Cryptozoology is the study of creatures that are rumored to exist, but whose existence has not been substantiated. These include legendary beasts such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, as well as other lesser-known animals and entities around the world. A few of these creatures may have a basis in reality, while others seemingly do not. Either way, the aim of cryptozoologists is to prove that these entities really exist in the wild, and some people dedicate years of their lives to these quests. In doing so, they often find themselves scoffed at by biologists and other established scientific types.
Because cryptozoology pursues creatures based mostly on rumor or folklore, it’s considered a pseudoscience. That is, it’s not regarded as “real” science because it doesn’t use the scientific method as part of its investigations. Instead, cryptozoologists rely on historical documents, eyewitness accounts, and their own observations in their attempts to prove what often seems unprovable. As you can probably guess, their efforts frequently come up empty-handed.
As a discipline, cryptozoology has its roots in the 1950s, thanks largely to Belgian scientist Bernard Heuvelmans and Scottish biologist and writer Ivan T. Sanderson. Both men had formal scientific degrees but also found themselves fascinated with rare creatures and paranormal subjects. Sanderson even claimed to have been personally attacked by an Olitiau, a legendary giant bat with a 12-foot (3.6-meter) wingspan that supposedly exists somewhere in Central Africa.
Likewise, Heuvelmans was always hot on the trail of mysterious animals. His 1958 book, “On the Track of Unknown Animals,” is often regarded as a watershed moment for the cryptozoology subculture. Surely, Heuvelmans speculated in his tome, there could be pockets of dinosaurs still hidden in remote parts of the world. It was just a matter of finding them.
Both researchers drew minor fame from their various investigations, as well as scorn from mainstream scientists. And although they never officially found any of their fantastical creatures, their pursuits live on in the adventure of many other wannabe cryptozoologists. Looking for Bigfoot? Don’t kid yourself – you’re not the only one.
Before you race off to look for Cryptozoology 101 courses, understand that there’s no such thing as a degree in this field. Any educational materials you find only for cryptozoology won’t be backed by any real university, though unaccredited online schools may offer courses in the subject. Nor will you find any job listings directly related to this pursuit.
Still, the mysterious allure of cryptozoology is addictive to anyone who enjoys the thrills of pursuing the unknown (mostly at your own expense). The unanswered questions about these fantastical creatures is a big part of the appeal. For true believers and alleged eyewitnesses, these “cryptids” are alive and well and lurking among us. They include the following:
- Marozi: With a maned lion’s face fronting a jaguar-like body, the Marozi (also known as the spotted lion) was reported several times in the 1930s in Kenya’s mountains but hasn’t been mentioned much since. The Natural History Museum in Great Britain is said to be in possession of the spotted skin of a marozi, but many experts think the specimen represents a jaguar that bred with common spotless plains lions.
- Kamchatka Giant Bear: Swedish zoologist Sten Bergman, working in Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula in the 1920s, discovered a paw print that measured a full square foot, suggesting a bear of remarkable size. Similar sightings tell of an ursine almost twice the size of a typical North American grizzly bear, measuring six feet at the shoulder. Some Russian biologists believe there is a small group of Kamchatka Giant Bears that survived the most recent ice age.
- Bigfoot: Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch, is a big, hairy, two-legged beast that arose in North America, and first received the “Bigfoot” nickname in California in the late 1950s. What started with a flurry of local stories turned into a full-fledged media sensation and ultimately a legend that’s now known around the world. Many people claim to have caught glimpses of Bigfoot, and the Patterson-Gimlin film, which supposedly shows one creature fleeing through the forest, is probably the most iconic bit of evidence in the entire library of 20th-century cryptozoology.
- Yeti/Abominable Snowman: The Himalayan Mountains are reportedly home to the Yeti (or in Western culture, the Abominable Snowman), a bear-like or ape-like creature that’s been part of Eastern lore for centuries. Covered with long hair and built for rugged, cold environments, the Yeti is as evasive and mysterious as Bigfoot.
