The mysterious animals of cryptozoology examined

Inside the international scientific community, cryptozoology – the study of animals whose existence has not been recognized yet by zoologists – is seen as a futile hobby for naive and romantic people.

However, the simple consideration that just about 250 years ago the classified animal species amounted approximately to one thousand, should lead to a more conservative and less dogmatic approach, not forgetting that still nowadays new species are being discovered every year.

The purpose of this article is to analyze evidence and testimony concerning some peculiar animals and then, in the second part, examine reports about the alleged presence of strange beings that do not seem to be mere animals.

The Loch Ness Monster

Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle. (Credit: Asbestos/Wikimedia Commons)

The most anomalous and, at the same time, talked about animal is undoubtedly Nessie, the creature that allegedly lives in the cold waters of Loch Ness, the largest freshwater lake in Scotland, between Inverness and Fort Augustus.

Some researchers, without analyzing the vast amount of evidence, state that the whole phenomenon is nothing but a modern gimmick to boost tourism in the area. On the contrary,an examination of past works and medieval chronicles shows a totally different story. Legends abounded in the Middle Ages and one of these concerned the water horse or kelpie that would have lived in many Scottish lochs.

The first known record of a “monster” in the loch dates back to 565 a.d. St. Columba, the man who brought Christian religion to Scotland, was on his way to visit Brude, King of the Northern Picts in Inverness. His biographer, Adamnan, wrote in his Life of Saint Columba, of the “driving away of a certain water monster by the virtue of the prayer of the holy man“. Columba arrived on the banks of Loch Ness at a place where there was a ferry coble. There he found some Picts burying a man who had been bitten to death by a water monster while he was swimming. Columba ordered one of his men to swim across the water and return with the coble moored on the far side. However, the monster, saw the surface of the water disturbed by the swimmer, and suddenly came up and moved towards the man. At that point, St. Columba saw the creature coming, formed the sign of the Cross in the air and commanded the ferocious monster saying “Thou shalt go no further nor touch the man: go back with all speed“. Hearing the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified and fled quickly.

Scottish newspaper article from April 1934.

St. Columba is also credited with another brush with the animal. According to this legend, the beast towed the saint’s boat across the loch and was granted perpetual freedom of the loch as a reward.

Of course the story itself proves nothing, but it is a remarkable coincidence that, of all Scottish lochs, Adamnan should record that St. Columba encountered a water monster in Loch Ness.

Other reports concerning encounters with animals described as “leviathans”, “monsters” and “serpents” come from sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Richard Franck, a literary trooper in Cromwell’s army who had lived for some years in a garrison of English soldiers stationed in Inverness, wrote about a “floating island” that would have been allegedly present on the loch’s surface. Also the famous writer Sir Walter Scott in 1827 mentioned a “water monster” in one of his diaries. As you can see, the belief in the existence of unknown animals in Loch Ness is very old and, starting from sixth century, it accompanied the local inhabitants throughout the centuries.

It is, however, in 1933, that the monster made its newspaper headline debut. Mr. and Mrs. Mckay were driving along the northern shore of Loch Ness where the new road had been recently completed, near the town of Abriachan, when they saw, in the center of the loch, a surging mass of water out of which came an enormous animal which rolled and plunged before disappearing with a great upsurge of water.

After this report, several thousand people believed they have seen an unknown animal in Loch Ness, all coherent in describing an animal from about 5 to 8 meters long, with a dark grey elongated neck.

Time after time, the interest in Nessie grew exponentially, culminating in two underwater scans performed by using sonars (in 1972 and 1987) onboard vessels that travelled across the surface of Loch Ness. The results were extremely interesting. Something solid and quite big (10 meters) was detected deep in the lake, but it was not possible to determine with certainty whether it was actually a single animal or a group of fishes or of some trees.

This 1975 Loch Ness photograph by Charles W. Wyckoff was enhanced by computer at the Jet Propulsion Lab to better define object outlines. (Credit: JPL-enhanced photo courtesy of Robert Rines)

Several assumptions have been made as regards the possible nature of Nessie. Many pictures show a remarkable resemblance to the plesiosaur, a prehistoric animal. The presence of huge fins (photographed in 1972 with an underwater camera) and the long neck are elements that do strongly support such hypothesis. Other scholars, especially Bernard Heuvelmans, claimed that Nessie would be a still unknown animal which they renamed Megalotaria longicollis. In any case, two crucial problems arise: in order to make the existence of such a carnivorous animal possible, a huge quantity of fish should be available in the loch, a quantity that is not present there; moreover, in order to ensure the reproduction of the species, we should postulate the existence of a lot of animals of this kind.

