Zoology

What is Cryptozoology



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Since the dawn of human culture, the world of animals has fascinated humans. There seemed no end to the kinds of animals; and early humans soon noticed that not all animals fit into neat categories. What were our primitive ancestors to make of the bat, for example? Here was a creature that seemed to be a bird, flying about after insects; but follow it to its roost and see it at rest, and it was not like any other bird in the world, for it had a face like the mammals, and claws on its wings. So the bat naturally became an object of legend, early Israelites listed it among the abominable "birds" that were not to be eaten, Christian iconography depicts devils having bat wings (whilst angels have bird wings), and Germans call it Fleidermaus, which literally means "flying mouse."

The human brain thinks in stories. It was only natural, then, that unusual or little-known animals became ever more embellished in the telling and retelling, until a whole bestiary of mythical beasts developed. Thus we have the mythical leviathan, probably inspired by ancient sailors seeing great whales and not knowing what they were. The salamander of myth - a lizard born of fire - likewise came about because of real salamanders, hidden inside rotten logs, fleeing when those logs were burned. Other mythical beasts may not be possible to trace to real animals; what, for example, are we to make of the hippogriff, half horse, half monstrous bird of prey?

Cryptozoology, the study of "hidden animals," probably dates back as long as there have been legendary animals. Ancient Greeks may well have searched for the pegasus. Chinese medicine has made use of dragon bones from ancient times. In medieval Europe, unicorn horns were the prized possessions of kings, though no one seemed to know where they came from. Nowadays, of course, we know that the unicorn horns actually were the tusks of narwhals, a strange species of whale from the arctic. But since the arctic was a land of savage Vikings, the peoples of medieval Europe would not have gone there to see the narwhals; all they had were the horns, brought south along trade routes, along with the legends.

Few if any people nowadays believe in unicorns or dragons. But other "hidden animals" have remained in the popular imagination, and have their true believers to this day. One of the best known is the sasquatch, or "bigfoot," of the Pacific Northwest. Sasquatch has enough popular appeal to have been featured in the Hollywood film, "Harry and the Hendersons;" but in the realm of documentary, there is not much to go on, as several of the best-known documentaries have been shown to be hoaxes. Nevertheless, there are people who do search for real evidence. This search is the field-work side of cryptozoology: boots on the ground, tramping through the forests, keeping an eye out for footprints, scat, or other sign; and of course always hoping to encounter the creature itself.

Cryptozoology also has its theoretical side, that is, determining whether a given "hidden animal" is possible. To continue with the sasquatch example, we can say that there are real primates able to live on low-quality, tough vegetation - we call them langurs, or leaf-monkeys. We know that there are real primates able to live in seasonally cold climates - the Japanese macaque is found in snowy mountains of Hokkaido. And we know that even large apes can be very difficult to find in densely forested areas. Thus, we can say that there is no inherent reason why sasquatch cannot exist. On the other hand, just because it CAN exist, is no proof that it DOES. To prove the existence of sasquatch, someone would have to provide concrete evidence, perhaps a verifiable photograph, or maybe a DNA sequence run from a hair sample. Unless such evidence is brought forth, sasquatch will remain a legend in the minds of most people.

On the other hand, whether or not we believe in "hidden animals," we should perhaps acknowledge that cryptozoology can have a useful place in the world. There is always the chance that unknown animals may indeed turn out to be real, as happened a few years ago in Vietnam when a "mythical" antelope was discovered alive. That such a large animal could go undetected for so long in a country as densely populated as Vietnam shows that there is still much to learn about the natural world. And cryptozoology now has its place in conservation as well: the April 2008 issue of _National Geographic Adventure_ made reference to Migoi National Park in Bhutan, set aside as a wildlife refuge for the yeti. Whether or not the yeti exists, the park is surely of benefit to the other flora and fauna of the region.

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