Thursday, February 25, 2021

Book Review- The Van Meter Visitor: A True & Mysterious Encounter with the Unknown by Chad Lewis, Noah Voss, and Kevin Lee Nelson


I’ve read many, many books in the course of my research for this blog, and figured I’d start reviewing and sharing some of them in between regular State Cryptid posts.

For five days in late autumn 1903, the small Iowa town of Van Meter was haunted by a mysterious winged Visitor with a glowing horn on its head. Though the story was big news at the time, it  fell into obscurity for decades until paranormal investigators Voss, Lewis, and Nelson turned their flashlights on it.

This book is the culmination of their research. It is as much a character study of historical Van Meter as it is a recounting the Visitor encounters. In my own cryptid research, I often find that the people and circumstances surrounding the sightings are just as fascinating as the creatures themselves.

The majority of evidence is drawn from accounts in local newspapers. This might make the whole Visitor phenomenon seem dubious at first since “monster yarns” were a common feature in papers of the 1800s and early 1900s (see, for example, my entries on the Bear Lake Monster and the Snallygaster). Journalistic integrity hadn’t fully developed yet, and many papers were more like sensationalist tabloids like the old Weekly World News that used to lurk in grocery store check-outs. The details of the Van Meter Visitor, however, feel different from a typical newspaper tall tale. Fantastic as the sightings are, there is a degree of realism in the accounts. It seems that the people of Van Meter definitely experienced something- though whether it was monster, demon, or mass hysteria is still unknown. The authors offer several possibilities as to the being’s identity. Could it have been an alien? A living thoughtform? A demon? A case of mass hysteria? Or something more?

This book was my first introduction to John Keel’s Ultraterrestrial theory, which has become a major theme of my cryptid writings and illustrations. Keel postulated that unexplained, seemingly supernatural phenomena- ghosts, UFOs, bigfoot, fairies, Mothman- are actually manifestations of beings from higher dimensions beyond our own. When they move into our plane of reality, our minds cannot fully perceive or comprehend them, so we translate them into forms that we can handle. The authors speculate that the Visitor may have been one such manifestation.

I’d highly recommend this book as a thorough investigation in a lesser known, but very intriguing, cryptid. You can get a copy here.

And check out my own interpretation of the Van Meter Visitor here. 

Saturday, January 23, 2021


 A few years ago I wrote a couple articles for Cryptid Culture magazine. While the publication itself seems to have gone under, you can still order copies of it on their website. Definitely go check it out. There are lots of great articles and illustrations. Here I'd like to share one of the articles I wrote on a most unusual deep-sea cryptid which may have existed since before the dinosaurs.


 It’s often said that the deep sea is as mysterious and unexplored as the distant gulfs of space. There is much truth in this, for new and strange species are constantly being discovered in the unlit abyss. Even those scant few creatures which have been seen by surface-dwellers may be little more than ghosts: brief flickers in a submersible’s lights, enigmatic shapes glimpsed for but a second on an ROV camera, strange carcasses damaged almost beyond recognition by the rough journey to the surface in a fisherman’s net. And in some cases, these phantoms may only be known indirectly from the marks of their passage left in the environment.

In 1976 oceanographer Peter A. Rona was using an underwater camera towed behind a research boat to explore the seafloor along the Galapagos Rift, a volcanic hotspot in the Pacific Ocean near the islands made famous by Charles Darwin. Though the Rift is dotted with numerous hydrothermal vents that are abundant with life, the area Dr. Rona was exploring was far away from the hot, black-smoking chimneys. It was little more than an undersea desert- a flat expanse of mud and silt almost devoid of life. So it was a great surprise when the camera came across a hill of sediment about the size of a silver dollar covered with an intricate pattern of holes. The placement of the holes was so geometrically perfect, and the find itself so out of place, that Dr. Rona at first assumed that the other researchers on the exploration team had somehow played a trick on him. But they were just as surprised as he was by the find.

Later excavations of the holes revealed that they led to shafts that connected to a network of honeycomb-like interconnected tunnels about an inch below the surface. A burrow of some sort.  A burrow so geometrically perfect as to almost seem made by intelligent beings- though there is no need to invoke an intelligent builder here since many animals can create startlingly precise structures.

