Saturday, January 20, 2018

Thunderbird Photo- Arizona

In 1886 a most unusual photograph appeared in an issue of the Tombstone Epitaph, the local newspaper of Tombstone, AZ. The photo depicted the carcass of a gigantic, leather-winged, knife-beak monster nailed to the side of a barn. Several men stood in front of it to show just how wide its wingspan was. According to European settler folklore of the Southwest, the creature was a Thunderbird- a being from the mythologies of many Native American nations that was said to create thunder with its wingbeats. Thunderbird or not, the creature also bore a striking resemblance to a prehistoric pterosaur and may, according to some, have been a living example of the group. Supposedly the animal in the photo had been shot by ranchers.

Many people believe they have seen a version of this mysterious picture somewhere, either in a magazine or on TV. But no one can say exactly where and when. And despite diligent searching, no one has yet been able to find the original photograph or even the copy of the issue of Epitaph that it supposedly appeared in. Has the photo been completely lost to history? Or is it possible that it never even existed? Perhaps the Thunderbird photo was just an urban legend. But then how could so many people recall having seen it?

 For one thing, it is quite possible that some people are actually recalling one of the numerous fake Thunderbird photos that have cropped up over the years. Photos produced either for movies, as attempts to recreate the alleged original, or as outright hoaxes.  

It’s also possible that people are hearing the legend and unconsciously attaching vague memories of some other picture they have seen. The image of a gigantic winged monster nailed to a barn is quite striking and evocative, so perhaps human minds have simply filled in their own ideas of what it looks like. In psychology, this is called confabulation, defined as the unconscious creation of distorted, fabricated or misinterpreted memories. In pop culture, this is also referred to as the “Mandela effect”, based on the false memory many people have of Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s. As another example, many people claimed to recall a kid’s movie from the 1990s starring comedian Sinbad as a genie named Shazam (this confabulation has been made murkier by the creation of a spoof scene from this non-existent movie, which you can see here). Or the fact that people can remember the title of the children’s book series The Berenstain Bears as being spelled “Berenstein”. Memory is malleable and spotty. The brain will often fill in blank spots with its own concoctions. So in the case of the elusive Thunderbird photo, it may be that many people’s brains are simply taking a brief glimpse of a fake Thunderbird photo- or a photo of something else entirely- and welding it to the urban legend that has been built up over the years?

It’s significant that this report of a flying monster is not an isolated incident. Newspapers of the 1800s- particularly papers from the American West- were rife with tales of dragons and other flying beasts. The majority of these tales were outright fabrications designed to drum up sales during a slump. It’s quite possible that the Thunderbird story started off as one of these tall tales and was repeated over the years until it fell into collective memory, creating an air of mystery and authenticity.

As to the picture of the beast on the barn itself, it should be noted that newspapers of the late 1800s did not actually use photographs since the technology of the time could not do photo transfers to cheap paper stock. Instead, newspapers relied on drawings of events to illustrate their stories.  If there ever actually was an original Thunderbird photo, it more than likely did not come from a newspaper.


Sunday, January 7, 2018

Another Cryptid Culture article

Hey folks! Sorry it's been a while. I've had a lot going on these past few months. But in the new year I'm focusing on posting state cryptids on a more consistent and timely schedule. 

In the meantime, here's another article I wrote for Cryptid Culture magazine! This time I focused on a somewhat more abstract concept- the Shadow Biosphere. In essence, this idea posits that there may be microbial life on Earth with a completely different chemical and genetic structure from currently known life forms. They could have different enzymes and proteins, different cellular building blocks, even a completely novel way of storing genetic information that isn't based on DNA. Researchers wouldn't be able to detect such strange organisms because our current tools for identifying microbe species relies on analyzing DNA and other molecular structures that are common to all known Earthly life. So a microbe with a different molecular structure wouldn't be picked out by our current technology. It's a fascinating concept.

A Shadow Biosphere might have evolved if life arose multiple times on the early Earth- which isn't really that strange of a concept. There were plenty of places where early organic molecules could have come together and "cooked" into living organisms.  Life could have arisen in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, in sea spray or in warm tidal pools, three places that I've illustrated here and in my article.

Early life forming near a deep-sea hydrothermal vent.

Early life forming in sea spray rich with organic particles

Early life forming in a warm tidepool under a lightning-filled sky.

In addition to my article, Issue 7 also has articles on the Flatwoods Monster, Alaskan cryptids, Native American legends of "red-haired giants", cryptid poetry and more.

