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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Cryptids for the beginning skeptic

Hello Folks. It looks like, for now, I'm keeping a regular schedule on the posts. I'm as surprised as you are.I felt it was time for another edition of my world famous "Woo for the beginning skeptic" articles. Today, I'm going to discuss one that I have had an interest in for many years. We're talking cryptids, also known as monsters or unknown animals. Before you roll your eyes and say "Cryptids are stupid. There is no reason any self respecting critical thinker should waste their time on them.", just keep reading. Not only are they interesting in their own right, but many times, they are what initially brought people into skepticism and critical thinking. Just look at Blake Smith and Daniel Loxton. Both are well respected members of the skeptical community. (Blake hosts the Monster Talk podcast and Daniel is the author and illustrator of Junior Skeptic in the back of Skeptic magazine, as well as the Tales of Prehistoric Life trilogy and Abominable Science.) Both of them came to critical thinking via cryptids. Now for the main feature.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a cryptid is "An animal whose existence or survival is disputed or unsubstantiated, such as the yeti" Therefore cryptozoology is the study of unknown animals. It comes from the Greek word Krypto (also the name of Superman's dog) which means "hide". So basically, it's an animal that people can't find, but as soon as someone legitimately finds one, it can no longer be considered a cryptid.

Throughout human history, we have always told stories about fantastic creatures, You have Enkidu and Humbaba from the Epic of Gilgamesh. You have Grendel from Beowulf. You have the gods in corporeal form in pretty much every culture. The Leviathan in the bible would count as a cryptid. There have always been stories of sea monsters and river creatures. Of course, there is the Loch Ness Monster, Yeti, Bigfoot, Bat-Boy, Chupacabra, Leprechauns, and MothMan. People have always used mysterious creatures either as a way to explain a natural phenomenon or as a way to make people behave. An example of the former is saying that some large unknown creature creates whirlpools that pull down ships. An example of the later would be that a vicious animal lives in the woods, so you kids shouldn't go in them, lest you get killed by it. Today, a lot of the stories seem to be driven by an honest curiosity mixed with either a poor or misguided understanding of science, or wanting to make a few bucks off of a costume full of roadkill. I know that this is an extremely short history of cryptids, but just going back to Gilgamesh, that's around 4000 years of monsters. That's not including some of the possible stories that were told around  the fires of our hunter/gatherer ancestors. One of the most amazing things about this is that people still report some of the same creatures that their ancestors did thousands of years ago.

The Cast:
I honestly had a hard time trying to decide where to start. Should I go chronologically, geographically, culturally, type, or just do it randomly? I'm going to try and break down the huge variety of cryptids by their type. There are serpents, humanoids, avian, and some that seem to be an amalgamation of several other animals rather than a single type, more like a chimera that any single animal. I'm not going to list all of the various cryptids, there are way too many. Each type could be an individual in depth article, let alone all of the various cryptids that people have claimed to exist. These creatures are as varied as the cultures they sprang from. Also, areas that are relatively close to one another may have different names for the same thing, or the same name for very different creatures. As well, I'm not going to include aliens, ghosts, or demons. These will probably have their own write-up sometime in the future. So, to get started lets see who the cast of players are.

Humanoid: This group is possibly one of the most diverse, as well as the one of the oldest. Enkidu from the Epic of Gilgamesh was a wild hairy man. Included in this group, you also have Yeti, Bigfoot, the Kappa, the Orang Pendek, reptilian humanoids, Mothman, GoatMan, and so on. Odds are, if man is in the name, it's probably a humanoid cryptids. Most of these creatures have a generally human appearance in that they walk  upright, have 2 arms, with the exception of Mothman who has a pair of wings, 2 legs, though not always human legs,  a torso, and a head. Some are covered in hair, others have scales or smooth skin. Most of these are probably misidentified native wildlife such as a bear or an owl in a tree. A sandhill crane is a common explanation for Mothman. Sometimes, they are possibly just people out trying to pull a prank. As I said, these seem to be some of the most common creatures that get reported. A major problem with the existence of these creatures is that the locations they have been reported in are fairly well explored, and most of the native fauna are well known, with the exception of the Orang Pendek in Sumatra and the Yeti in the Himalayas.