The first question Dr. Rona and the others asked, of course, was just what animal had made these remarkable structures. No living organisms were discovered when the burrows were dug up. There weren’t even any telltale food scraps, bits of DNA, or other detritus to provide a clue to the identity of these deep-sea engineers.

The mystery only grew deeper as word of the discovery spread. A few years after Dr. Rona formally described the strange structures, he was contacted by paleontologist Adolf Seilacher, who showed him fossil burrows that were nearly identical to the Galapagos Ridge hills. Seilacher’s fossils, dubbed Paleodictyon (trace fossils such as burrows, footprints, and coprolites are given their own distinct scientific names), dated from the Eocene Epoch, approximately 55 million years ago. Other, simpler but still very similar fossil burrows dated all the way back to the early Cambrian Epoch, when large multicellular animals first appeared in the fossil record.  Whatever was making the mystery burrows had apparently existed on Earth with minimal evolutionary change since before the dinosaurs had evolved. Or, at least, with little change in the way it constructed its dwellings. Once this striking continuity was brought to light, the still-unknown maker of the modern tunnels was given the name Paleodictyon nodosum.

Since the initial discovery in 1976, Doctors Rona and Seilacher, along with other researchers, have found thousands of Paleodictyon burrows along volcanic rifts in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Like those first specimens, the other structures were found on the barren seafloor far from the hydrothermal vents and their diverse ecosystems. Perhaps these unknown animals have evolved to survive in this rough environment, adapting to feast on what few nutrients are present in the form of “marine snow”- tiny bits of organic matter formed from bits of dead plankton and other organisms that constantly rain (or rather, snow) down from above.

A large xenophyophore in its shell.

But the question still remains: what sort of animals are making these Paleodictyon structures, exactly?  One hypothesis is that they are a species of giant amoebae known as xenophyophores. These single-celled organisms can be found in the deepest parts of every ocean. Most species cement sand and other debris together to build complex, rippled shells or “tests” which can resemble brains, sponges, heads of lettuce, or other corrugated objects. Some, however, are known to live buried in the sediment, admittedly in much simpler burrows.    

If Paleodictyon nodosum is indeed a xenophyophore, though, why does it excavate such geometrically complex burrows? Laboratory tests have shown that the convex lens-shaped mound over a Paleodictyon burrow draws water down through the vertical shafts, so perhaps the structure is used to pull suspended marine snow from the water column down to the buried amoebae. Alternatively, the tubes could be used for “farming” bacteria on their walls, much like how leafcutter ants in the Amazon will farm fungi on the bits of vegetation, they bring into their nests.  The farming hypothesis is suspect, though, since research has shown that the concentration of bacteria in the tubes is no higher than the concentration on the sea floor above, indicating that there is no deliberate cultivation occurring.

Dr. Rona’s favored possibility as to the identity of Paleodictyon is that the “burrows” may actually be the outline casts of sediment-dwelling sponges or other soft, filter-feeding organisms. This idea is not as strange as it may seem. Many sponges will burrow into mud, coral, or even the hard shells of oysters (the latter by using a weak acid secreted by the sponge’s cells) to protect their soft bodies from predators. As to why no remains of the animals themselves have been found, Dr. Rona suggests that they may have died and been completely devoured by bacteria and small deep-sea scavengers, leaving behind the geometric pit structure as the only evidence of their existence.

It is still curious, though, that in all these years of searching not a single burrow has been found that contains a live Paleodictyon nodosum, or even a few small scraps of their remains. Perhaps it is because the structures are actually much older than they appear. Though the burrows seem freshly dug, the seafloor deserts where they are found are still, quiet places lacking any current and only rarely disturbed by other organisms.  These unusual conditions may have allowed the burrows to persist intact for hundreds of years, long after their builders had completely rotted away.

