The Creatures Between Myth and Reality

By Sarah Czarnecki

The line between fact and fiction is blurry. Countless mythical and folkloric creatures have been discovered to exist in the real world, leading scientists and skeptics to reconsider their prejudices.

 

The burden of proof lies with the believers, not the skeptics, so it is justifiable that most people are reluctant to believe in cryptids. Cryptids straddle the line between known creatures and mythical beasts, and the line is frequently crossed. Mythological creatures are often used as a metaphor in storytelling, excluding them from the realm of possibility. Cryptids, however, are based on biological creatures, but over time, some have been exaggerated to the point that they’ve sparked debate and doubt. Few people doubt that there could be new, undiscovered species of beetle, but belief in the Mothman is scant.

 

Why the reluctance to believe in rumored creatures? Many storied creatures, unrecognized by modern science, have unofficial evidence pointing to their existence. Bigfoot is a famous example, and Sasquatches like this exist in stories around the world. Massive reclusive ape-men have been rumored to exist everywhere from the Pacific Northwest to the Australian Outback to the Himalayas. Gorillas were once cast aside as cryptids, just like Bigfoot, until they were officially documented at the turn of the 20th century. Is it wise, then, to categorically discard all reported Sasquatches, just because they’re hard to imagine?

 

It’s important to note that native and indigenous peoples have identified and understood many creatures considered cryptids until Western biologists laid eyes on them. Skepticism is vital to following the scientific method faithfully and accurately, but until the 20th century, European naturalists unkindly distrusted anything that had only been observed by locals or amateurs. An informal sighting does not necessarily mean that a creature is a hoax; some animals are just unbelievable. If it weren’t for direct scientific observation, who would have believed in some of the bizarre deep sea fish that we know to exist? If Western scientists hadn’t seen a real live platypus, it would have been tossed aside as a practical joke.

 

Unfortunately, the classification of animals as "real" or "imaginary" frequently lay in the hands of 19th century European scientists. They did not believe, for example, in the existence of the okapi, although the animals were well-catalogued by Africans. The level of trust was quite low. Today, scientists are more open-minded to academic study from non-Western scientists and unofficial observers. Despite this, the level of skepticism is even higher today than it was in the 19th century. Science is often considered the final word, and although this has led to incredible advancements and technologies, there is still so much to learn.

 

Some animals that we now know to exist have clear links to animals that are considered cryptozoological. Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, and the Kraken all bring to mind an image of something that couldn’t possibly exist, but there is hard proof that this isn’t necessarily the case. Countless animals exist in folklore, dubbed cryptozoological by skeptics, then uncovered as extant thanks to modern science. Could some of the more dubious cryptozoological creatures simply be reclusive? Only thorough inquiry will tell.

 

Sea Serpents, Krakens, & Giant Squids

 

We did not see a confirmed photograph of the giant squid until 1998, and the first video surfaced only in 2012. Occasional squid beaks were found in the stomachs of sperm whales, and portions of the squids washed ashore, but it wasn’t until 2004 that a complete specimen was collected and submitted for scientific study.

 

A thousand-pound 40-foot squid is hard to believe, but the stories have been in existence since the days of Aristotle at least. The Kraken is a Norse folkloric monster which nearly meets the description of the giant squid. What a surprise, then, when the giant squid was proven to exist! Naturally, the Kraken’s size was exaggerated, but only a little. The mythical beast was described as the size of an island and capable of taking down ships to eat the crew. Of course, known giant squids eat deep sea fish, not ships, but the myths were not that far off the mark.

 

Could there be something bigger? In fact, there is an even larger squid: the colossal squid is even larger in scale than the giant squid. This species was discovered even more recently than its giant cousin. What is to say that the colossal squid is the largest squid in the sea? Are there species even more Kraken-like in the deep sea? There may be.

 

Tales of sea serpents undulating in the surf have been a staple of fairy tales and folklore for centuries. Described as aquatic snakes or dragons of incredible length, oarfish spark the imagination. But, as it happens, sea serpents were positively identified in the 1700s and are a relatively common sight. Oarfish are outstanding deep sea fishes which move like snakes through the water and occasionally come to the surface, revealing their 25-foot bodies. These beautiful silvery blue fish with fabulous markings and bright red dorsal fins understandably reminded seamen of serpents and dragons. Oarfish are the largest known bony fish, but with only a tiny fraction of the ocean catalogued, there are incredible possibilities of even bigger sea serpents.

Unicorns, Saola, & Okapis

 

The unicorn. A mythical horse of unsurpassed beauty and magical powers and a distinctive golden horn in the center of its forehead. Naturally, the unicorn’s magical qualities are highly unlikely, but the existence of other unicorns is not out of the realm of possibility.

 

Horned animals are well-known to exist. Of course we are familiar with goats, rhinoceros, and even the narwhal, but have yet to positively identify a unicorn. Still, there are extant species alive today that are extremely close to the definition of unicorns. The stories of unicorns have been around for centuries, and evolution moves creatures in strange directions. Could new species have diverged from the unicorn of antiquity?