Sea Serpents: Some of the proud members of this group include Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, Champ, the Lake Champlain Monster, The Kraken, and all those cool looking monsters on ancient maps. When looking at Nessie and Champ, you have to consider their size and the habitat they supposedly inhabit. Even Loch Ness couldn't support a breeding population of very large creatures. There simply isn't enough room or food. And for being a plesiosaur, their respective bodies of water were actually under glaciers when plesiosaurs were alive. Now for the actual sea serpents.Out of all the cryptids, I think that an unknown, large deep sea creature would be the most plausible. (coelacanth or the mega-mouth shark anyone?)There is still a lot of the oceans we haven't explored, and unlike a terrestrial creature, there isn't as much of a hindrance in their movement. Instead of being locked into a specific location, it is much easier for an aquatic animal to travel. That being said, I really think that most reports of sea serpents are previously known animals. Most of the time, these are possibly misidentified animals such as the oarfish, big-mouth shark, or the giant squid. And of course, there are the dead, bloated, and decaying carcasses that occasionally wash up on shore, which spur reports of "Dead Sea Serpent Found Washed Up On Local Beach." I have seen pictures of a variety of animals, ranging from oarfish to sharks and from raccoons to half eaten tuna being portrayed by the media as some sort of unknown sea monster. At some point, a marine biologist will say what the carcass belongs to, but by that time, the media is off to the races on the next fear inducing headline.

Avian: These are pretty odd, and very interesting at the same time. You have creatures like the Thunder Bird of Native American lore, the Roc from the Middle East, and stories of pterasaurs surviving into the modern era. Mothman could have possibly fit into this category, but I felt he (or is it a she?) is more humanoid in appearance. There are also stories of extremely large bats and bat-like creatures in various parts of the world, and I feel that they would probably fit into this category the most. There was a bird called the Elephant Bird, which like an emu, an ostrich, a moa, or a cassowary, was a large flightless bird,  Of course there are legends about this creature also. Looking at present day reports of large avian creatures, I am of the opinion that most are, once again, misidentified. Some birds, especially the raptors, can get pretty damn big. Have you ever seen a great horned owl? Huge bird. Vultures or condors? Very big birds. Many time, when people are reporting that they've seen something like a Thunder Bird (not the car), they are looking up and see a bird shape in the sky, which makes determining the size very difficult. Or they see it flying by tree, in front of trees, or over the tops of trees. Once again, people normally aren't very good at recognizing when one object is directly over another, which makes trying to determine size or speed difficult. Plus, if there were super large creatures flying around, with all the flights that go on everyday, don't you think someone would have hit one with a plane by now? (I think that the "If it existed, wouldn't someone have hit/killed one by now" argument is a valid one. There are so many vehicles moving on the planet now that surely, someone would have struck some of these creatures.)

