How many large, unknown animals are there on our planet yet to be discovered by explorers and zoologists? The great 19th century naturalist, Baron Georges Cuvier, remarked in the course of a lecture in 1830 that naturalists of the future would have to concentrate on extinct animals, since no new discoveries of large living animals were to be expected. As Willy Ley says, “He was statistically right, even if he was wrong otherwise.” In the 150 years since Cuvier spoke, many tens of thousands of previously unknown extinct animals have been found in fossil form — but only a handful of previously unknown large living animals. Examples are the Giant Panda, the Okapi, the Komodo “dragon,” and the living fossil called Coelacanth. Most of the discoveries have been of slightly different species of well-known animals such as deer and birds. With rapid transportation dominating the latter half of the 20th century, it seems almost impossible that any very large animal has somehow remained undiscovered.
Yet a popular claim of pseudoscience is that many very large animals are as yet unknown to science. Of these, the best known are the North American ape-man Bigfoot and his Himalayan cousin the Yeti, or Abominable Snowman; the monsters said to lurk in Loch Ness in Scotland and several large lakes in North America; and the great Sea Serpent.
Scientists have two major objections to pseudoscientists’ claims concerning the existence and habits of these animals. The first objection is that no evidence of any kind has ever proved that the animal actually exists. The second objection is that the places where the animals are said to exist could not support them in the numbers required to prevent them from becoming extinct. In pseudoscientific claims regarding such creatures there are always gross ecological, zoological and herd-size contradictions that render the claims simply impossible. Since no direct evidence of the existence of such animals is ever shown, the attitude of zoologists and other scientists is one of complete skepticism.
Let’s look at some claims in more detail, to see just what kinds of objections these are, and how they arise. Consider Bigfoot or Sasquatch. This is supposed to be a large (7-12 feet tall) ape-like animal with short red-brown or black hair, reported all over the Pacific Northwest, from California to British Columbia. Many organizations and newspapers have offered cash prizes of up to $100,000 for hard evidence that Bigfoot exists, or a live Bigfoot. Despite this, no evidence has ever been forthcoming. What is put forward in place of real evidence are eyewitness reports of sightings — all vague, all contradictory in major details, and all curiously lacking in specifics; footprints in the snow, no two sets of which look at all alike; recorded “noises,” no two tapes of which sound even vaguely alike; and various photographs and one movie, all of which appear to show someone in a standard costume-shop ape outfit stumbling about in the woods.
Discounting this non-existent evidence, a scientist would ask: how many of these creatures are there? We worry about the gorilla and chimpanzee becoming extinct if the numbers of these animals fall into the hundreds. Thousands of individuals are needed, at a minimum, to prevent a single drought or epidemic from destroying the species. It seems very hard to believe that thousands … or even hundreds … of Bigfeet are active but unseen in woods fairly heavily traveled by tourists. They should be encountered as frequently as bears! What do the Bigfeet eat? Do they live and hunt in groups of 5 to 50 individuals, like chimpanzees, gorillas, and primitive ape-men, or are they solitary like orangutans? Where and how do they live? In trees? In caves? Underwater? How do they fit into the ecology of the region where they’re found in largest numbers? What do they prey on? What preys on them? Why don’t we find bodies of Bigfeet dead in accidents, killed by predators, run over by cars, dead of illness, dead of old age, etc.?
We haven’t dealt with the most severe zoological problem of all. In an area as vast and varied as North America, we expect many varieties of the same animal; not just “bears,” but black bears, brown bears, grizzly bears, polar bears, etc., etc. Yet in all of North and South America there are no known species of apes; apes are native only to the “Old World,” Africa and Asia. How then do we have this single species of remarkable giant ape (or ape-man) in such a narrow strip of North America, and no other apes anywhere in all of North and South America? We don’t expect apes in this hemisphere any more than we expect to find native elephants, camels, or kangaroos!
How about the yeti, the abominable snowman? The high Himalayas are poorly explored even today. Isn’t his existence more probable? No. We can raise exactly the same questions as above, and no answers are forthcoming. No evidence exists that these creatures exist. British expeditions to Tibet in the early 1950’s brought back the usual meaningless reports of footprints and “sightings.” But a 1960 expedition led by Sir Edmund Hilary found absolutely no physical evidence of such an animal, and also found simple explanations for the bogus “evidence” cited by earlier expeditions. For instance, yeti “scalps” said to be kept in inaccessible monasteries turned out to be caps made of goat fur.
One of the most famous of all monsters is “Nessie,” the plesiosaur-like, 20-50 foot long, gray, brown, or black monster of Loch Ness. Right off, the first problem is that Loch Ness is about the last place on earth one would be likely to find such a creature. The Loch is about 20 miles long, but only a mile wide. Its waters are deep and murky because of suspended particles of peat; the 400 F water would be an impossible environment for reptiles; nor is there room for the several hundred or so individuals that a zoologist would expect to form a stable population. Believers in Nessie sometimes claim that the animals actually live in the sea, and only solitary individuals swim up to appear in the Loch. This would require supernatural feats on the part of the animals, since Loch Ness is part of the Caledonian Canal system and there are 19 locks between Loch Ness and the open sea! Upstream of the Loch is the large city of Inverness, where the water is only a few feet deep.