 

The saola, or Vu Quang Ox, is an incredibly rare forest-dwelling antelope that lives in Vietnam. It has two long, straight horns that grow very close together, and from a distance - as the Vu Quang ox is always observed - it would be easy to believe the horns are fused as one. It picks delicately through the underbrush, moving with a silent grace. Could the saola be a modern unicorn? Western scientists have never been able to directly observe the saola, and have only officially documented the animal in the wild four times. Since they have remained nearly unobserved in an official capacity, they are only one step ahead of cryptids. Are we, in fact, just a hair’s breadth away from the discovery of a descendant of the unicorn?

 

Giraffes would certainly not have been believed if they hadn’t been seen by Western eyes. Who would have believed a 20-foot tall “horse” with spots and a two-foot tongue roamed the savannah? And indeed, this was the case with the okapi. Okapis, which are the only living relatives of the giraffe, live in Africa and are almost as reclusive as their Vietnamese cousins. They were long considered cryptozoological “jungle horses” as some sort of zebra-giraffe hybrid. Pelts were sent back for study, but okapi johnstoni wasn’t named until 1901, despite its image existing in architectural facades for millennia. Cryptozoological, they were not.

 

Dragons, Monitors, & Dinosaurs

 

Unlike sea serpents or sasquatches, dragons are widely classified as mythical with no biological basis. Few cryptozoologists believe that with enough research, they could uncover a nest of dragons anywhere in the world. One reason for this is that their size is simply too big. Yes, massive size is one of the requirements for cryptids, but dragons, which are often described as being the size of a building or larger, are simply too large to be taken seriously.

 

But this begs the question - why, then, are they classified so differently from dinosaurs? Every schoolchild learns about "terrible lizards" in their textbooks. Some have even visited the assembled skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. They're incredibly similar to the dragon myths.

The scale of both dinosaurs and dragons is colossal. Unbelievable, almost.

 

Presented with the evidence of dinosaurs' existence, is it possible that the myths surrounding dragons have a reasonable basis? Tales of old describe dragons and dinosaurs in nearly the same way: monstrous lizard-like creatures with rows and rows of vicious teeth, long sweeping necks, heavy muscular tails, and a lumbering stride. However, the difference is that European dragons were described as being winged beasts of reasonable intelligence that were able to breathe fire. These things, of course, are highly unlikely and are probably part of the tall tale.

 

But perhaps ancient paleontologists stumbled upon dinosaur fossils. From the skull of a dinosaur, it's not much of a leap to invent a dragon. And perhaps, if we keep digging, we will find a terrible lizard with wings. Would we then reconsider the existence of dragons? Would they be reclassified from mythical to cryptozoological?

 

It seems fantastic that dragons and dinosaurs could be one and the same, but consider the Komodo dragon. This Indonesian lizard is over 10 feet in length and has a venomous bite. It attacks large prey, viciously ripping it to shreds and has been known to kill humans. It looks like a dinosaur and until 1910, it was believed to be a myth. Of course, to native Indonesians, it was a well-known inhabitant of Komodo Island. Rumors of the “dragon” spread to Westerners and what was described as a fire-breathing beast over twenty feet long was immediately dismissed. The stories were exaggerated, of course, and real Komodo dragons - a variety of monitor lizard - are significantly smaller than described, yet it still holds the title for the largest lizard in the world.

 

Why, then, is it so impossible to believe massive lizards like dragons roamed the Earth when we have skeletons right in front of us? Certainly the creatures we know as dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago and did not coexist with humans, but isn’t it possible that the stories of the missing link between dinosaurs and monitor lizards could have some truth to them?

Scientific Reluctance

 

There is so much of the world left to be explored. It’s presumptuous to believe scientists have already explained everything away, and stubborn to deny the possibility that there could be any truth in cryptids.

 

Only 5% of the ocean has been thoroughly explored and only 1% of species living in the Amazonian rain forest have been catalogued. Hundreds of new species are identified every year! In 2020 alone, a beautiful iridescent snake, a tiny frog only 1cm in length, a bizarre comb jellyfish, and the adorable greater glider were added to lists of known species, not to mention countless insects, plants, and less-fantastical animals.

 

Extinct creatures are re-discovered all the time, too. After 50 years without a sighting, the New Guinea Singing Dog was re-discovered - alive - only a few years ago. Even more incredibly, the coelacanth was declared extinct over 65 million years ago, but is now known to live quite happily deep in the West Indian Ocean. A primate and a frog, once believed to be extinct, were both re-discovered this year. The list of these so-called Lazarus taxa is potentially endless.

 

There is so much that we still don't know. Keeping an open mind to the possibility - no, certainty - of new and incredible species is imperative to healthy discovery. Maintaining a willingness to investigate the bizarre and fringe will undoubtedly open the door to incredible research. Scientific discovery is endless. There are still mysteries in the world. Why not believe in the unbelievable?

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