there any meaningful evidence resulting from the attempts? Uusually not. Then why replicate something over and over when the results continue to be meaningless?

Let us return to the main question of this section. Is cryptozoology scientific? Nonbelievers say no. Their arguments are based on the key characteristics (e.g., falsifiability) necessary for any given field to wear the scientific hat. How could we, if we follow nonbelievers’ logic, label something as scientific without a meaningful, testable, falsifiable, hypothesis, and without empirically based evidence to support the hypothesis?

B. Lack of specialization

Mainstream animal experts, zoologists, tend to focus on narrow areas of study, on specific classes of species (e.g., avian biology). Not only are they interested in more specific domains, but research within the field is conducted by specialized, well trained scientists, research laboratories analyzing the evidence encountered. Cryptozoologists, although not all of them, are interested in broad areas, in broad ranges of hidden animals, usually belonging to different families. They argue for the involvement of amateurs in cryptozoology. Moreover, Arment (2004) stresses the necessity of amateurs leading cryptozoological investigations, biologists playing a secondary role in the process, the role of making sure that cryptozoology remains scientific. This lack of specialization brought severe criticism upon cryptozoology, perhaps because it is difficult to comprehend how science can be achieved without a certain degree of specialized training, or without a certain level of education, regardless of the motivation which supports an investigation.

C. Sensationalistic approach

Cryptozoology has been accused of sensationalism, of its tendency to be interested and to report more information about spectacular, famous, sensation generating cryptids. Cryptids such as Bigfoot, Chupacabra, make the headlines more often, their sensationalistic trait attracting cryptozoologists. A problem brought up by critique is that not only are they attracted by more extraordinary cryptids, but those cryptids are also the ones with higher chance of being discovered if they would really exist, with the highest probability of leaving fossil traces (e.g., hominids, dinosaurs). Proportionally, the proponents of the presence of such cryptids are most ridiculed. Their interest specifically in famous cryptids, and not in lesser known creatures, perhaps with more supportive evidence as to their existence, is staining cryptozoology’s credibility and public image (Arment, 2004).

D. Folklore and overlap with paranormal phenomena

Just as cryptozoology has been accused of sensationalism, criticism brought up the issue of cryptozoology not taking into account the folkloric origin of many of the studied cryptids. Cryptozoologists argue that a distinction is in order in relationship to folkloric origins. Whereas a true folklorist is not necessarily interested in whether a story is true or not at its origins, cryptozoologists attempt to figure out with their available tools whether the stories have a kernel of truth (Goss, 1992). They do care to discern between just stories and stories developed around some truth, just as they are making an effort to separate supposed paranormal phenomena along with attention seeking individuals from real stories. However, even with such a distinction, critics argue that too much folklore is involved. Too much overlap and association has occurred between cryptozoology and paranormalism, affecting cryptozoology’s credibility enough to not be considered scientific (not to say that these are the only reasons for which cryptozoology would be considered not scientific).

After these evidence, facts, and beliefs, is cryptozoology scientific or not? Some of you will answer yes, some of you will answer no, and then there are some of you that are not yet decided. Regardless of your position, we hope that the information provided so far is valuable and interesting enough to make you wonder about all these mystery animals that might be, out there. What are these cryptids we keep mentioning, how are they being discovered, how are they classified, and most importantly, how do we recognize them?

VI. Cryptids – What Do We Know About Them?

A cryptid, or hidden animal, is an ethnoknown animal which may belong to an extinct or new, undiscovered species (Arment, 2004). It is what you would be studying if you would become a cryptozoologyst. How come they remained undiscovered? There seems to be several factors influencing the answer to the question. Environmental factors (e.g., proximity to humans, habitat), or/and biological factors (e.g., visual ability, physical appearance) usually interact, possibly generating a context within which some species remain hidden. As an example, it seems logical that a small reptile, living in an extremely isolated environment, would be able to remain undiscovered, rather than a large, diurnal mammal, living in an area close to a village.

