|Researchers who stalk rare or fantastic creatures must endure the scorn of colleagues and funding agencies|
Physical anthropologist Grover Krantz sometimes fantasizes about flying his ultra-light aircraft over the Pacific Northwest on a warm spring day. Controls in one hand and an infrared heat detector in the other, Krantz scans the thawing ground-cover in search of the telltale heat of a rotting Bigfoot carcass. Bagging a body would be the ultimate evidence in a decades-old quest that has left the Washington State University professor an authority on Bigfoot, thought by some to be a surviving Pleistocene ape, Gigantopithecus blacki.
Krantz is a member of a small band of scientists called cryptozoologists, who stalk previously undescribed--and, some would say, nonexistent--animals. This includes new species of lizards, monkeys, and other ho-hum creatures, but also beasts of mythic proportion: Consider the Loch Ness Monster, a giant octopus with tentacles more than 100 feet long; or Mokele-Mbembe, a dinosaur-like critter and purported denizen of a 50,000-square- mile swamp in the People's Republic of the Congo.
The term "cryptozoology" was coined in the late 1950s by French zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans to describe the study of unverified animals. The purpose of the field, says J. Richard Greenwell, secretary of the Tucson, Ariz.-based International Society of Cryptozoology (ISC), is to determine if certain reported species exist and, if so, to "add them to our zoological inventories." Cryptozoologists obtain their leads from sighting reports, explorers' accounts, old manuscripts, archeological artifacts, artwork, and folklore, says Greenwell. Some society members have actually found previously undescribed creatures (see story on page 5).
Zoology was once essentially cryptozoology, Greenwell says; scientists in the colonies sent novel animals back to London and Paris. By the 19th century, some zoologists believed there was little of significance left to discover and turned to studying what was known. This attitude continues, Greenwell says, with cryptozoology viewed as almost a Victorian pursuit, even though new species are discovered all the time.
Is there a difference between zoology and its crypto counterpart? The primary one, says Greenwell, is that cryptozoologists target a specific animal, while zoologists tend to inventory a geographical area and catalog a new animal if it turns up. "Zoology throws a net," says Greenwell, "while cryptozoology throws a spear."
There are no academic departments of cryptozoology, and Greenwell sees no need for them, since the discipline draws specialists from existing fields as varied as biology, anthropology, and oceanography. Papers are published in Cryptozoology, the society's annual journal, a refereed publication edited by Greenwell.
Cryptozoologists are themselves an endangered species, with only several dozen active investigators, supported by several hundred more who follow their exploits. They more closely resemble the field biologists and zoologists of the 19th century, scientists who slogged through jungles to snare their quarry, than they do their largely lab-bound colleagues of today. They like their science down and dirty, and though they never bring back Bigfoot, they do bring back big tales.
To formalize their activities, in 1982 Greenwell--a Britisher who appears more at home in a bush jacket than a lab coat--along with Roy Mackal, now a professor, emeritus, of biochemistry at the University of Chicago, and several others, formed ISC. This transpired at a meeting hosted by the department of vertebrate zoology at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution. ISC, with more than 800 members worldwide, is the glue that holds cryptozoology together. Greenwell functions as its secretary and says, "I do whatever needs to be done."
And he means it. During a 1981 Mokele-Mbembe hunt in the Congo's Likouala swamps, the dry season was setting in, the water level was dropping, and ISC's Ph.D.-filled dugout canoe was hung up on submerged tree trunks, vines, and foliage, says Greenwell. Would they get out? While others pondered, Greenwell went over the side and dislodged the craft, on the first of many dips into the black, snake-infested waters. He got them out, but not before the swamp's exotic microorganisms got him. "I peed blood for a week," he says. Now that's cryptozoology.
But since finds are few and far between, the field is virtually unfunded. Greenwell says there is no government or corporate largess, so support must be raised from private sources. Krantz, for example, coughed up $10,000 of his own money for the infrared heat detector and another $3,000 for his ultra-light aircraft kit. He estimates, "I've spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 on Bigfoot over the years."
It exacts other costs, too. Since many scientists sneer at cryptozoology, it can sidetrack an academic career, making tenure and promotion almost as difficult to bag as the Loch Ness monster. Moreover, it can cast a pall over a scientist's more mainstream work. This reduces an investigator's credibility and isolates him or her from academic rewards. According to Krantz, his first attempt to obtain tenure was adversely affected by his Bigfoot research, and even with the backing of his department head he has failed to become a full professor. Why would anyone risk it?
"Because it's exciting to find a new species and trek to a place where no one has gone before," says Mackal. A biochemist by trade and a research biologist by appointment, Mackal first dived into Loch Ness Monster research in 1965, after visiting the loch as a skeptic. He wrote The Monsters of Loch Ness (Chicago, Swallow Press, 1976) and served as scientific director of the Scotland- based Loch Ness Investigation Bureau from 1965 until its demise in 1975, due to the loss of the lease to the land on which its headquarters stood.
