Stalking legendary creatures

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IN 1912, a pilot crash-lands on a rugged Indonesian island. He hears loud rustling in the bushes. He sees the flash of a huge tail and hears a ferocious hissing. Frightened and alone in a strange land, he wonders: Could it be a dragon? It disappears before he can get a good look.

Later, he talks with Indonesian pearl divers. He learns that stories abound of a giant reptile 12 feet long living on Komodo Island. Finally in 1926, an expedition brings two live specimens back to New York City. At 10 feet long, they turn out to be the world's largest known lizards. Now everyone knows they really exist. They don't fly or breathe fire, but they were named Komodo dragons, thanks to all the rumors they sparked about dragons on the island.

These "dragons" also serve as an example of the purpose of cryptozoology. "Crypto" (KRIP-toh) means "hidden," and "zoology" (zoh-OHL-uh-jee) is the study of animals.

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Cryptozoologists try to find animals that are rumored to exist, but have not yet been proved to be real.

Roy Mackal has been a biologist and biochemist at the University of Chicago, but since 1950 he has also been interested in finding mysterious animals. Dr. Mackal has traveled all over the world to try to prove that rumored creatures exist. He also helps to show that some mysterious creatures are not terrible monsters.

Recently, a "sea monster" 50 feet long was reported and videotaped in a lake in Papua, New Guinea. Mackal was able to determine that the "monster" was actually three large salt-water crocodiles. A male was holding onto a female's tail, and another male had the second one by the tail. When only portions of their bodies appeared above the water, it looked like one giant creature.

"There are no monsters," Mackal says, "just unidentified animals." And he believes there are still many unidentified animals to discover.

He was recently researching in Central West Africa, in an area of 55,000 square miles of unexplored jungle and swamp. "There are large areas on the earth and in the oceans that have never been explored," he says. "Who knows what might be living there?"

Natives of the Congo in Africa for years told European visitors of an animal that looked like a cross between a giraffe and a zebra. The visitors assumed the stories were just folk tales. But in 1901, Sir Harry Johnston obtained skins that proved the creature, which we now call the okapi, was real.

In 1938, a fishing boat off the coast of South Africa caught a 5-foot-long fish that was later identified as a coelacanth. The fish were believed to have been extinct for 65 million years. And only a few years ago, in 1994, biologists captured the first known saola, a large ox that inhabits the forests of northern Vietnam.

Cryptozoologists think there are still plenty of creatures to discover, while many of us have yet to learn about some of the strange animals that already exist. Look at the animals on these pages, for instance. How many are real?

Here are some descriptions of animals you might not recognize. Can you guess which ones are proven to exist and which ones are still creatures of rumors and stories? (Answers below.)

Pangolin

The pangolin is a mammal that looks like a reptile. It has no teeth, so it eats rocks and pebbles to help grind up the food in its stomach. It lives in southeastern Asia, Indonesia, and parts of Africa.

Bunyip

The bunyip lives in Australia and is believed by many to be an ancestor of the diprotodon, a marsupial (an animal with a pouch, like the kangaroo) about the size of a rhinoceros, which became extinct thousands of years ago. The bunyip lives in creeks, swamps, and billabongs (lagoons) and has a loud, bellowing cry.

Tuatara

The tuatara is a New Zealand reptile that grows up to two feet long. It has a spiny back and a third eye on top of its head. This eye can't see objects, but it can sense light and movement.

Solenodon

Solenodons live in Cuba and Haiti. They hide in hollow logs and come out only at night. They grow about two feet long and use their long claws to scratch for insects to eat. They are said to have a bad temper.

Star-Nosed Mole

The star-nosed mole is a small mammal with soft fur and sharp teeth. It has feelers at the tip of its nose and uses them like fingers. It spends most of its time swimming in ponds and streams in Canada and the northeastern United States.

Queensland Tiger

Inhabiting the rainforests of Australia, the Queensland tiger is about the size of a German shepherd. It has stripes across its back and a cat-like head.

ANSWERS: All except the bunyip and the Queensland tiger have been proved to exist. Stories of bunyips have been told by Australian aborigines for generations, and white settlers have also reported sightings. Many believe they are just stray seals, while others think they may be an unknown animal. Aborigines have also told stories of the Queensland tiger for centuries, and many sightings were reported in the 1940s and 1950s. Expeditions have never been able to locate a specimen.

Books on Cryptozoology

Ever Heard of an Aardwolf?

By Madeline Moser Harcourt Brace & Co. San Diego, 1996

Weird Animals

By Tammy Everts and Bobbie Kalman

Crabtree Publishing Co. New York, 1995

Really Weird Animals

By Tammy Everts and Bobbie Kalman

Crabtree Publishing Co. New York, 1995

Maybe 'Nessie' is an earthquake

You'VE probably heard of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster. Stories of a sea monster in northern Scotland's Loch Ness have been reported since the 600s. ("Loch" means "lake.") Sonar scans of the lake have indicated large, unidentified objects in the murky water.

Photographs supposed to show Nessie have been discounted by scientists as blurry images of seals or otters. Probably the best-known photograph was presented in 1934 by Robert Wilson. It appeared to show the head and neck of a large creature rising out of the water. The photo sparked great interest. People began taking seriously rumors of a strange creature in the lake.

It wasn't until 1992 that Christian Spurling confessed that he and his stepfather, Marmaduke Wetherell, faked the picture. They used a toy submarine with a model neck and head. Wetherell had given the photo to Dr. Wilson.

Some say Nessie is a large fish. Others think it might be an ancestor of ancient dinosaurs. They point to discoveries like the coelacanth, an ancient fish that was thought to be extinct for millions of years before living examples were found during the past century. Loch Ness is 20 miles long and more than 1,000 feet deep in places. That's plenty of room for a large creature to live.

Last year, Italian geologist Luigi Piccardi offered a new theory. He thinks the sightings may be the result of earthquakes. Loch Ness lies along an active earthquake fault.

"The most seismically active end of the loch is the north end," Piccardi says. "This corresponds to the site where many witnesses claim to have had experiences. They talk of seeing a lot of commotion on the water and hearing loud noises."

Piccardi thinks these could be the result of small earthquakes that shake the ground and make a roaring sound. They would also release bubbles of gas in the lake that would churn its surface.

It may take years before we prove or disprove that Nessie exists. But real or not, it is already well known around the world. Not a bad accomplishment for a creature that may be a fantasy.

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