The lack of a living builder may also simply be due to the fact that the area where Paleodictyon burrows are found has not been explored that extensively. Investigating the deep sea is an expensive endeavor that requires reserving highly competitive slots of time with a submersible or diving robot. Rona and Seilacher simply haven’t had enough time or money to search for these enigmatic builders. Though they have found thousands of Paleodictyon burrows, perhaps these are only the graveyards of a long-dead colony of the creatures. Perhaps the living animals lie just a few miles beyond the submersible’s light, waiting for someone to finally stumble across them.

Paleodictyon has received some media attention, though. Most notably in the form of “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea”, an IMAX documentary chronicling the researcher’s discovery and search for the animal.

On a final, interesting side note, the first recorded reference to Paleodictyon fossils may have come from Leonardo da Vinci. In the Leicester Codex, Leonardo records extensive notes on fossilized shells and other traces of prehistoric marine organisms. Among his drawings is a small, quick sketch of a honeycomb-like structure. Though the sketch is unlabeled, it is not a huge stretch to postulate that this may have been a representation of Paleodictyon, especially since these striking trace fossils are common around the inventor’s childhood home in the valley of the Arno River.


Sunday, December 13, 2020

Altamaha-ha- Georgia

The Altamaha River runs through the state of Georgia from the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee all the way to the Atlantic. As the river reaches the ocean, it spreads out into a maze of creeks and runnels snaking among tall saltgrass marshes, mudflats, and ancient shell middens. This estuary is one of the most ecologically productive areas of the Altamaha, providing ample habitat and food for wading birds, mussels, crustaceans, fish fry, muskrats, otters, and more. And if the legends are to be believed, these twisting waters also host a population of unknown serpentine beasts.

Legends of the Altamaha-ha, nicknamed “Altie”, go back all the way to 1830 when a “Captain Delano” of the schooner Eagle reported seeing a monstrous snake-like beast in the river. In the 1920s loggers working along the Altamaha also sighted the beast, but the first major modern report occurred in 1981 when newspaper publisher Larry Gwin spotted it. After this, more people came forward claiming to have seen the creature. The majority of sightings occurred around the small town of Darien and the nearby Butter Island. Altie eventually became the unofficial mascot of the town, and the Darien Visitor Center even boasts a “life-size” model of the creature created by museum exhibit designer Rick Spears.

In 2018 a strange carcass was discovered on a beach near Darien. Pictures show a sinewy gray creature with front flippers and a short head, leading many to conclude it was a juvenile Altamaha-ha. The body disappeared before it could be examined, but skeptics believe it was either a clay model or a decomposed shark.

Early reports of Altamaha-ha described the creatures as large serpents, but more recent sightings claim they have rounded bodies, alligator-like heads, front flippers, and sometimes ridges on their backs like gars or sturgeons. They are described as being gray-green with yellow undersides. Some observers have reported the creatures blowing out water and swimming with an up-and-down undulation like whales or dolphins, rather than the side-to-side movement of fish or aquatic reptiles. Based on this, it’s possible the Altamaha-ha are a species of unknown cetacean or pinniped.


The website of Rick Spears, creator of the Altamaha-ha statue in Darien

An article from about the alleged Altamaha-ha carcass

An article from the Coastal Courier about Altamaha-ha

An article from Cryptomundo about Altie

An article from Legends of America

A post from the blog of historian and author Dale Cox

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Skunk Ape- Florida

 The vast Everglades covering southern Florida are, for the most part, open wilds. Yes, there are cities on its edges and a few rough roads cutting through it, but the majority of the “Sea of Grass” is undeveloped, natural sawgrass marsh, palmetto brush, and hardwood hammocks filled with alligators, gars, black bears, wading birds, and perhaps a few undiscovered primates.

For decades folks have been sighting hairy bipeds wandering the Glades. These creatures are commonly called Skunk Apes due to their distinctively pungent odor. They are said to have black to reddish-brown fur and may sometimes have a greenish tinge due to algae growth.

Tales of skunk apes allegedly go back to pre-colonial Native legends- though as is often the case, the existence of these “legends” is suspect and might just be an invention of modern folks to add some historical weight to their sightings.  Regardless, sightings of the creature really took off in the early 1960s around the time that sightings of Bigfoot were becoming more common in the Pacific Northwest. One of the first major encounters with skunk apes occurred around 1966 when several gorilla-like creatures invaded the community of Holopaw, forcing open garage doors and frightening people.

