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Stalking legendary creatures

By Sharon J. Huntington / April 9, 2002

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.

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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.

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.)


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.


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.