As always, the “evidence” for the monster consists only of eyewitness “sightings” of extremely dubious significance, and a number of extraordinarily blurry photographs and indistinct movie footage. The monster’s publicity dates from 1933, when a road around the Loch was resurfaced and the inhabitants of the locality were ready for increased tourist business. Much of the early publicity was based on two famous photographs of the monster, taken at about this time, which in fact seem to show otters playing on the surface of the Loch, but were reprinted elsewhere as shots of Nessie. Not much more was heard about the monster until 1957, when a book by Constance Whyte revived the story. (This should remind the reader of flying saucer flaps … you don’t see anything until you read that you should see something.) A famous bit of newsreel footage made in 1960 shows the “monster” swimming about … looking for all the world like a motorboat, and nothing like a large, swimming animal. The best known, and least impressive, of all monster photographs were obtained by an expedition led by wealthy pseudoscientist Robert Rines in the early 1970’s. These shots, taken underwater, show essentially nothing until “computer enhanced,” when a blurry image that could be just about anything emerges. There’s been no monster activity since, to speak of. It’s worth noting that a full-size model of a fanciful Loch Ness monster was lost in the Loch during the filming of the 1968 Billy Wilder motion picture, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. So there is at least one monster down there, and it doesn’t need to eat, breed, breathe or swim about. Those are the qualifications that all Loch Ness monsters would need to satisfy, and no living animal is likely to meet such qualifications.
It is not well known that there are just as many reports of such monsters in U.S. and Canadian lakes. There are from 30 to 40 lakes in the U.S. which have been the site of eyewitness monster reports, ranging from Elizabeth Lake in California to the Old Mill Pond in Trenton, New Jersey! Probably the best known of such monsters is “Champ,” who is supposed to live in Lake Champlain. Canada has the Naitaka, which infests British Columbian lakes. In Lake Okanagan is Ogopogo, and in Lake Manitoba is Manipogo. Photographs of these creatures show considerably more imagination on the part of the photographer than do Nessie photographs, but they are even less convincing for the same reason.
Lake monsters are also reported from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Lake Victoria in East Africa, and Lake Baikal in the Soviet Union. The most famous of these monsters, which appears to prefer rivers to lakes, is Mokele-Moembe, the target of a disaster-prone, hopelessly incompetent expedition of two wealthy pseudoscientists to Africa.
In no case is any actual evidence provided that such creatures exist. One is reminded of a quote from mountaineer James Ramsey Ullman: “As late as the middle 1700’s, adventurous travelers would solemnly commend their souls to the Maker before risking the crossing of what today are considered the most prosaic Alpine passes, and to the occasional unhappy wanderer on the higher slopes it was merely a question of whether a bandit, a three-headed dragon, or the ghost of Pontius Pilate would waylay him first.” He goes on to note that, up to 1725, guidebooks to Switzerland contained detailed descriptions and classifications of Alpine dragons. Far travelers have a well-known tendency to dramatize their adventures by inventing mythical beasts. Probably many monsters have their origin in this human tendency, not in the evolution of life on earth. Monster Stories also do no harm to the tourist trade; the tourism at Loch Ness is almost entirely based on “your chance at a sight of Nessie,” and every time a motorboat crosses the Loch the tourists are in ecstasy at seeing the monster at long last.
The sad fact, however, is that the manufactured mystery of monsters is always tawdry and unimaginative put up alongside the many amazing and wonderful animals that are actually known to exist on earth, from pandas to pangolins. If people would transfer some of their enthusiasm for mythical beings into enthusiasm and love for the animals that do exist, and desperately need man’s protection and understanding, we would all find ourselves in a real world of almost infinite variety and beauty.
For further reading
Science and the Paranormal, G.O. Abell and B. Singer (Eds.), Scribner’s, New York, 1981, Chapter 2.
“The Loch Ness Saga,” by Dr. Maurice Burton, New Scientist, June 24, 1982, p. 872; July 1, 1982, pp. 41-42; July 8, 1982, pp. 112-113.
Exploring the Unknown, C.J. Cazeau and S.D. Scott, Jr., Plenum, New York, 1979, Chapter 11.
Myths of the Space Age, Daniel Cohen, Dodd, Mead, New York, 1967, Chapter 8.
“Bigfoot on the Loose: Or How to Create a Legend,” Paul Kurtz, The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 5, No. 1, Fall 1980, pp. 49-54.
Exotic Zoology, Willy Ley, Viking, New York, 1959.
Searching for Hidden Animals, Roy P. Mackal, Doubleday, New York, 1980.
The Loch Ness Mystery Solved, Ronald Binns with R.J. Bell, Prometheus, New York, 1985.
“Sonar and Photographic Searches for the Loch Ness Monster: A Reassessment,” R. Rasdan and A. Kielar, The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter 1984-5, pp. 147-158.
ASTOP – The Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience – has prepared fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics for the benefit of teachers and others interested in promoting critical thinking. Dr. Rory Coker, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of this fact sheet. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a professional research and educational organization concerned about the harmful effects of cult involvement, prints and helps distribute these fact sheets. Because ASTOP fact sheets seek to stimulate critical thinking, rather than advance a particular point of view, opinions expressed are those of the authors. A list of available fact sheets can be obtained by contacting ICSA (firstname.lastname@example.org).