The bureau was formed in the early 1960s by naturalist Sir Peter Scott (who also founded the World Wildlife Fund), naturalist Richard Fitter, and British Parliament member David James. It sponsored summer projects in which volunteers functioned as lookouts and photographers. One of Mackal's contributions was to raise the technological ante of the hunt by introducing sonar and mini-subs.
Mackal also has tracked other unknown animals and in 1987 penned A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-Mbembe (Leiden, The Netherlands, E.J. Brill). Based on local reports, Mackal believes some species of dinosaur may have survived more than 60 million years in Central Africa. "All we got were footprints, though," says Mackal, who made two journeys in quest of this legendary animal.
Instead of plowing his book royalties into pool payments, however, Mackal used them to seed expeditions, such as his 1988 trek to Namibia in search of "flying snakes," or pterasaurs. "It was nothing but anecdotes," he says. "Still, there's an excitement to cryptozoology if you love animals, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world." But he's paid a price.
Mackal has been laughed at by colleagues, has received antagonistic mail, and has been scorned in newspapers. In the late 1960s the National Science Foundation politely refused to fund his Loch Ness research. His University of Chicago credentials got him in the NSF door for this work, he says, but the fear of a "Golden Fleece Award" quickly got him ushered out. And he might not fare any better today. James Edwards, acting director of NSF's Division of Environmental Biology, hadn't heard of cryptozoology, but says that proposals geared toward going after a specific animal "would be a hard sell in the Survey and Inventory Program." NSF is interested in a more systemic approach, he says, "not just the spiders of Chile, but also their interactions with predators and prey."
Maybe NSF would be interested in Mackal's peers. "I was also eventually kicked out of the biology department at the University of Chicago," says Mackal, although he was able to fall back on a position as director of the Office of Energy, Management, and Conservation in the office of university president George Beadle. A former colleague at Chicago, paleontologist Leigh Van Valen, says that he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the department to keep Mackal. "It was purely and simply a matter of them not liking his work in cryptozoology," says Van Valen. Even so, says Mackal, "I loved the conflict, but you have to have a certain personality for it."
Perhaps because her involvement has been less extensive, Christine Janis, a Brown University paleomammologist who confesses to having a fascination with fringe science, has had fewer problems. Janis is an ISC member because she has a genuine interest in the subject and feels "that's reward enough--you do things because they amuse you." In that vein, she recently wrote a paper for Cryptozoology defending the hypothesis that a breeding population of dinosaurs could still exist in Central Africa. Although Janis took some flak from colleagues, she says, "while it [a breeding population of dinosaurs] would be unlikely, we don't know that it's untrue."
Cryptozoologists seem to be drawn to such long shots. In 1989 Greenwell accompanied Ohio State University physical anthropologist Frank Poirier to China in an attempt to track down the "Wildman." Like Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest, the Wildman is periodically sighted in the outback, but never captured or shot. True to form, they didn't bag a Wildman, but the reports they collected, says Greenwell, are consistent with the hypothesis of a surviving population of giant Pleistocene orangutans, thought to be extinct for thousands of years.
Poirier has done fieldwork in Africa and Asia and has found reports of animals by indigenous peoples to be of great value in his conventional research. He feels that the dismissal of indigenous reports of undescribed animals "is nothing other than racism--you know, comments like `What would this native know?' " He points out that when gorillas were first reported in Africa, Europeans "just totally dismissed those reports." And this keeps him looking.
A full professor, Poirier says he's beyond academic reprisals, but would advise a graduate student not to get involved in cryptozoology. Although he says his colleagues have told him they find his work fascinating, "people have talked a lot behind my back."
Less controversial is the research of Villanova University herpetologist Aaron Bauer, discoverer of the giant gecko, a New Zealand lizard and true cryptozoological find. Although this research is unfunded, Bauer's mainstream interest in lizards allows him to "piggyback" his cryptozoological work. Intellectual curiosity keeps him plugging. Since there isn't much material reward in academia, says Bauer, "you might as well branch off into something that interests you." His colleagues view his work as eccentric, he says, but, unlike Krantz, he hasn't experienced any career setbacks.
Krantz, who has been an associate professor of physical anthropology since 1972, says his first attempt to obtain tenure was adversely affected by his Bigfoot research and that he will never become a full professor "because my work is too controversial." What keeps him going? "I can't, in clear conscience, drop it," he says. And then there is always the tantalizing possibility that some hunter will bring down a Bigfoot.
"Bingo, I'm vindicated," says Krantz.
Paul McCarthy is a freelance writer based in Honolulu, Hawaii.