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.

SOURCES







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.   

SOURCES







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.

SOURCES



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




Monday, February 20, 2017

Champ- Vermont


Lake Champlain is a long, narrow body of water situated primarily in Vermont, though sizeable portions of it extend into New York and the Canadian province of Quebec. The lake is named after Samuel de Champlain, a French explorer who mapped much of the area along the Saint Lawrence Seaway and founded the colony of New France.

Like many large bodies of water across the world, Lake Champlain is believed to be the home of a mysterious aquatic monster. Nicknamed Champ, or affectionately “Champy” by locals, the creature is said to be a dark gray or black serpentine beast with a long, swan-like neck and several humps on its back. Fairly typical for lake beasties, really.

According to some sources, legends of a monster living in the lake go back to the original Abenaki peoples who called it Tatoskok. The first known account by a European was in 1819 when a scow captain claimed to have seen a bizarre looking “black monster” that had a head like a “sea horse”, three teeth, onion-colored eyes, a white star on its forehead and a belt of red around its neck. True or not, this incident marked the start of a string of sightings throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Champ quickly became a popular legend around the Champlain Valley, to the point that in 1873 famous showman P.T. Barnum offered a substantial reward for the beast’s capture.

Perhaps the most famous piece of evidence for Champ was a photo taken in 1977 by Sandra Mansi. According to Mansi, she was at the lake with her fiancée and two children when what appeared to be an animal with a long, swan-like neck suddenly emerged from the water only about 150 feet away. As Sandra and her fiancée scrambled to get the children out of the water, the object appeared to move as if peering around. Sandra snapped a single photo of the thing before it sank back below the waves once more.

The photo very clearly depicts what appears to be the humped back and snake-like head of some sort of creature. While many have claimed that the object in the photo is clearly a living animal, science writer Darren Naish, along with other skeptics, believes it is only a submerged log that briefly bobbed to the surface before sinking again. His Tetrapod Zoology blog has some pretty interesting model images to back up his claim.

Champ, like Nessie and many other lake monsters, is popularly thought to be a surviving plesiosaur. However as a cold-blooded reptile, a plesiosaur would likely not have been able to tolerate the frigid waters of the lake. There is also the fact that plesiosaurs had stiff necks held out straight in front of them, whereas Champ and its cousins often have flexible, swan-like necks. While it’s certainly possible that over millions of years plesiosaurs developed flexible necks and a warm-blooded metabolism, there is actually a more plausible candidate for the monster’s identity (assuming it is a real animal): a long-necked seal.


In his 1968 book “In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents”, cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans postulated that aquatic cryptids could be grouped into nine categories, one of which was a long-necked seal. But even before Heuvelmans, C.A. Oudemans wrote in his 1892 book The Great Sea Serpent” of his theory that sea and lake monsters were actually a kind of swan-necked pinniped (the group of animals to which seals belong along with sea lions and walruses). Even earlier than this, though, comes a description of a long-necked seal in James Parsons 1751 “A dissertation upon the Class of the Phocae Marinae” in which he apparently makes a scientific description based on what appears to be an actual specimen in his possession (a specimen which has, naturally, disappeared).

There is actual fossil evidence for long-necked seals. Acrophoca longirostris is a pinniped from the Miocene and Pliocene coast of Argentina and Chile that has a remarkably elongated neck. Although its length is nowhere near the plesiosaur-level length of reported lake monsters, it does provide a tentative clue to the existence of  long-necked seals.

It’s worth noting that one of the closest living relatives of Acrophoca is believed to be the leopard seal, Hydrurga leptonyx, an Antarctic predator that has an eerie, almost reptilian appearance. If a possible Acrophoca descendant bore a similar appearance to its southern cousin, one could see how it might be mistaken for a plesiosaur.

Some sightings of Champ may actually be explained by an unusual property of the lake itself. When wind blows for long periods across the surface of a long, narrow body of water such as Champlain, the force actually pushes the water and causes it to pile up to one side. When the wind stops, this water flows back and begins to slosh back and forth across the lake, creating an oscillating wave called a seiche. You can see a similar phenomenon by sloshing around in a bathtub full of water. This long, low wave may account for the frequent sightings of a wake or broad hump moving across the lake’s surface.

Lake Champlain has a second, unseen oscillating seiche beneath the surface. As with many lakes, Champlain is stratified into an upper layer of warm water lying over a layer of deeper, colder water. The layers are separated by a distinct boundary called a thermocline. When the wind pushes on the lake’s surface, it piles up the top warm layer, subsequently causing the colder lower layer to be pushed to the opposite side. When the wind stops and the surface begins to oscillate back and forth, the cold water rushes back, setting up its own wave below the surface. Here’s where monster sightings come in. The underwater seiche can be from 30 to 300 feet high! Some researchers speculate that these huge oscillations could stir up sunken logs and other debris that pop up to the surface briefly before sinking back down again, creating the illusion of a monster bobbing to the surface.

Whatever the true nature of Champ- living plesiosaur, swan-necked seal or merely  waterlogged flotsam- the beast has become a much-beloved legend among the locals who live around the lake, and has even received several festivals held in its honor.

SOURCES





In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents by Bernard Heuvelmans

The Great Sea-Serpent: An Historical and Critical Treatise by C.A. Oudemans





Thursday, February 2, 2017

Stego-Squid Festival Flyer


Here's part of a cross-over between my state cryptids blog and my "found object" fiction project, The Astarapomp Dossier

This is a flyer for a fictional festival in Grenhaven, Connecticut (my answer to H. P. Lovecraft's Arkham) celebrating the mysterious (and also fictional) Stego-squids that inhabit the estuary at the mouth of the Connecticut River.

Considering how big the Connecticut River is, and how important it has been to maritime history and trade in New England, it's rather sad that the river has no famous monsters to call its own. So I made some! See if you can guess what sort of creature the Stego-squid actually is. (Hint: it's not actually a cephalopod)