You can get the latest issue of Cryptid Culture magazine here.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Megalonyx- Tennessee

In the summer of 2016, a group of people were taking an evening walk through the woods behind their property in Jasper, Tennesse when they stumbled across a strange, hairy quadruped. That may not seem remarkable at first- especially in a place where coyotes and bears are not uncommon. But this creature was unusual because it had what appeared to be a human-like face. The report of the encounter is vague on exactly how humanoid the creature’s visage was, nor does it state what happened once the people saw it, but the animal was said to have wandered away into the woods shortly after being seen. A few months later a spelunker claimed to have seen a similar small hairy creature crawling up the wall of a cave. Given the shortness of both encounters, along with the poor lighting in each case, the most likely explanation for both beasts is misidentification of a mundane bear, dog or other animal.

But what if these creatures truly were something unknown? What could they possibly have been? How about a large, cave-dwelling sloth? Little more than 10,000 years ago Tennessee- most of North America, in fact- was home to a variety of large mammals collectively called megafauna. These included mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed cats and several species of giant ground sloths. The most well known of these latter animals was Megalonyx, an animal originally described and named by Thomas Jefferson, who was as much a naturalist as he was a statesman.  Megalonyx is believed to have died off along with the other megafauna as the glaciers retreated from America and human beings spread across the continent. But what if a small relict population survived?

The majority of Tennessee’s bedrock is made of limestone, which is readily eroded by rainwater. As a result, the state is riddled with sinkholes and caves that would provide ample hiding space for a small group of sloths.

There is evidence that several species of giant sloths did inhabit caves at least part of the time.  For decades local people in Brazil have been aware of massive, deep tunnels running through the jungle. The walls of these tunnels are covered in long, deep rows of four parallel gouges. For many years the source of these odd caves was a mystery. Were these made by human tools? Were they some strange effect of erosion?   Last year researchers finally figured out that the most likely makers were giant sloths.

Exactly why ground sloths inhabited caves or dug burrows is still not known. Their thick hides and intimidating claws would have deterred most predators, so it’s unlikely the burrows were for protection. At least for the adults. Maybe the caves protected the more vulnerable young? Or maybe the sloths wandered into the earth to obtain essential salts and minerals much as elephants today will enter caves and dig at the walls to extract the nutrient-rich clays. Regardless of why prehistoric ground sloths inhabited caves, today,  this troglodytic habit would be an excellent way for a small population of surviving sloths to remain hidden from humans.

But why think that the creatures seen in Tennessee were surviving Megalonyx? Admittedly, the encounters were so brief and in such bad lighting that it is difficult to say exactly what the witnesses saw.  The only real hints are the animal’s odd human-like face. The face of a living tree sloth is blunt and fairly simple and could be said to be somewhat humanoid, at least compared to the prominent muzzle of most mammals. Megalonyx had a much deeper, wider skull than its tree-dwelling cousins, but its face was probably similar. It’s not hard to imagine that such an odd visage glimpsed in the late evening or in the gloom of a cave might create a much more humanoid impression.

The Tennessee beast is not the only potential surviving ground sloth. Legends from Brazil and Bolivia speak of the Mapinguari, a large red-furred jungle beast with thick, bullet-proof skin, massive claws, backward-facing feet, a single eye, and a large mouth in its stomach. While the more fanciful elements are difficult to explain scientifically- and may be nothing more than embellishments- the red fur and tough skin do match up with preserved pieces of ground sloth hide that have been found throughout South America. In addition to possessing reddish-brown hair, these samples also have ossicles- small disks of bone embedded in the dermis- that would have made the animal’s skin difficult to pierce.

Stories of another possible (though admittedly unlikely) population of surviving ground sloths comes from the far North. According to some cryptozoologists, various Indigenous peoples of the Yukon in Canada have legends of the Saytoechin or Beaver-Eater. This beast is described as being larger than a grizzly bear and possessing huge claws that it uses to rip open beaver dams in order to prey on the inhabitants. Admittedly, the connection between the Saytoechin to ground sloths is scanty.  The only reason the two are linked at all is because local people, when shown a book of prehistoric animals, picked out the large sloth Megatherium as resembling the Saytoechin. This cryptid’s carnivorous habits also cast doubt on its xenarthran (the taxonomic group that includes sloths, armadillos, and anteaters) identity. Even so, it is an intriguing bit of speculative mythology.


Saturday, August 19, 2017

Another Cryptid Culture article!

Hey everyone, I've got an article in the latest issue of Cryptid Culture magazine! This time I talk about the strange, dragon like being depicted on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon known as the Mushussu (pronounced "mush-hush-shu"), more commonly known as the Sirrush.