Interest in skunk apes grew greatly throughout the 1970s, to the point that a bill making it a misdemeanor to harm or harass the creatures was drafted by State Representative Paul Nuckolls in 1977. The bill never made it to committee, sadly.

In 2000, several night-time photographs of a hairy, ape-like beast were sent to the Sarasota County Sherriff’s Office. An anonymous letter included with the photos described the creature as an “orangutan”, but many folks came to the conclusion that the being was a skunk ape. Skeptics, however, claim that the creature may be merely a person in a suit.

If skunk apes are real, it’s possible they are part of the group of southern “swamp apes” which are lighter, smaller- and smellier- than their sasquatch cousins. Swamp apes are also often reported to have only three toes on their feet and three fingers on their hands, though alleged casts of skunk ape footprints show them with four toes. As their name suggests, swamp apes are typically found near wetlands as opposed to the drier old-growth forests that bigfeet seem to prefer.

Folks wanting to learn more about Florida’s mystery primates should check out the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, run by Dave Shealy and located in Ochopee along the Tamiami Trail right in the middle of the Everglades.


The website of Dave Shealy's Official Skunk Ape Headquarters

An article from Smithsonian Magazine about the Skunk Ape

An article from The Orlando Sentinel about the Holopaw Gorilla

A Cryptomundo article about the Skunk Ape

A Twitter thread from Darren Naish about the 2000 Skunk Ape photo

The Field Guide to North American Monsters by W. Haden Blackman

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Bear Lake Monsters- Utah


Straddling the border of Utah and Idaho, Bear Lake is a long, deep body of water lying along a shifting fault line.. The lake’s vivid blue waters- which are caused by an abundance of dissolved calcium carbonate- have drawn people to its shores for centuries, from the native Shoshone, Ute, and Bannock, to more recent European trappers and settlers. And also, according to settler Joseph C. Rich, a small population of aquatic monsters, . In an 1868 article for the Deseret News, Rich wrote: “The Indians say there is a monster animal which lives in the lake…They represent it as being of the serpent kind, but having legs about eighteen inches long on which they sometimes crawl a short distance out of the water onto the shore.”

The story quickly caught the interest of newspapers all over the west, eventually even reaching the ears of the leaders of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City. The church fathers, including Brigham Young, would inquire about the monsters when they were in the area around the lake and quickly discovered that nearly everyone claimed to have seen the beast or at least knew someone who had. 

 Descriptions of the monster varied. Sometimes it was said to be long and limbless like an eel. Other times it had dozens of little legs like a centipede. It was often said to have sleek brown fur like an otter, and little ears- or at least ear-like tufts of fur on its head. 

 Sightings of the monsters (sometimes singular, sometimes plural) became very popular in local papers, and led to a proliferation of hoaxes and tall tales. One particularly colorful encounter with the beast was related by Quill Nebaker in 1907:

 “By this time all of the folks but me were terribly frightened and they confidently expected that the monster would smell the fresh-baked pies in the cellar and turn over the house in order to get them. Confidentially, I rather hoped he would in some way get the pies, but I sensed the danger to my loved ones and set my mind at work to devise ways and means to divert the animal’s attention in case he decided to come up our way. At this juncture my dog, which seemed mesmerized before, let out a terrible howl that attracted the monster and here he came full tilt, mouth open wide enough to swallow the front porch. Here was my time for action. And while I dislike to speak of myself, I must confess that I arose to the emergency... I noticed my large graphopohone (sic) standing on the table ready for use. An inspiration struck me- I called to mind the value of music in taming the snakes and wild animals of the forest- and I decided to try it. Hastily winding up the machine, I opened wide the front door, squarely in the face of the approaching monster, and turned loose my music.

