Cryptozoology is the study of creatures whose existence is rumored, but unproven. With Kong: Skull Island releasing March 10th, it is hard to imagine a giant fifty-foot gorilla, other than from myths, movies and horror novels. But then, once upon a time, normal sized gorillas were the stuff of legends. So, lets discuss what creatures of mythology proved to be real.
Gorilla: Explorers returned from jungles of Africa to tell stories about hairy, giant man-beasts of terrible strength and temper, with a nasty habit of abducting and raping women. Up until the twentieth century, many of these tales were ignored or discounted. One of the earliest written accounts of gorillas may come from Hanno the Navigator, a Carthaginian explorer who documented his travels along the African coast in 500 B.C. Hanno describes a tribe of “gorillae”, roughly meaning “hairy people”. It is unknown whether Hanno referred to gorillas, another species of ape, or humans. In 1902, German officer Captain Robert von Beringe shot one of these “man-apes” in the Virunga region of Rwanda. Bringing it back to Europe with him, he introduced the world to a new species of ape: the mountain gorilla.
Okapi: The Okapi was well known to the Ancient Egyptians (although it was not native to Egypt). Also to the pygmies who lived in the same central African forests. Europeans, however, didn’t believe the pygmies’ stories. They considered the okapi to be a mythical creature, calling it “The African Unicorn.”
Sir Henry Johnston, who became the governor of Uganda, read Stanley’s book about the animal and became obsessed over it. He managed to find tracks from the animal, along with pieces of striped skin, which according to the pygmies, belonged to the mysterious okapi. Johnston sent the skin to London. There, scientists took interest in the beast and hypothesized about its identity. Was it an unknown species of jungle zebra? Or maybe a late surviving, prehistoric Hipparion proto-horse? Since they didn’t have a better specimen, they named the animal Equus johnstoni, assuming that it was a member of the horse and zebra genus.
It was in 1901, that Johnston obtained an entire skin and a skull. He sent them to London and surprised the scientists. The animal appeared like some fossilized remains of an ancient giraffe relative, found in 1838 in Greece. The mystery was solved; the mysterious African unicorn did exist.
Giant Panda: Scientists call these adorable, famous animals “charismatic megafauna.” They were practically unknown for centuries, even in their homeland, China. Chinese artists had depicted black bears and bamboo forests since ancient times, but the giant panda was never depicted until the 20th century. Rumors and reports of a strange “white bear” found in Chinese mountains were regarded as myths until 1869. Then, French missionary Armand David sent the skin of a hunted specimen to Europe. That was when pandas were accepted by scientists as a real animal.
Giant pandas were finally seen alive by a European in 1916. German zoologist Hugo Weigold got to see and buy a cub. As an interesting side note, giant pandas are known in China as the Great Bear-Cat; this is because pandas have vertical pupils, just like cats, but unlike other bears. They were once thought to be giant, aberrant relatives to the raccoon, but DNA testing has proven what seemed obvious from the beginning; that they are a true member of the bear family.
Takin: In the well-known Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, Jason is sent by his evil uncle Pelias to get hold of the Golden Fleece. This was the fleece of a semi-divine ram named Chrysomallus, sired by Poseidon himself. Some experts believe that the legend of the Golden Fleece was inspired by the golden coat of a real animal, the Golden Takin. This animal is found in the Himalayas.
Although described by western scientists in 1850, the Takin has always been somewhat of a legend; in Bhutan, its origins are said to be supernatural. It is said that in the 15th century, a powerful and wise Lama visited the country and was urged by his followers to perform a miracle. Eventually the Lama accepted, and told them to bring him a whole goat and a whole cow. People did as asked. To the amazement of everyone, the Lama ate all the meat of the goat and cow leaving only bones. Once he finished his meal, the Lama took parts of the cow and the goat, putting them together to make a new animal. With a snap of his fingers, he gave it life. The strange resulting animal was the Takin. Due to this interesting legend, the Takin is a most revered creature in Bhutan, and it is considered the national animal.
Giant Squid: One of the most famous mythical sea monsters is the Kraken. Legends of this formidable denizen of the sea, armed with powerful tentacles strong enough to sink a ship, were told in Norway and Iceland; These tales were based on sightings of the giant squid (Architeuthis). Since the giant squid prefers to live in abyssal waters, it is almost never seen alive by humans. Dead specimens have washed ashore, and so the existence of the creature has been reported since ancient times; Pliny the Elder mentioned them in his treaty on Natural History, and said that they could grow up to 9.1 meters long (now we know they get bigger.).
In 1861, the crew of the Alecton dispatch steamer had a close encounter with a giant squid. They managed to get hold of a piece of the animal’s tail, but were ridiculed by scientists, who told them that such a creature was “against the laws of nature.” Today, the giant squid maintains its semi-legendary status. It was in 2004 that the giant squid was finally photographed in its natural habitat; the first video was taken two years later.
Komodo Lizard: There is a tale that Komodo dragons were discovered by a downed pilot from WWI who swam to a remote island in Indonesia and reported seeing giant reptiles in the island’s coasts. No one believed him. Other stories told that the dragons had already been seen before, and that eventually, the rumors of “land crocodiles” and “prehistoric monsters” roaming Komodo and the nearby islands became too persistent to be ignored. in 1910, a Dutch lieutenant decided to go to the island and get evidence of the creature’s existence. He succeeded, and sent a photo and the skin of a gigantic lizard to Bogor, Java, where the director of the Zoological Museum described it formally for the first time.
Later, in 1926, an expedition to Komodo resulted in the capture of two live specimens. Due to this expedition, it inspired one of the most famous movies of all times, King Kong. The movie’s director even wanted to have Komodo dragons in the movie! But proven not possible, he replaced them with animated dinosaurs. Komodo dragons are the world’s largest lizards. One modern day myth about them is that they lack venom, and that their victims die of blood poisoning thanks to the deadly bacteria in the dragon’s mouth. Although it is true that dragons have plenty of dangerous bacteria on their saliva, recent studies have suggested that they are also able to produce powerful, hemorrhage and paralysis-inducing venom, making them the largest venomous animals alive.
Tiger: The ancient Greek believed the tiger to be a legendary animal, known as the manticore (from Persian martya, “man”, and xwar, “comer”). It makes sense for the tiger to be the inspiration for the manticore. The latter was said to live in India and south eastern Asia (the tiger’s main range), and to be lion-like in size and appearance, but with reddish fur. It was also said to have the tail of a scorpion, which could have been inspired by the black rings and black tip in the tiger’s tail. And it was reported to be so fierce that it would snatch adult men from villages and drag them into the jungle, after which they were never seen again. Same was often the case with the great cat.
Manatee: Manatees have inspired sightings of Even Christopher Columbus was duped, writing in his logbook:
Manatees are known to perform "tail stands" in shallow water, which would allow them to rise vertically out of the sea. And their jointed forelimbs allow the manatee to hold objects and bring food directly to their mouths as well as swim. It's entirely possible that from a distance, a manatee may look like a human treading water. Or a mermaid.