As hordes of people head into darkened theaters looking for dino fright, cryptozoologists probe into the dark corners of the world searching for mysterious animals still undiscovered by Western science.
Cryptozoologists are either on the cutting edge or on the fringe, depending on your point of view. Their members seek out the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, the yeti, giant octopuses, marsupial tigers, pygmy elephants. But among the 800 members of the International Society of Cryptozoology (based in Tucson) are a number of serious scientists, like shark expert Dr. Eugenie Clark of the University of Maryland.
And why not? We know that there are millions of undiscovered species on this planet (granted, many of them are bugs and lizards, but some could be big mammals with sex appeal).
Recently, there have been a slew of discoveries. A new lion tamarin monkey in 1990 in Brazil. The discovery of another primate -- Callithrix mauesi, a little marmoset along the Amazon -- announced in '92. And the largest land mammal discovered in 50 years -- the Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, a new ungulate with features of a cow, a goat and an antelope, in Vietnam.
Throughout time, animals known to natives in other countries have come as a great shock to Westerners -- giraffes, hippos and rhinos. The okapi, the short-necked relative of the giraffe, was discovered by the West in 1901. The Roosevelt brothers (Theodore and Kermit) were the first to shoot a giant panda in 1929. In the 19th century, African explorers were told of monsters that looked like humans living in the mountains of what is now Rwanda. It wasn't until 1902 that a German officer saw mountain gorillas.
But we're getting away from Bigfoot and Nessie, and there's the rub. It's this portion of the cryptozoologists' spectrum that brings snickers and even professional blackballing, according to Grover Krantz, an anthropologist at Washington State University and avid cryptozoologist.
Mr. Krantz is a Bigfoot or Sasquatch expert. He thinks Bigfoot is "an erect bipedal gorilla-like animal, except much larger." They are omnivores that could probably "squash your head like a grape," but are not inclined to. Males, he says, weigh 800 pounds. Krantz says there may be 2,000 in the world. Krantz is convinced of their existence from eyewitness accounts and plaster castings of huge footprints.
He is well aware of what we might call the crackpot element here.
He says one woman told him she had a conversation with a bigfoot and that it was 20 feet tall, clean shaven, had Italian features and was quite handsome. Someone else saw Sasquatch driving a convertible.
Despite all this, J. Richard Greenwell, the society's secretary, says the philosophy of the members is simple: "We think that claims or reports (of undiscovered animals) should be evaluated objectively and scientifically. We try to give these things their day in court; we are not set up to prove that any of these animals exist. We provide a forum for a discussion of this sort of information."
Howard Evans, professor emeritus of comparative anatomy at Cornell, isn't impressed. As for Nessie, Mr. Evans believes she is a plain old everyday sturgeon (a bizarre-looking, but common, fish that tends to live in salt water and spawn in fresh, and has been known in some areas to reach 23 feet in length and 2,200 pounds). Mr. Evans says this explains Nessie and the myriad other monster sightings in lakes around the world. He thinks Bigfoot is a hoax for tourists in the Pacific Northwest. And as far as the lofty board members of the society, he says, "Almost anyone, in a weak moment, could join a group like this." If you're feeling weak, the International Society of Cryptozoology's number is 602-884-8369.
But Mr. Evans does believe there are lots of animals out there as yet undiscovered in the vast oceans or in isolated pockets of Russia, China and the Amazon.