As it happened, the record on the machine was that incomparable tune, “Home, Sweet Home,” and as its strain floated out on the midnight air, I noticed that the monster halted, then stopped. His head being low, a reminiscent smile played o’er his features, and as the chorus was reached we were surprised to see the monster’s tail switch ‘round toward his neck. As we watched we noted a stringed instrument, something like a lyre, at end of the animal’s tail, and as “Home, Sweet Home” continued, that monster didn’t do a thing but utilize his several hands or feet in playing accompaniment to that grand old tune. Ah, but it was sweet, and as “the band played on” we really fell in love with the Bear Lake monster. As I moved to his side, the monster seemed to welcome me as a friend of other days and before “Home, Sweet Home” was ended the animal’s head rested on my shoulder and we were mingling our tears together.

All was going splendidly and I had definitely decided to adopt the animal and make him a member of my family, but just there sorrow, deep and tearful sorrow, shook the frame of my newly made friend, and he began to weep. Great streams of tears poured from his eyes, and finally they flowed so copiously that the monster floated away in them. Thoughts of his subterraneous home were too much for him, and though he seemed loth (sic) to go, he waved us a sad farewell and disappeared from sight.
A point of particular interest just here is that as the monster passed the barn it left my barbed wire stacked up nicely, and on top the pile left that lyre on which it had played that accompaniment. Imagine my surprise at discovering that stringed instrument to be a portion of a bale of that wire and a part of my pigpen worked up into the most approved form.”

                                    ---“Quill Nebeker Sees Monster” Logan Republican, 21 September 1907

 From the beginning, the Bear Lake Monster was known by local people to be nothing but a tall tale. Nevertheless, a number of outsiders were convinced the beast was real. Twenty-six years after publishing his first sighting of the beasts, Joseph Rich admitted that he’d made the whole thing up as a way to draw interest to the Bear Lake area. Yet despite this confession, sightings of the monster continued all the way until 2002. Whether these were honest reports by people who genuinely believed they’d seen an unknown animal in the lake or just more tall takes, is up for debate. But hoax or not, the monster remains a fond piece of Bear Lake folklore.


An article about the beast from the Utah Outdoor Activities website.

A library of newspaper reports about the monster from the USU Digital History Collections

An article from Utah Humanities

The Bear Lake Monster Winterfest!

A scan of Quill Nebaker's account of the musically-inclined monster


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Lake Worth Goatman- Texas

Many towns in America have their own Lover’s Lane monster. Seems there’s just something about amorous couples in parked cars that draws hidden beasts out of the dark woods like moths to a porch light. Honestly, it’s a wonder anyone parked at those remote spots can even get to first base with all the vengeful ghosts, hook-handed serial killers, hairy hominids, lizardmen, and other supernatural oddities trying to get into their vehicles.

One of the more memorable of these voyeuristic creatures hails from Lake Worth, Texas. Described as resembling a seven-foot satyr covered in thick white fur- and possibly scales- the Goatman has been haunting the brushy hills and cliffs around the lake since at least 1969, when it attacked a car packed with three couples out enjoying the night.

Soon after that initial attack, crowds of people along the Lake Worth shore claimed to have seen the Goatman trudging through the underbrush. Cars were attacked in the dark, their metal chassis torn and shredded by inhuman claws. Several witnesses even saw the creature pick up a truck tire and hurl it 500 feet through the air. As is typical when any new cryptid makes an appearance, the Goatman's antics quickly brought in a rush of tourists, reporters, and self-proclaimed monster-hunters- the latter of whom became a public hazard as they prowled the scrub around the lake with loaded rifles.

One man, Allen Plaster, even snapped a blurry photo of a tall, hairy white creature emerging from a stand of tall grass.  Plaster, though, would eventually come to doubt that the thing he saw was an actual cryptid, theorizing instead is that it was merely local kids playing a prank.  

Indeed, many other folks around Lake Worth eventually came to the conclusion that the creature was nothing but a hoax, perhaps begun by bored teenagers on summer vacation. Still, regardless of whether the Goatman was real or not, it has become a fond part of Lake Worth folklore. The Forth Worth Nature Center & Refuge, located on the shores of the lake, has  even begun celebrating an annual Lake Worth Monster Bash, featuring an appearance by the infamous creature (or at least, a person in an impressively-detailed Goatman costume).