A. How do we investigate and find them

Cryptozoology argues that the methodology used in its investigations is scientific. So far, we have brought arguments in support or against this specific hypothesis. But what is this methodology? What does it entail?

Methodology involves structured actions meant to reach a specific goal, in this case an investigator’s goals. These goals refer to validity of sightings, reports, or other alleged evidence that could support the presence of a cryptid. Cryptozoology’s investigative steps are as follows: (1) recognizing a cryptid, (2) data collection, (3) determining a methodology, a strategy to find out the truth, and (4) applying that methodology (Arment, 2004).

The first step determines whether a report or sighting is indeed cryptozoological, it is about a possibly unidentified animal. It could be a recognized cryptid, a new species, or a hoax. Determining whether a report is a hoax or not is no easy task. Cryptozoologists check for certain hints in the reported stories. They search for consistencies or inconsistencies in stories when they deal with multiple sightings (discrepancies between habitat or behavior of sighted animal and a cryptid’s known habitat and behavior). Characteristics could match either an already recognized species (in which case they are dealing with misidentifications), a cryptid’s description, or could describe a new species. Proper interviewing techniques are required in an attempt to eliminate, for example, suggestibility (Schacter, 2001) or other traps. If they are not dealing with a hoax, cryptozoologists determine whether the event deserves to be investigated.

Data collection involves searching for information from local people, from witnesses, or requesting information through newspapers or websites. It usually involves targeted areas, areas which have been perhaps abundant in sightings, whether they are historical reports or newer ones. Specific technology might be required (e.g., optical, photographic), depending on type of evidence present. Every piece of information must be carefully recorded, whether it is in a simple journal, tape recorder, or computerized systems, so when cryptozoologists try to reconstruct the puzzle, it will give them an accurate and organized profile of the event and the cryptid possibly encountered (Arment, 2004).

If the information, evidence, and witnesses’ reports lead to the conclusion that there might be a cryptid involved, cryptozoologists develop a methodology, a strategy to gather more evidence, including the cryptid itself. Field hunting is a common method with such a purpose. Cryptozoologists have to be prepared for encounters, and for collecting any kind of evidence they might think is relevant to the case (e.g., hair, foot prints). They typically use hair traps, in order to gather a possible DNA sample from the cryptid, and also to eliminate other species present at the site.

After generating a strategy, they apply it with the hope of obtaining something worthy of attention and perhaps something publishable. If real evidence is found, cryptozoologists proceed to interpreting their findings, by searching for similarities and differences with other already known species. Threats such as environmental factors, mutations, or hybridization, need to be taken into account, possibly confounding the results. If the differences are significant enough to state that they are at species level, a new species has been found.

B. Classifications

Cryptozoology uses more than one classification for its cryptids, depending on the criteria of delimitation between classes. We will present only a few, Eberhart’s classification, and Arment’s classification. Our presentation and description of cryptids will follow a simpler classification; specifically we will present and describe examples of cryptids from each continent (with the exception of Antarctica).

Eberhart (2002) mentions no less than 10 classes of cryptids: (1) distribution anomalies, meaning cryptids found outside their regular range of habitat (e.g., Big Cats in UK); (2) undescribed, unusual, or outsized variations of known species (e.g., Giant Anacondas); (3) survivals of recently extinct species (e.g., Ivory Billed Woodpecker); (4) survivals of species known only from the fossil record into modern times (e.g., Mokele-Mbembe in Central Africa)
(5) lingerlings, or survivals of species known from the fossil record much later into historical times than currently thought (e.g., Wooly Mammoth); (6) animals not known from the fossil record but related to known species (e.g., Striped Manta-ray); (7) not known from the fossil record nor related to any known species (e.g., Mothman); (8) mythical animals with a zoological basis (e.g., Golden Ram); (9) seemingly paranormal or supernatural entities with some animal-like characteristics (e.g., Cannibal Giants); and (10) known hoaxes or probable misidentifications (e.g., Coleman Frog).