So, what hides in the deep waters of Loch Ness? The evidence supporting the possible existence of an unknown animal in the loch are numerous, but, from the late Nineties, the testimony has significantly decreased year after year (nowadays sightings seem to have ceased), leading to one possible conclusion: the mysterious creatures that have been sighted for centuries have become extinct, in which case, the phenomenon was not a mere hoax invented for touristic reasons.

Loch Ness is not the only lake where you can find  ancient traditions, modern photographic evidence and testimony regarding the presence of animals similar to plesiosaurs. There is the animal that allegedly lives in Lake Champlain in Upper New York State, the so-called Ogopogo in Lake Okanagan (Canada), the beast of Lough Earne (Ireland) and similar traditions in Argentina and Norway as well.

Yeti, Sasquatch, Bigfoot

Still image from the Patterson-Gimlin footage of 1967.

The first reference to the so-called yeti dates back to 1899 and can be found in the travel book Among the Himalayas by L.A. Waddell, who claimed of having met, during an expedition in Sikkim in 1887, many creatures of humanoid appearance, very tall, covered with thick fur. He made some casts of their giant footprints.

Three years earlier, according to the Daily British Colonist of July 3, 1884, a group of workers who were digging a tunnel near Yale (British Columbia), encountered a being that they described as “half man and half beast” and managed to capture it alive. They reported that this being was about 140 cm tall and resembled a man in its overall features, except that it had a layer of bright fur of about 3 cm which covered the whole body. What happened to the creature is not reported in the newspapers of the time.

The name can change (Yeti in the Himalayas, Sasquatch in Canada, Bigfoot in the United States), but the evidence (including the testimony given by the famous Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner), photographs, videos (the well-known Patterson-Gimlin footage of 1967), footprints tell the same story: the presence, in the thick North American undergrowth and in the Himalayan peaks, of massive furry creatures, from 120 to 300 cm tall, bipedal, not apes nor humans, but constituting some sort of tertium genus.

A lot of hypotheses have been postulated. Some scholars have suggested that these animals could be nothing more than unknown apes, while other researchers believe they might belong to the family of the Gigantopitecus.

However, the most fascinating hypothesis has been advanced by the American researcher John A.Keel. On the basis of some Native American traditions according to which the Sasquatch would be a figure belonging, at the same time, to our reality as well as to the spirits’ realm, he stated that the phenomenon is undoubtedly real, but it is the phenomenon itself – elusive by nature and whose purposes seems very obscure – to decide whether to become visible or not, at will.The key point in Keel’s hypothesis is that, if such animals really existed, then their corpses would have been found already. The fact that dead yetis and sasquatches have never been retrieved, as well as the consideration that a lot of footprints ended abruptly as if the mysterious animals had dematerialized, made Keel suggest a paraphysical interpretation to the whole phenomenon, that is to say that these creatures can move from our dimension to another one and vice versa.

In regards Yeti, Bigfoot and Sasquatch, Keel’s theory does not seem fully convincing, because there are too many photographs, pictures and footprints which seem to indicate an actual and concrete physical nature of such animals.

However, there is a huge amount of sightings of beings which seem to have little in common with other animals, thus making the assumptions put forward by Keel particularly credible and grounded. Let’s examine some of them.

The New Jersey Devil

New Jersey Devil drawing.

The accounts relating to the so-called New Jersey Devil date back to the early nineteenth century, when Commodore Stephen Decatur, who was testing cannon balls on the firing range, saw a strange creature flying across the sky near his ship. Intrigued by this strange animal, the Commodore ordered his men to fire at it and the creature was hit, but it kept on flying without showing any problem and disappeared.

Joseph Bonaparte, former king of Spain and brother of Napoleon, said he had come across a mysterious animal near Bordertown (New Jersey) many times between 1816 and 1839 while he was hunting. Similar reports continued throughout the nineteenth century, as well as unexplainable cases of cattle mutilations made by an unidentified creature which emitted piercing screams and left strange tracks (showing amazing similarities with the modern reports of the chupacabras).