One can’t help but notice that the Goatman’s description as a hairy, possibly scaly hominid, and its propensity to attack and damage parked cars, are strikingly similar to the appearance and habits of the  Bishopville Lizard Man. Could both creatures be part of a Southern population of small, lightly-built sasquatches with an odd hatred of motorized vehicles? Or maybe both are just hoaxes drawing on classic American folklore about monsters lurking in the dark, ready to trash unwary vehicle, and perhaps their unlucky occupants if they aren’t careful.


Saturday, May 23, 2020

Dragon of the Ishtar Gate

A few years ago I wrote some articles for the defunct Cryptid Culture magazine. These works game me an opportunity to explore cryptozoology beyond the scope of the American creatures that I focus on in this blog.  Here's one I particularly enjoyed which focuses on the mysterious "dragon" on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.

And if you're interested, you can get back issues of Cryptid Culture on Blurb.

The Dragon of the Babylon Gate
by John Meszaros

Babylon. City of legend. Rising from humble origins over four thousand years ago as a small Akkadian town upon the Euphrates River- bisected into equal halves by the life-bringing waters- it became one of the largest cities of the ancient world. The owners of the great city would change many times as empires rose and fell across the Fertile Crescent. But regardless of who ruled, Babylon would remain a major hub of culture and trade throughout its existence. Its most powerful, and certainly one of its most famous, kings was Nebuchadnezzar II, who surround the city with high, thick walls both to demonstrate the power of his rule and to deter attacks from invaders who coveted Babylon’s riches. Entry to the city was via eight gates, the most famous of which was dedicated to Ishtar the goddess of love, fertility, war and political power. The Ishtar gate was constructed of fired bricks painted a deep blue that must have glowed to match the cloudless desert sky.

 Bas-reliefs of sacred beasts picked out in yellow enamel strode against this rich backdrop. The procession leading up to the gate was flanked by lions, while the great arch itself was decorated with the aurochs- a massive ancient breed of cattle that was associated with Hadad, the god of storms- and with a much stranger beast called the mushussu (pronounced mush-hush-shu). This beast, sacred to the city’s patron deity, Marduk, was a hybrid with the scaled body of a dragon, the head and forked tongue of a serpent, front paws of a lion, back paws of an eagle, and a long tail tipped by a scorpion’s sting. It’s serpentine head was also topped by a pair of long, straight horns on the snout and what appears to be a pair of curving, ram-like horns at the back.

Although mushussu may initially seem like purely mythological animals in the vein of griffons, qilin, manticores and other chimerical beasts, some researchers have wondered if they may have been real animals. Robert Koldewey, the German archaeologist who rediscovered the ruins of the Ishtar Gate in 1902, was the first to propose this idea. He argued that the appearance of the beast in Babylonian art had remained largely consistent over several hundred years, in contrast to the changing depictions of other beasts that were known by the people of Babylon to be purely mythological. He also pointed out that Marduk’s dragon was depicted alongside real-life aurochs and lions, indicating that it was a real animal the Babylonians were familiar with.

Another hint at the mushussu’s possible existence comes from the biblical Book of Daniel. In the Roman, Greek and Eastern Orthodox Catholic versions of the Old Testament, chapter 14 of Daniel briefly mentions a dragon worshipped by the Babylonians as a living god which the titular hero slays by feeding it cakes made of pitch, fat and hair. It’s quite possible that the writer of this tale misinterpreted the Babylonians’ respect for the mushusu’s sacredness to Marduk as outright worship of the animal itself as a deity.

Creatures similar to the mushussu have appeared in the mythology of other cultures. According to the legends of the Apatani people of the Ziro valley at the base of the eastern Himalayas, a species of large, semi-aquatic reptiles known as buru once inhabited the marshes around their villages. These creatures were said to have long necks, short, robust legs with mole-like claws, and long, powerful tails. Aside from the short legs, this description bears a fair resemblance to the mushussu. Though there is no mention of the buru bearing the iconic snout-horns or the fleshy curls at the back of the head. Unfortunately, these giant lizards were apparently driven to extinction when the Apatani drained the animals’ wetland home and no physical evidence of them remains. If they were ever truly real in the first place.