This issue also features articles about Pepie, the monster of Lake Pepin, plus some sweet cryptid action figures, and lots more!

Get it here

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Wallowa Lake Creatures- Oregon

Thousands of years ago massive glaciers covered the land that is today called Oregon. As these rivers of ice made their centuries-long trek across the land, they gouged up soil and stone and piled the debris up at their leading edges to create huge earth ridges called moraines. If these moraines were built up high enough in the right locations, they would become dams that trapped water from the melting glacier, creating large cold and clear lakes. Such was the genesis of Wallowa Lake in Oregon.

In historical times the area around the lake was inhabited by the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce Native American tribe. When Europeans settlers came to the area, the lands around the lake were set aside for the Nez Perce through a Treaty. As you can probably guess, sadly, this Treaty was quickly broken once gold was discovered in the West in the 1860s. Tensions between settlers and the Wallowa led to violence. Rather than submit to European standards of justice, the Nez Perce, led by Chiefs Joseph, Looking Glass, White Bird and others, left their ancestral home around the lake and tried to flee to Montana to join the Crow. In the end, though, they were harried by the U.S. military and forced to settle in Oklahoma, though they were eventually allowed to settle in the Colville reservation in Washington.

The first recorded account of a monster in Wallowa Lake comes from an 1885 article in the Wallowa Chieftain, which gave an account from an unnamed gold prospector who claimed to have seen a long-necked beast with a flat head gliding through the water near his boat. Sporadic sightings of the creature continued for decades after. Eyewitnesses described the animal as resembling a Chinese dragon or a black, hump-backed serpent. In time the enigmatic creature was given the affectionate nickname “Wally”.

Wally is allegedly not the only cryptid in Wallowa Lake, however. Scattered folktales from early settlers speak of gigantic crabs or lobsters that would crawl out of the lake to seize cattle and pull them into the depths. These monster crustaceans have not been seen in over a hundred years, so it is likely that they have gone extinct. If they ever even existed in the first place.

An Ice Worm (Mesenchytraeus solifugus). From the North Cascade Glacier CLimate Project

Like most of my lake monsters, I wanted to avoid making Wally into the typical long-necked serpent or modern-day plesiosaur. Instead, I drew on Wallowa Lake’s glacial origin as inspiration for the beast’s identity. Glaciers of Northwestern America are home to an unusual creature called an ice worm (Mesenchytraeus solifugus). These tiny, black, hair-like crawlers are annelids, part of the same phylum that includes common earthworms along with leeches and the famous giant tube worms found on hydrothermal vents. During the day ice worms inhabit tiny channels within the ice and emerge at night to scour the glacier’s surface for algae, pollen and other bits of food. Unique enzymes and other proteins in the worms’ bodies allow them to survive in the freezing temperatures of the ice fields. They are, in fact, so specialized to this extreme environment that heating them to even 40 degrees Fahrenheit will cause the worms to literally melt.

I imagined Wally- or rather, Wallys, since there would have to be a small population of these creatures- to be gigantic descendents of Mesenchytraeus. Being a cold glacially-derived lake, Wallowa does not have much life in it. Algae is scarce, making the water remarkably clear. Fish and aquatic insects are also sparse. The Wallys thus live on the bottom, slowly burrowing through the muck to feed on bacteria and other microorganisms. Why they occasionally come to the surface, and why they have grown so big compared to their ice worm ancestors, is unknown.

And what of the giant crustaceans? For my version, I imagined that they too are descended from inhabitants of the vanished glaciers. Rather than being true crabs or lobsters, they are actually gigantic copepods. Copepods (oar-foot in Greek, so named because of the way they row through the water using their legs and long antennae) are a diverse group of arthropods that are typically distinguished by an armored, tear-drop shaped body and a single large eye in the front of the head.
The surface of a glacier is often pockmarked by small, deep pools of water known as cryoconite holes. These holes form when dark dust or other debris settles on the ice and raises the temperature of the surface immediately underneath it (since black and other dark colors absorb more heat than the surrounding white ice) and causes it to melt. Cryoconite holes are mini-ecosystems unto themselves, and are home to a huge diversity of bacteria, protists, worms, water bears, tiny insects and, of course, copepods.

My version of the folklore monster “crabs” were descended from prehistoric glacial copepods that were deposited in the lake. Like true crabs, they were scavengers and would eat anything they could find. They even made the occasional forays onto land in their search for food. In my version, however, tales of them attacking cattle are exaggerations. The Wallowa crustaceans were, in truth, docile animals that would occasionally approach cattle out of curiosity- or perhaps to get at that tasty nutrient-filled manure that the cows conveniently left all around the lake shore.   