- Skunk Ape: Bigfoot’s smelly Southern cousin has been reported a number of times in Florida’s swamps, most convincingly in 2000 by a couple who took an excellent snapshot of what looked to be a 6-foot-6-inch (2-meter) orangutan. The picture didn’t capture its scent, of course, but the couple attested to its atrocity.
- Lizard Man: This scaly green hominid, the resident mysterious beast of Escape Ore Swamp in South Carolina, has long been at the center of local lore. While many consider the creature a hoax, others swear they’ve encountered it face to face. Lizard Man has had several brushes with fame: A local radio station once offered $1 million for a live capture, and in 1988, a South Carolina Republican leader labeled Lizard Man a staunch Democrat.
- Jersey Devil: According to most reports, New Jersey’s cryptozoological curiosity has wings, a horse’s face, a pig’s hooves, and a kangaroo’s body. The legend of the Jersey Devil was born in the 1700s — based on a tale of a cursed baby-turned-demon that flew off into the night — and boomed in the early 1900s, with people seeing it all over the state. To this day, people report Devil sightings, mostly in the spooky Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. While some locals think the creature is truly a supernatural beast, others say it’s probably a misidentified sandhill crane.
- El Chupacabra: Puerto Rico’s legendary “goat sucker” is a fanged and clawed beast that performs vampirism on livestock. The first accounts of its victims — often goats, chickens, horses, and cows — were reported in the 1950s by farmers who found animals drained of blood, with several large puncture marks. Some who have allegedly sighted the creature describe it as a short, kangaroo-like monster with oversize teeth and an oval head, but others liken it to a large reptile or bat.
- Kraken: The Kraken is a legendary monstrous creature in the deep ocean waters near Scandinavian regions. It’s described as an enormous octopus-like animal that’s big enough to attack ships and frighten sailors. This one might have basis in reality, thanks to giant squids (which really do exist) and grow to up to 50 feet (15 meters) long.
- Loch Ness Monster: Also known as Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster is another world-famous creature that’s appeared in countless headlines and movies. It’s an ancient legend, too, appearing in historical records dating to 1,500 years ago. It’s supposedly a large marine animal with a slender neck that lives in Loch Ness, a 23-mile (37-kilometer)- long lake in Scotland. Nearly 800 feet (244 meters) deep in some places, the lake (the largest body of fresh water in the United Kingdom) would make a sufficient hiding place for a shy creature, but aside from a few famous (and blurry) photographs and unreliable eyewitness accounts, there’s no proof that Nessie exists. A 2019 Washington Post article says scientists now think Nessie might have been a giant eel.
- Tahoe Tessie: Deep in Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border lurks a storied sea creature that’s the Sierra Nevada cousin of the Loch Ness Monster. It’s alleged that after a submarine expedition, undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau said, “The world isn’t ready for what’s down there.” (He could, of course, have been referring to anything odd.) Popular descriptions portray Tessie as either a freshwater relative of a whale or a 20-foot (6-meter) sea serpent with a humped back.
- Mogollon Monster: In eastern Arizona there’s a long, rocky ridge, called the Mogollon Rim, that runs deep through a thick forest. That’s the reported home of the Mogollon Monster, which is described as a tall, two-legged monster with thick hair and a rancid stench. Although amateur hunters have produced various bits of so-called evidence over the past century, there’s no reason to think this stinky monster really exists.
- Champ: Like Tessie, Champ is named for the body of water in which it purportedly lurks, in this case, New York’s Lake Champlain. Several hundred recorded sightings typically describe the beast as an angular black sea monster measuring about 50 feet (15 meters) in length. One investigative group believes the often-sighted Champ is actually a surviving plesiosaur, a dinosaur that died off 60 million years ago.
Portions of this article were adapted from “The Book of Incredible Information,” published by West Side Publishing, a division of Publications International, Ltd. HowStuffWorks earns a small affiliate commission when you purchase through links on our site.
Originally Published: May 30, 2008