In his book The Marsh Arabs, explorer Wilfred Thesiger made mention of the belief among the river-dwelling Arabic tribes of Iraq in the afa, a large semi-aquatic reptile that resembled a snake with legs. Though the account is extremely brief, the reference to an unknown large serpentine reptile in the lands around ancient Babylon is intriguing.   

Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian art often depicted strange creatures that resembled leopard with long, serpentine necks. The ancient names for these creatures are unknown, thus archeologists have given them the portmanteau name “serpopards”. Although the creatures are more feline than reptilian, it is possible they are another interpretation of the long-necked beast that inspired the dragon of Babylon, though in this case with more exaggerated mammalian features.

Yet another mushussu-like creature is the Questing Beast, or Beste Glatisant, of Arthurian legend. The monster is the quarry of several knights including King Pellinore, Sir Percival and King Arthur himself. The appearance of the Questing Beast varies depending on the text, but one version describes it as having a serpent’s head, a leopard’s body, and a stag’s feet. Though this description might simply be a case of another fanciful chimera so common to folklore and mythology, it’s interesting to wonder if the author who first came up with this depiction was not basing it off a real animal he had seen, or at least read about.

If the mushussu was a real animal, what was it though? Koldewey himself initially proposed that it was a surviving dinosaur, perhaps a relative of Iguanodon, which was one of the most well-known prehistoric beasts at the time. A glance at a modern reconstruction of Iguanodon, however, will show a heavyset, stiff-tailed, beaked saurian quite unlike the agile, almost mammalian-looking mushussu.

Perhaps the mushussu was another type of dinosaur? Cryptozoologist Willy Levy compared the serpentine appearance of the mushussu to accounts of the Mokele-mbembe, a long-necked monster reported to inhabit the swamps and rivers of Central Africa. European investigators have frequently suggested that the mokele-mbembe is a surviving sauropod similar to Apatosaurus. When this connection was initially made in the 1950s, it was believed that sauropods had to spend their lives half-submerged in water to support their great weight. Thus the idea of a surviving long-necked dinosaur living in swamps in a relatively unexplored (by white scientists, anyway) region of Africa made some sense to cryptozoologists. In the 1970s, however, changing ideas in paleontology showed that sauropods could indeed support their own weight on land and thus did not need to rely on an amphibious existence. Even so, given millions of years of evolution, it would not be impossible for a sauropod to adapt to an aquatic lifestyle like a capybara or a hippopotamus. Dinosaurs have, of course, survived into the modern day in the form of birds. So it is not completely out of the realm of possibility that a non-avian dinosaur such as a sauropod may also have survived into the age of humans. Although the lack of any sauropod fossils after the Mesozoic extinction makes this a highly unlikely proposal.    

What else could the mushussu have been, then? Several researchers have suggested that it may have been a species of giant, unknown monitor lizard even bigger than the Komodo dragon- an identity that has also been proposed for the afa of the Marsh Arabs and the Himalayan Buru.  A monitor lizard explanation is not all that far-fetched, considering that smaller species of these reptiles actually do inhabit the Arabian peninsula. There is even precedence for other giant monitors aside from the Komodo dragon in the form of a 16-foot long monitor called Megalania that roamed Australia thousands of years ago.

What of the long, paired horns on the mushussu’s snout? Or the supposed “ram’s horns” on the back of its head? While no living monitor has horns or other head ornamentation, the aforementioned Megalania did have a small crest between its eyes. Perhaps Marduk’s sacred beast had similar, but more pronounced and paired crests on its snout. Regarding the curling horns on the back of the head, it’s worth noting that these features were not present on many other depictions of the animal. It’s possible they were simply an artistic embellishment of a fleshy fringe or neck flap on the real animal.
Did a large horned reptile roam the lands of Babylon and Central Asia, serving as a sacred beast to some and a nuisance to others? There is, unfortunately, no scientific evidence just yet. No preserved skins or bones. No fossils. But perhaps one day some explorer will unearth some remains lying forgotten in a temple under the sands or buried in the peat of an ancient bog. And the world will see get to marvel at Marduk’s dragon once again.