Animalistic: I am making this category to lump a lot of cryptids together. These would be animals that, in general, look like other animals. The main difference would be in their size, aggression, or intelligence. I am also going to include animals that are supposed to be extinct, and have somehow survived. Alligators or crocodiles in the sewers, which are supposed to be larger and more aggressive than other crocodilians, would be a good example, Large aggressive swine, Dire Wolves, 50 foot snakes, and wooly mammoths are all good examples. So is the infamous chupacabra. Often, these seem to be animals with greatly inflated dimensions, sometimes well beyond what biology says they could ever be. Sometimes, they are real, abnormally large animals, but not to the size that the witnesses make them out to be. For fun, just google Hogzilla. With the reports of a wooly mammoth roaming the Russian tundra, those are normally hoaxes, plain and simple. and not even good ones. The chupacabra is an interesting beast. Ben Radford actually managed to trace it back to the first report in Puerto Rico in his book "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore".The interesting thing about this creature is that the description of it has changed drastically. Originally, it was bipedal, more reptilian, and had glowing red eyes. (Why the hell do so many of these creatures have glowing red eyes? That's going to be the name of my book!) Since coming to the U.S., it has changed into a quadrapedal animal with almost scaly skin, and may or may not have small tufts of hair. They are also unique in that specimens have actually been caught! At least animals that people claim are chupacabras. They almost always end up being a raccoon, a dog, or some other animal that is suffering from an advanced case of mange. I say almost because there have been a few captured that no one has ever been allowed to do any sort of analysis on the poor creature. The animals in this category either do exist, or have at one point existed. For the extant animals, their size isn't as great as the witness reports would have you believe. For the extinct animals, they are either another case of misidentification or a hoax. And in the case of the chupacabra, it is a real animal, at least in the U.S., but not only is it a case of mistaken identity, but the poor critter is suffering.

The Fae: These are the fairies of old. Leprechauns, fairies, banshee, and many of the other supernatural monsters from old legends would fall into this category. The reason that I'm even mentioning them is that there are still occasional reported sightings. Think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies.

Chimeras: These are the hodge-podges of the cryptid kingdom. These creatures are normally described as having attributes from several different animals. Some of the more famous ones would be the Sphinx, the Manticore, the Griffin, the Chimera, you get the idea. The reason that I've decided to include these types is that they are the grand-daddies of all the cryptids that we have today. These are the original monsters that people told stories about. And there is, once in a great while, a report of one of these beasts, Most likely, these are either hoaxes or someone wanting a bit of attention.

Oddballs: There are a lot of creatures that really don't fit into a category. That or else I would have to spend a lot more time sub-dividing and sorting everything out. Some examples of these would be the Mongolian Death Worm, Inkanyamba, and Mokele Mbembe. These are, like so many other cryptids, culturally based. They are most likely related to legends that have been told in the areas for untold years. Given the range of their abilities, and the characteristics of these creatures, it is once again, highly unlikely that they actually exist.

Even though every culture, region, and religion has at least one story of fantastic creatures, with a little critical thinking, it is fairly easy to demonstrate how doubtful it is that they are real. Most of these are probably the result of a combination of humans being natural storytellers and pareidolia. As I said at the start, these monsters can be an easy way to begin talking to someone about critical thinking. If they believe strongly in some form of pseudoscience, such as naturopathy, homeopathy, vaccine denial, or climate change denial, you can use a discussion about cryptids to show them how to look at evidence. It's also a great way to introduce kids to critical thinking and skepticism. As a matter of fact, I am reading "In Search of Sasquatch" to my son right now. We are going to go through the book and look at what the author presents as evidence. Should be interesting.

You would think that with all the people walking around in the woods, someone would have found one by now. Seriously, and 8 foot tall hairy creature in the United States? In New Guinea, they found a frog that is .3 inches (7.7 mm for the metric crowd)
(From Wikipedia)  The frog is standing on a dime!
From Thailand and Myanmar, we have the Bumblebee Bat, which weighs 2 grams and is about 1-1.3 inches (2.54-3.3 cm)

(From Wikipedia)
In Indonesia, they have the Paedocypris, a fish that is .31 inches (7.9 mm) long.
Of course in Cuba and the Isle of Youth, there is the Bee Hummingbird, which weighs in at 1.6 grams and is about 2-2.4 inches (5-6 cm) long.
If animals that only a few centimeters in size can be found in some pretty rough and unexplored areas of the world, then why can't anyone seem to find any of the cryptids that have been reported over the years?

This has been a fairly long article, so I'll just say, if you want to contact me, leave a comment (Please leave a comment. I'm lonely for internet company),

Until next time, Be Good, Be Fair, and Be Skeptical.

The Skeptical Okie

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