Indian Legends from the Northern Rockies by Ella E. Clark

The Historical Atlas of Native Americans by Dr. Ian Barnes

Friday, April 21, 2017

Giant Space Clams- Nevada

In popular culture UFOs are assumed to be artificial crafts piloted by extraterrestrial beings. But what if the truth of these anomalies is even weirder? What if they are themselves living creatures?

In the October 1959 issue of Flying Saucer magazine, a letter appeared from an anonymous reader- later claimed by various sources to be named Don Wood Jr.- detailing his encounter with a bizarre pair of otherworldly creatures on top of a Nevada mesa in 1925. According to Wood, he and three other men were flying a set of Curtiss JN-4 airplanes- commonly known as “Jennies”- over the desert. The men decided to touch down on top of a mesa to explore the landscape. They had not been on the ground long when a red disk, 8 feet in diameter, descended slowly from the sky. As the strange object touched down, Wood and his colleagues realized that it was some sort of animal. It appeared to be “breathing” by raising its top half up and down, creating a six-inch opening all along the rim in a manner that Wood likened to a clam opening and closing its shell. A large chunk had been bitten out of the creature’s side, and its body oozed a metallic-looking froth.  After about twenty minutes of rest, the animal began to glow bright red and attempted to float up into the air. Its injuries were apparently too severe, however, because it quickly sank back down.

As the stunned men watched the creature, a shadow fell over them. They looked up to find an even larger disk-shaped being floating down from the sky. This one ignored Wood and his companions as it settled over the injured creature and latched onto it with four sucker-tipped tentacles. In a burst of speed, the newcomer flew straight up with its smaller counterpart in tow and vanished into the sky. Whether the larger disk was helping or attempting to eat the other creature, Wood could not say.

The idea that UFOs could be living creatures, rather than extraterrestrial crafts, has been proposed by several paranormal researchers. Proponents of this theory point to the way many of these objects appear to dance around or chase each other in a manner akin to animals playing. Others have cited the appearance of “star jelly”- strange, apparently organic slime-  falling from the sky or being found on the ground after a flurry of UFO activity (I do need to point out, however, that many samples of star jelly have, in fact, turned out to be slime molds, colonies of Nostoc bacteria, bird vomit and other Earthly biological substances. So this line of evidence is rather dubious).

Author Trevor James Constable believed that many if not all, UFOs were actually gigantic, amoebae-like organisms that were normally invisible to the human eye. Using infrared photo filters, he claimed to have taken hundreds of pictures of these creatures completely filling the skies over Earth.*  Other people have also claimed to witness bizarre, organic-looking beings, collectively known as atmospheric beasts- drifting through the sky at high altitudes.

Constable's aerial amoebae, or "critters" as he called them.

A fairly recent phenomenon may be further evidence of these supposed atmospheric beasts. Within the last few decades, several people have reported sighting what appear to be flying manta rays. The creatures are usually described as being flat gray and translucent, with large fin-like wings, but no discernible heads, tails or limbs. Are these creatures related to Woods’ flying clams? Are both perhaps part of an unseen aerial ecosystem existing miles above our heads much like the “air jungles” of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Horror of the Heights (which I’ve talked about before here)?

*On a personal note, I’m not a fan of Constable’s book, The Sky Creatures: Living UFOS. While some of his ideas are intriguing, he spends the vast majority of the book just ranting and raving about how the scientific establishment is “terrified” of his findings and are deliberately trying to ignore and discredit the truth that only he has discovered. Being scientifically minded myself, I find Constable’s constant railing against scientists to be obnoxious and juvenile. Plus it makes his book extremely tedious to read. After an hour I ended up just skimming the majority of the work to try to find the actual tidbits of info on biological UFOs scattered amid the endless diatribe.


Flying Saucers, The Magazine of Space Conquest, Issue no. 26, October 1959

American Monsters by Linda S. Godfrey

The Sky Creatures: Living UFOs by Trevor James Constable

Friday, March 31, 2017

Another article in Cryptid Culture magazine.

The newest issue of Cryptid Culture magazine is out! It features my article about the Bishop Fish and the Sea Monk, plus articles about mythical Irish water dogs, and the Van Meter Visitor (one of my favorite cryptids).

I know you’re totally geeked about this, and are most certainly going to go order your own copy right away, right? Right? Of course you are! Go here to get it now, dawg!

Also, here’s some more pics of my totally-the-most-awesomest article