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Late in 1938, a funny new fish was hauled aboard a trawler working the Cape coast of South Africa. Once back at dockside, the ship's captain notified the curator at the local natural-history museum. Unable to identify the catch of the day, the curator tossed the blue fish into a taxi and hauled it back to work, where it was preserved. The fish was eventually identified as a coelacanth, a species believed to predate the dinosaurs. The last known coelacanth fossil was 60 million years old.
Although 14 years went by before another specimen was found--about 200 have been reeled in since--the coelacanth (pronounced SEE-le-kanth) was considered the zoological find of the century. It was, in essence, a living dinosaur.
Today, members of the International Society of Cryptozoology, a loose collection of scientists who delight in weird animals that may not exist, eagerly await the next coelacanth.
Crypto comes from kryptos, Greek for secret, hidden, spooky. Cryptozoologists journey out to discover animals that people have heard about but never have seen or captured.
The best-known examples of cryptozoological prey are the society's "stars," celebrity wanna-beasts like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. But there are lots of lesser mystery animals that are targets, too.
In this general geographical area, society members have been looking into reports of the onza, a big, vicious cat known only to rural Mexicans which has yet to be officially classified as a species. Other cryptozoologists have been looking into Paradise Valley reports of the bipes, a ten-inch lizard that has never been captured outside its known homeland, also Mexico.
The epicenter of this exotic society's business affairs is not a private club in London. It is not a dusty bone lab at an Ivy League school. It is instead a humble, tin-roofed office building a few minutes north of the University of Arizona campus.
The society is based in Tucson because J. Richard Greenwell likes it there. The group's secretary and one of its founders, Greenwell got to know the city as a research coordinator at the university's interdisciplinary Arid Lands Project.
Now he fields reports from the society's 1,000 or so members. These reports tell of giant, enigmatic sea creatures, living dinosaurs, hairy beasts of all kinds. Should the call come for Greenwell himself to venture out and join the hunt--to the Congo, say, or the jungles of Mexico--he is ready. Although his work consists largely of editing the society's publications and maintaining membership lists, Greenwell arrives to work wearing what appears to be full safari dress.
Greenwell has stood on all continents save Antarctica and has lived for years at a time in the jungles of South America. "I've been to all the big monster lakes," he says, referring to the many bodies of water around the globe that are said to hold cryptic creatures. "Sometimes just on vacation, to get a handle on what's there."
@body:A cryptozoological quest, either to a monster lake or someplace less exotic, begins at human information and ends--the cryptozoologist hopes--at a specimen.
An undiscovered animal can catch the society's attention a number of ways. Maybe the beast is mentioned in a culture's folklore or mythology. The onza, for example, is well-known to ranch hands and villagers in Sinaloa and Sonora, who scoff at visitors who doubt its existence. Though the animal isn't quite real in science's eyes, it is as real to the Mexicans as your neighbor's pit bull is to you.
In some cases, the focus of cryptozoological investigation has been sighted but has not built up much in the way of a legend. The bipes, the tiny, blind, goofy-looking Mexican lizard, has been spotted as far away as Kansas.
For an animal to qualify for a cryptozoologist's concern, humans must know and care about it, or at least suspect that it exists.
The meat of cryptozoology is assembling evidence of existence. The cryptozoologist's ultimate goal is to obtain a specimen of the animal in question--dead, or, preferably, alive--but there are many steps along that path.
Whole expeditions are launched by a few unusual footprints, or an odd tuft of hair. Among the more famous bits of cryptozoological evidence was a 16-millimeter color movie, which appears to star a female Bigfoot-type creature striding through the woods of northern California.
Once in the field, interviews with natives are a popular investigative technique. This technique is not foolproof. Some natives--like those in Loch Ness, for example--have learned to love the tourist dollars their mystery creature generates, and might look unfavorably on any conclusively negative findings.
"Once we discover an animal, it immediately becomes zoological," says Greenwell. "We hand it over to the zoologists. Our job's done."
@body:Cryptozoologists, Greenwell explains, consider their field a subdiscipline of zoology, although some zoologists would pucker at the thought. Lake monsters and abominable snowmen are a tad too whimsical for many sober academicians. The two fields, Greenwell is certain, are separate yet complementary.
"The main difference between zoology and cryptozoology is, in zoology you go out and do a survey of an area and collect what's there," Greenwell says. "You throw out a net, haul it in, and, lo and behold, there's a new fish, a new species. It's hit and miss. The cryptozoologist takes a totally different approach. You target a specific animal you suspect is there, based on that previous human information. It's much more specific. It's not throwing out a net. It's throwing a spear."
Anyone can join the society by sending $30 to Greenwell's Tucson office--about half of the society's members have advanced degrees, says Greenwell.