Arment (2004) offers a different classification, consisting in four types of cryptids: (1) animals similar to known extant species but with obvious phenotypic differences (e.g., Spotted Lions); (2) animals similar to known extant species but disjunct geographically (e.g., North American Black Panther); (3) animals similar only to known extinct species (e.g., Thunderbirds); and (4) animals that appear unrelated to known extant or extinct species (e.g., Steller’s Sea-ape).

VII. Famous Cryptids Around the World

We decided, as mentioned before, for the sake of an easier comprehension to not use one of the presented classifications, but rather present to the readers famous examples of cryptids from each continent (with the exception of Antarctica). We will begin our presentation and description with the famous Bigfoot from North America, followed by Chupacabra from South America. Europe will be represented by the Tatzlewurm , whereas Africa is represented by Mokele-Mbembe. From Asia and Australia, we present the Mongolian Death Worm and Bunyip, respectively. We will describe their assumed behaviors and physical descriptions, present significant sightings as well as supportive evidence along with possible alternative explanations.

A. The North American Bigfoot

Photo of the Patterson & Gimlin (1967) video sighting of the anachronistic Bigfoot via Creative Commons

Behavior and physical description:
Bigfoot (also known as Sasquatch), a giant hominid from Western North America, is a nocturnal animal, with a bulky, robust body, of an average height of 7 feet, and an estimated weight of 660 pounds. It has brown or black hair, a small pointed head, sloping forehead, deep-set eyes, and flat nose. It walks upright, has long arm swing, and is inactive in cold weather. It seems to be a solitary animal, with a preference for mundane forest habitat; however, groups have also been reported. It seems to be omnivorous (rodents, roots, grasses), displaying curiosity towards humans.

Significant sightings and supportive evidence:
In 1969, a female and male Bigfoot were observed in California. In 1907, a village in British Columbia was apparently being terrorized by a 5 foot tall monkey covered with long hair, which usually appeared at night. In 1989, Bigfoot was spotted in British Columbia again by an American family. In 1995, a 5 second video was recorded by a television film crew (Eberhart, 2002). These are only a few reported sightings of Bigfoot. As far as evidence, there are numerous carvings (e.g., in Oregon) representing anthropoid ape heads dating before 1500 B.C. resembling Bigfoot. In 2000, a body imprint of possibly Bigfoot’s forearm, hip, thigh, and heel were found in Washington by Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) expedition.

Possible/alternative explanations:
There are several possible alternate explanations for Bigfoot’s sightings or artifacts. One possibility is that Bigfoot was misidentified with an upright black bear (Ursus americanus); the problem is that bears have certain features (e.g., short hind legs, certain length of toes, visible ears), which do not match Bigfoot’s prints. However, distortion from overlapping prints could explain the observed size difference. Many sightings and tracks of Bigfoot led to the conclusion that they were hoaxes. However, specific features of the tracks (e.g., long strides on the tracks, depth of prints) would be difficult for amateurs to fake, especially prior publicity (as it happens sometimes). Moreover, the depth of some prints would require a minimum 450 pounds pressure on the soil, being difficult to achieve. A surviving Meganthropus, a hominid genus, could also be a possible alternative explanation for Bigfoot according to Coleman (Pratt, 2004). As observed, there are many possible explanations offered by research concerning Bigfoot.

B. The South American Chupacabra

LeCire (2006) Illustration via Wikimedia Commons
Behavior and physical description:
The Chupacabra or “goat-sucker” (Eberhart, 2002, p. 106) was noticed in North America too, but is predominant to South America. It is an approximately 5 feet tall, dark spotted short gray hair mammal, with big red eyes and very small ears. It has no lips, huge fangs, and pointy spikes along the spine. It seems to be a nocturnal animal, with the ability to jump over trees, and the habit of drinking its prey’s blood by puncturing their necks with its fangs. Its targets are goats, chickens, sheep, and other farm animals.

