Decrypting Cryptozoology: The Science & Pseudoscience of Mythical Creatures

New book ‘Abominable Science!’ separates fact from fiction


Is Bigfoot real? What genus and species is the Loch Ness monster? What are the origins of the Yetti? All of these questions fall under the purview of cryptozoology. Literally translated from its Greek root, it means the study of hidden animals. The definition has been expanded to encompass a host of mythological animals including monsters spotted only in sci-fi novels or comic books.

In their new book Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, authors Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero break down the fact and fiction surrounding a fringe area of inquiry.

Both researchers approach the book from a skeptic’s point of view but they’re not quick to dismiss claims that these creatures could exist. Both have been hooked on the topic since childhood and as Prothero writes, “Scientists are not inherently negative sourpusses who want to rain on everyone else’s parade.” Though the book sometimes gets bogged down in details, the authors retain a childlike enthusiasm toward the topic. Here are the origin stories for three of the legendary beasts in the book:

Bigfoot: Most people imagine an ape-like creature that stands on two legs, but the original story of Bigfoot describes the creature quite differently. The first “sightings” of Bigfoot in North America occurred in the 1920s. A man named John W. Burns gathered reports from people of their encounters with a creature called Sasquatch, described as hairy giants who looked like giant Native Americans. They had clothes, fire, and weapons and lived in villages. And their hair? According to the stories it was not all over their bodies but worn very long.

The Yetti: Also referred to as the Abominable Snowman, the creature got its name from a team of explorers scouting a route for an attempt to climb Mount Everest in 1921. The team saw tracks that looked like a human foot. Though Lieutenant Colonel Charles Howard-Bury, the leader of the expedition, surmised that the footprints were caused by a large grey wolf, his Sherpa guides said that it was the tracks of a wild man whose kind were found in remote mountains. The first recorded sighting of a beast that fit the description of a Yetti happened more than 180 years ago when Brian Hodgson, an English explorer living in Nepal named, wrote that his shooters were alarmed by a wild man. However in the paper, which was published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, he also wrote that he doubted their accuracy.

The Loch Ness Monster: Three fishermen in 1933 looking for trout on the Loch Ness most likely reported the first sighting of “Nessie.” While fishing, they said they saw a beast 600 yards away that wriggled underwater and that they were “quite positive it couldn’t be a salmon.” The legend behind a water beast has been around for centuries. Scotland has a treasure trove of myths surrounding similar creatures such as the boobries (a giant carnivorous waterfowl), water-horses (lethal, shape-shifting demons found on land or in water), and kelpies (similar to water-horses but associated with running water). A fusion of these timeless folklores, in combination with the premiere of King Kong (which occurred just four days before the fishermen’s sighting) is what most likely created the modern day Loch Ness Monster.

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