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.
"The field as a whole may have a general perception of being a little on the fringe," says Michael Morales, a paleontologist who heads up the Museum of Northern Arizona's geology department and who is a member of the ISC. "In some ways, it's analogous to the field of UFOs. There's bona fide research into UFOs, and there are people on the other end who just want to make money or have notoriety. Cryptozoology has that same range of people working in it."
Stuffier zoologists sometimes gripe that their crypto cousins concentrate on big, impressive animals while forsaking other less-glamorous species. While several million (some say as many as 20 million) species of insects go undiscovered and undocumented, cryptozoologists spend their days discussing such high-profile creatures as Nessie and Sasquatch, the strolling monkeywoman of the Pacific Northwest.
Greenwell answers by explaining that his society's human-knowledge requirement tends to rule bugs out. Most of those 20 million insects really don't fall under the auspices of cryptozoology. "An aboriginal tribe or native tribe somewhere is not going to have mythologies based on different kinds of ants," says Greenwell.
@body:The society's 1982 founding came when Greenwell, Roy Mackal and French mammalogist Bernard Heuvelmans got fed up with sensational press treatment of their work. Mackal is a former University of Chicago virology professor who now consults for the San Diego Zoo and is a specialist on Nessie of Loch Ness.
First Mackal polled about 100 respected scientists in various related fields. "For everyone who supported me," he says today, "I could count ten who said, 'Mackal's gone over the edge.'"
The men persisted, and have provided their colleagues with an all-important forum. The society prints an annual journal, in which the world's cryptozoologists can publish the results of their research. The journal is peer-reviewed and carries a long listing of the society's board members.
Cryptozoologists now have class, or at least some standing among the scientific community. Which is not to say that all of the society's leading lights have adopted the stuffy approach.
Co-founder Mackal, a water-monster specialist who believes that research subjects like Nessie and Caddy (a sea monster fabled to live off Canada's Pacific coast) are "primitive whales," also claims to have seen Mokele-Mbembe, Africa's fabled surviving dinosaur.
Mackal's search for this mythological whopper was co-opted by the Disney film company, and somehow twisted into the 1985 movie Baby--Secret of the Lost Legend. The movie's true colors are revealed in the opening sequence, in which the lead-scientist character--presumably Mackal--stabs his rival to steal some mysterious photos.
Mackal saw his dinosaur on a 1981 expedition. His party was rounding a bend in a river when he glimpsed something large and unusual quickly submerge.
"If this great creature had taken off my left arm, I would've often looked at that stump with a great pleasure," he says.
@body:The best candidate to be this era's coelacanth, Greenwell speculates, probably will not be a giant African river lizard. More likely someone will track down an all-new primate or a big cat, the kind of solitary, stealthy, nocturnal species that either lives in a very remote area or has learned to hide from man, or both.
Greenwell adds that it could come from a half-dozen different spots around the supposedly shrinking globe. There are places in Africa no Western man has yet seen. (A recent Time magazine cover story recounts a trip to just such a spot.) Asia and Siberia have vast tracts of remote, underpopulated territory. Most of Australia is uninhabited.
It's true that the world's population is growing wildly, he says, and might hit ten billion not long after the turn of the century. But most of those new humans will live in cities. The still-undisturbed wilderness will remain mostly undisturbed for some time to come.
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And there is a club of adventurers, based in Tucson, ready to explore those lands.
"I think there are a lot of really remote areas where stuff can be found still," he says. "I've been to them. I know."
Not too far back in time, meteors were a scientific impossibility, and gorillas were mythological animals. But peasants in villages kept insisting that rocks were falling from the sky and that giant monkeys were hiding in the jungle. When the peasants finally won over the scientists, man's view of the solar system--as well as his view of his own place in it--was forever improved.
"Now meteorites are very normal things," Greenwell says. "You don't hear anyone saying meteorites are nonsense. But at one time, meteorites were impossible. For all intents and purposes, they didn't exist. Now they exist. . . . Reality didn't change. What changed was our perception of reality."
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