Significant sightings and supportive evidence:
In 1975, villagers in Moca, Puerto Rico, noticed that their animals were being killed in a strange way, specifically by something sucking their blood. The way of attacking and finishing the pray, led official representatives to blame the attacks on snakes or birds. However, the first human attacked described the creature as a monster with feathers and spikes, sporadic sightings being reported in the next few weeks. Later, in 1991, more attacks were reported on farm animals, followed by another human attack in 1995. After 1995’s attack, the killings were attributed to the Chupacabra, the monster being blamed since for hundreds of killings. Concerning evidence existent, veterinarians performing autopsies on killed animals, found hair samples that seem to belong to Chupacabras, whereas a Chilean farmer brought to Chilean scientists a skull that presumably belongs to a Chupacabra, a skull which scientists were not able to determine to what known animal it belongs to (Cosnette, 2001).

Possible/alternative explanations:
One possible explanation could be the spreading of stories within the population, humans’ interest in folklore and sensationalism being well known. The killings could also be attributed to a famous cult, the Santeira, or simply to delinquents. The possibility of a Long-tailed weasel being responsible for the killings has been presented (Eberhart, 2002); however, location seems to be an issue, Long-tailed weasels not being native to Puerto Rico. Other possible explanations involve feral domestic dogs, rhesus monkeys brought in for experiments, or bats.

C. The African Mokele-Mbembe

Illustration of Africa's legendary Mokele-Mbembe by Unkown Artist via Wikimedia Commons
Illustration of Africa's legendary Mokele-Mbembe by Unkown Artist via Wikimedia Commons
Behavior and physical description:
Mokele-Mbembe is a reddish-brown skin, 35 feet long amphibious from Central Africa. Its size is close to an elephant’s size, it has a winding, long, flexible neck, and a long tail. The male has a single tusk. It travels single or in pairs, preferring activity early in the morning or late afternoon. It lives in forests, or caves in river banks, but its food source resides in the water. It is a vegetarian, and displays an extremely aggressive behavior when defending its territory. It is said that its flesh is poisonous, and it does attack big animals (e.g., hippopotamus, crocodiles), including humans.

Significant sightings and supportive evidence:
Mokele-Mbembe’s tracks were discovered first in Gabon area by French missionaries, its claw tracks measuring approximately 3 feet in circumference. Later, at the beginning of 20th century, natives were mentioning the presence of the monster, in the last half of 20th century, pygmies actually succeeding in killing a Mokele-Mbembe. Several sightings followed across the centuries, even in our times the monster being observed in 2000 swimming in an African river. However, it did not attack the ferry passing on the river. Thus, Mokele-Mbembe has been present for centuries in our stories, many sightings being reported, but without any clear evidence.

Possible/alternative explanations:
Several known dinosaurs could have been misidentified as Mokele-Mbembe, such as Sauropod dinosaurs (e.g., Brachiosaurus), or Ouranosaurus, a bipedal iguanodontid dinosaur whose remains have been recuperated in the Sahara desert. However, Sauropod dinosaurs, presumably, became extinct approximately 65 million years ago; therefore, it cannot be said that we have to deal with misidentification after all. Other possible explanations refer to specific species of Monitor or Iguana lizards, or to the West African manatee, which could be easily mistaken with a large animal such as the Mokele-Mbembe.

D. The Asian Mongolian Death Worm

An anonymous artist's rendition of the Mongolian Death Worm via Wikimedia Commons

Behavior and physical description:
The Mongolian Death Worm was described as a snake-like animal, and was spotted in Asia. It seems to be 2-5 feet long, of a dark red or, rarely, yellow color. Its body is thick and without a clear delimitation of a head, tail, or feet. It is a summer creature, showing itself in June and July, and one extremity of its body contains a bubbly, acid, lethal poison, which is released when in danger. It was spotted in desert areas containing a parasitic herb, Goyo. Narratives say that a Mongolian Death Worm’s electrical shock killed a geologist while holding an iron rod.