In 1903, Charles Skinner, author of American Myths and Legends, stated that the legend of the New Jersey devil had run its course and that in the new century, nobody would sight such a beast.

In 1909, however, especially in January, a real flap of sightings took place, with hundreds of reports of a flying figure with glowing eyes. The most accurate description was one made by Mr. and Mrs. Evans of Gloucester (New Jersey), who, on January 19, 1909, awakened by a strange noise at 2:30 a.m. They were able to watch the devil from the window of their house for about 10 minutes. As Mr. Evans reported, it was about three feet and a half high, with a head like a collie dog and a face like a horse. It had a long neck, wings about two feet long, its back legs were like those of a crane, and it had horse’s hooves. It walked on its back legs and held up two short front legs with paws on them. As soon as they opened the window, the mysterious animal flew away.

Identical descriptions were made the next day by a police officer and by Reverend Pemberton who saw the strange being near Burlington. A lot of tracks were found, and they all ended abruptly. In Collingwood (New Jersey), a posse tried to catch the beast, but it took off into the air.

Sightings continued throughout 1909. A lot of highly reliable people and men of good repute saw something unusual in the sky that year, a year that has become history for the airship waves over New England, Great Britain and New Zealand as well.

The descriptions of the creature, in particular its luminescent eyes, the ability to fly, the chilling cries heard so many times, strongly resembled those of the strange being that terrorized West Virginia between 1966 and 1967: the Mothman. Could these be mere animals? I don’t think so, their elusiveness seems to point to a different explanation.

Moreover, the testimonies relating to winged creatures are too many to be dismissed as odd fancies. The New York Times of September 12, 1880 reported the sighting, made by several people in different areas of New York City, of a humanoid being with bat-like wings and froggish legs which flew in a western direction over Coney Island at about 350 meters moving amid the air as if it were a frog.We also cannot forget the so-called Spring Heeled Jack, the tall humanoid creature with glowing eyes, hooked nose, pointed ears which terrorized the London area in the Victorian Age, capable of making giant leaps impossible for any acrobat and, according to some witnesses, even capable of flying.

The explanations ventured for these types of cases (from the New Jersey Devil to the Mothman and the winged flying weirdos) are many. Some suggest they are  misidentifications of common owls and other nocturnal birds, others believe that maybe pterodactyls or unknown animal of that sort do still exist.


In my opinion, the vast category of “mysterious animals” can be divided into two groups. The first one includes animals that science has not classified yet (the Loch Ness monster, sea serpents, Big Foot, Yeti, Sasquatch), all creatures whose behavior towards man is more or less neutral just like other common animals.

On the contrary, there is a massive amount of testimony about creatures that seem to have a different origin, beings that are certainly more sinister and often hostile, whose behavior is very different and abnormal in comparison with other known species. For the second group, which includes the New Jersey Devil, Mothman, and Spring Heeled Jack, Keel’s theory becomes more plausible. In Keel’s opinion, these weird creatures come from a parallel reality, a dimension that only in certain special circumstances is tangential to ours: creatures whose nature is not properly physical, but paraphysical. These beings appear to us according to the frame of reference that would suit best the expectations of the observer. They have different looks according to our personal beliefs and cultural views. Fairies, goblins, aliens from outer space, Mothman, according to Keel these are all manifestations of something obscure that hides behind a wall of illusion like a Trojan horse.

As Keel said, “The most frightening monsters dwell in the dark depths of our mind, waiting to take shape through our fears and personal beliefs.”


CANTAGALLI  Renzo, Sasquatch: Enigma Antropologico, SugarCo Edizioni, Milano, 1975.

HOLIDAY F.W., Il Mostro di Loch Ness, Sugar Editore, Milano, 1970.

KEEL John, Strange Creatures from Time & Space, Sphere Books, London, 1975.

MCGLOY James F., The Jersey Devil, The Middle Atlantic Press, Wallingford (PA), 1976.

SKINNER Charles, American Myths and Legends, Philadelphia (PA), J.B. Lipincott, 1963.

WITCHELL Nicholas, The Loch Ness Story, Corgi Books, London, 1974.

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