Significant sightings and supportive evidence:
There were several sightings in Mongolia’s Gobi desert of a mystery creature, each witness’ story centering around the main characteristics of the Mongolian Death Worm. There were sufficient sightings for cryptozoologists to determine that it is worth researching. Throughout expeditions, many witnesses have been interrogated; but no real evidence has been found, only stories. Cryptozoologists are split in their beliefs about the Mongolian Death Worm’s existence. Some agree that it is just a story, whereas others state the idea that it is real. However, we cannot say that the expeditions were totally unsuccessful; two new species were found: a dragon-like lizard, and a two metered long horned snake (Wagner, n.d.).

Possible/alternative explanations:
The Mongolian Death Worm might have been misidentified with unknown species of worm lizards, which are limbless creatures lacking external eyes and ears, and living in underground burrows. It could have also been misidentified with a specialized giant form of earthworm, giant species if snakes (e.g., sand boa, southern death adder of Australia) (Eberhart, 2002). Wheather it is a story or it does exist in reality, is still undetermined and debated, even within cryptozoologists, as mentioned before.

E. The Australian Bunyip

The Australian Bunyip, By Macfarlane, J, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Australian Bunyip, By Macfarlane, J, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Behavior and physical description:
The Bunyip, possibly derived from the Australian Banib (monster that haunts water-holes) (Eberhart, 2002), is a mysterious Australian marsupial, two varieties being described concerning its physical appearance (Healy & Cropper, 1994). Some individuals say it resembles seals or swimming dogs, of 5 feet on average, round head and whiskers. Other individuals witnessed the variety that resembles a long-necked creature with brown fur, large ears, small tusks, four legs and three toes. It is a nocturnal amphibian, with a loud, roaring call. It feeds on crayfish and folk stories say that it eats women and children, and causes sickness. It prefers lakes, rivers, and swamps.

Significant sightings and supportive evidence:
First sightings report both varieties of the Bunyip, the seal-dog variety and the long-necked variety, dating since the early 19th century. Later, during the second half of the 19th century, other sightings have been reported, not only by aborigines, but also by farmers, tourists, even geologists (e.g., Dunn). Evidence gathered consists of skulls and bone fragments of amphibians in 1818, along with other skull fragments, with some missing parts however (e.g., top of cranium, front of snout). The Bunyip has been rarely seen lately, only a few sightings being reported. The long-necked variety is possibly extinct, sightings not being reported since the 19th century.

Possible/alternative explanations:
One possible explanation involves the Australian fur-seal or Australian sea-lions, which resemble seal-dog variety of the Bunyip. The Brown bittern’s active sound could be easily misidentified and attributed to the Bunyip, the salt water crocodile possibly being misidentified by aborigines as the mysterious creature. It is also possible that Australia has an unidentified species of an otter like marsupial, resembling the Bunyip.

F. The European Tatzelwurm

Anonymous Artist's Illustration of the Tatzelwurm via Wikimedia Commons
Anonymous Artist's Illustration of the Tatzelwurm via Wikimedia Commons

Behavior and physical description:
The Tatzelwurm is a snake like creature, 2 to 6 feet long, with a large head and eyes, without any hind legs, but with 2 front legs equipped with claws. Its skin is hairless and covered in scales. Accounts say that Tatzelwurm uses as a defense tool poisonous fumes, which, when released, has the ability to kill humans. Its habitat is montane, being spotted mostly in the Alps.

Significant sightings and supportive evidence:
There is one claimed photograph of the Tatzelwurm, which dates back in 1934, and it belongs to a Swiss photographer which captured something that he thought was a log running away. In 1930, cryptozoologists (e.g., Venzmer, Fulcher) started analyzing witness testimonies, resulting in a sample of 60 witnesses. Despite some disagreements, they all agreed on a few characteristics of the creature, specifically that the creature’s length ranged between 30-60 cm (1-2 feet), that the shape of its body is cylindrical and covered in scales, that it has an abrupt ending tail, and a blunt head with no neck. The reports traveled throughout Europe, sightings being mentioned in countries such as France and Italy, Austria, and even Denmark. However, some explorers believed that the creature is just a simple giant salamander, and no mystery is involved. In time, reported sightings have decreased, some cryptozoologists believing that extinction has occurred.

Possible/alternative explanations:
The Tatzelwurm might be misidentified with certain salamanders, the European giant salamander presenting a close similarity to the creature. It can also be misidentified with otters; however, it can be argued that otters have no back legs, while Tatzelwurm do. Heuvelmans (Monstropedia, n.d.) associated the creature with the Gila monster, a very poisonous lizard, because of its poison and its fat tail; therefore it could be a relative of the Gila monster. The Tatzelwurm is also similar to the Mexican Mole Lizard, and to the Australian lungfish (Monstropedia, n.d.), a strange group of fish that adapted their bladders to gulp air by functioning as lungs.

The described cryptids are only a small sample of the plethora of creatures that presumably lived, or, according to some, still live in our days. A simple search for cryptids on the internet gives no less then 128,000 results, several hundred being listed in the first pages. There is a large amount of information about some of them, and almost none about others. Non-believers say they are fiction; yet, cryptozoologists do not give up their search for evidence, their beliefs about the creatures’ existence being unwavering. Will perseverance pay off? “Wait and see” I would dare say. What else could anyone do, anyway!

VII. Final Thoughts

It is time to recapitulate. What is cryptozoology and what does it deal with? Cryptozoology is the methodology used by cryptozoologists to determine whether hidden, mysterious creatures belong to a lost or new species. These creatures are called cryptids. As we have seen, interest in mysterious creatures is not new, stories with such protagonists being told and written since antiquity. However, with such interest comes equally intense debates, cryptozoology being subjected to many questions and criticism.

Why the need for cryptozoology as a separate field from zoology? Zoology is a research science, whereas cryptozoology is a discovery science, believers would argue. Zoology is too specialized on already known animals, therefore cryptozoology engaged in studying the unknown, mysterious ones. On the other side, cryptozoology is too broad, skeptics would argue, mistrusting one’s ability to do science without a certain level of education and specialization.

Folklore and paranormalism – problematic or no? Believers argue that meaning of and approach to folklore, along with use of logic and reason when it comes to unexplainable events, make the difference. However, there is too much folklore involved and too much overlap with paranormalism for cryptozoology’s credibility not to be negatively influenced, skeptics say.

Most importantly, should cryptozoology wear the scientific hat? No simple answer to such a complex question, especially when the answer depends on so many factors. Regarding the evidence versus anecdotes supporting a scientific hypothesis issue, skeptics argue that cryptozoology is basing its hypotheses on anecdotes and beliefs rather than empirical evidence. Non-believers argue that even if speculations are cryptozoology’s foundation, they are based on real facts. Moreover, beliefs are opinions, eliminating and disregarding them being absurd. Cryptozoology is self-correcting, comprehensive, and open to criticism according to believers, cryptozoologists attempting to detect and eliminate hoaxes and misidentification, and learn from its mistakes. Yet there is more external than internal criticism in the field, and many excuses are generated to explain failures in gathering evidence. Cryptozoology’s hypotheses are testable, replicable, and falsifiable, say some, but many times lacking the technology necessary for appropriate testing. However, testable or not, why should anyone allocate resources and attempt to test and retest hypotheses that we have no means to test, thus not bringing any knowledge? After all, is the purpose of science not to better understand how the world works?

Mysteries, scientific or not, were and still are part of our world; they did and still do catch our attention. There are hundreds of cryptids mentioned at some point in history, thus hundreds of stories. Which ones you believe and which ones you do not is your choice. Let's just hope it is an educated one!

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