National Geographic

Our Very Own Monsters

Nearly a century ago, the ichthyologist David Stead recorded a strange unease among the lobstermen of Port Stephens, Australia. Although their livelihoods depended on the sea, the men could not bring themselves to venture out to their favorite crayfish spot near Broughton Island for fear of what they had just seen.

Out there, Stead related almost half a century later in his book Sharks and Rays of Australian Seas, was a monstrous, ghostly white shark of such mind-boggling size that apparently no one could agree exactly how big the leviathan was. The shark was big enough to swallow lobster pot after lobster pot, at the least, but the size estimates Stead drew from the workers ranged from 115 feet to an “absurd” three hundred foot minimum. Despite this, Stead argued that the lobstermen must have seen something amazing. “[B]ear in mind that these were men who were used to the sea and all sorts of weather,” Stead wrote, “and all sorts of sharks as well.” There could only be one explanation for such an awful sighting, he concluded. This shark, which Stead believed to be of the “White Death type”, was a remnant of a very real species that sculled the seas for millions of years. This was the shark paleontologists now know as Carcharocles megalodon. Ending on an ominous note, Stead concluded “While they are probably not abundant they may yet be so.”

Carcharocles megalodon was a real shark.* Adults of the species could reach more than fifty feet in length, and their kind sculled the ancient seas for an amazing span – about 16 to 2 million years ago. But there are some who insist that C. megalodon still lives. Ichthyologists and natural history writers from Peter Matthiessen to Richard Ellis have toyed with the idea, not to mention horror novelists and filmmakers who needed a ready-made monster. Even the now-disreputable Discovery channel has gotten in on the act, concocting a new fauxumentary filled with fake evidence that C. megalodon has survived to this day. As paleontologist Thomas Holtz, Jr. remarked, at least this is a minor improvement over the network’s Mermaids in that C. megalodon really did exist.

The fossil record for C. megalodon peters out in sediments about 2 million years old. The only teeth so far found in younger deposits have been reworked from older strata. Furthermore, there are no giant, fresh teeth littering the seafloor, no whale carcasses with distinctive bite marks washing up on shore, and no tangible evidence whatsoever that the shark exists. And all the stories… are just stories. Tales such as those Stead shared are not evidence that C. megalodon or other monster shark lives.

Think about Stead’s account. The passage is a memory that a group of people said they saw something on which very few details could be agreed. We are left with the unknown observational skills and uncertain integrity of the fishermen and what Stead was able to recall decades after the fact. The case boils down to “Someone said they saw something.” And the fact that C. megalodon preferred warm, coastal seas is a strike through the notion that the shark is hiding in the deepest depths – if the giant shark became a deep sea predator in the last 2 million years, it’d now be a very different shark from the whale hunter it once was. The thought that the huge shark escaped extinction is tantalizing, but the case itself is not in the least compelling.

*[A note on nomenclature. I know the shark is popularly called Megalodon, but there's actually a genus that already bears that name. As paleontologist Julie Reizner pointed out to me, Megalodon is a fossil bivalve. My inner paleontological pedant is tickled when hyped documentaries gasp at the thought of a "100 foot Megalodon" - such statements only make me think of titanic shellfish.]

Prehistory’s giant predatory shark is just one variety of sea monster that has garnered the continued attention of cryptozoologists – often self-styled experts dedicated to finding “hidden” animals such as Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, the Chupacabra, and other large, weird, and upsetting animals that have a knack for living just out of reach of our investigations. When I was a kid, I wanted to be one of these explorers.

Abominable Science by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero.

Abominable Science by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero.

The Loch Ness Monster, especially, dug into my imagination because of photos that seemed to show the distinctive flippers of a long-necked, four-paddled animal akin to a plesiosaur. I read every single monster book in my school and local libraries looking for more information, and drew dozens of renditions of what I thought Nessie really looked like. And, in time, I realized that all the accumulated “evidence” for such a creature was faked, misunderstood mundane phenomena, or nothing more than tall tales. The flippers that so convinced me as a child were the worst of all. I had no idea the photos had been artistically altered to look like plesiosaur flippers – the original shots show nothing but bubbles and murk. I really wish I had a book like Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero’s Abominable Science back then.

Strange as it may seem to say about a book that primarily debunks the purported existence of Sasquatch, the Yeti, Nessie, sea serpents, and Mokele Mbembe, Abominable Science is a loving tribute to monsters that we wish to exist. The key is that Loxton and Prothero, in tandem, spend a great deal of time tracking how we’ve actually created these monsters. Explorers who misunderstood the local lore of people from African jungles to the Himalayas gave rise to new myths, and even classic monster movies – King Kong foremost among them – had a hand in inspiring tales of aquatic enigmas. It’s no coincidence that the account which established the canonical image of Nessie almost exactly matches a scene from King Kong, especially since the story was passed around just after the movie debuted.

In debunking each chosen case, Loxton and Prothero mix personal testimony with deep historical scholarship. Whereas Prothero pulls back the curtain on how shows like MonsterQuest are shams that try to doctor scenes and obscure the questionable credentials of their star experts, Loxton uses his experience as a shepherd to show how your eyes – and mind – can play tricks on you in even familiar surroundings. Seen out of the corner of your eye at the right time of time, an inanimate stump might seem to be Bigfoot, while what seems to be a dog at the edge of the herd can turn out to be a mother grizzly and her cubs. Matched with the historical breakdowns of where monstrous myths come from and how they’re disseminated, the personal accounts will undoubtedly assist readers in developing a well-functioning bullshit detection kit.

If the book has any flaw, it’s that Loxton and Prothero can sometimes get a little lost in the nitty gritty of their arguments. The book’s friendly tone temporarily dries up in the sea serpent chapter during a prolonged discussion of how images of imaginary hippocamps – solely artistic inventions that were half horse, half fish – were incorporated into descriptions of marine monsters, and the final chapter on the nature of paranormal belief loses some of the book’s warmth to a more textbook feel. But, to some extent, this is difficult to avoid. Cryptozoology is based on blurry photos and exciting encounters, whereas the science and historical detectivework behind the legends must take a more careful and staid approach in order to successfully debunk nonsense. In the end, Loxton and Prothero show that “cryptozoology” done properly and with a skeptical eye is not much different than zoology. The search for cryptids ballyhooed in books and basic cable programs is entertaining, but typically relies more on wishful thinking than science.

Yet Abominable Science isn’t solely about monsters. Cryptozoology acts as a foil to introduce readers to the basics of skeptical inquiry and argument. And such a book is sorely needed given how Loxton and Prothero ably demonstrate how easily we can fool ourselves. In an example relevant to sightings of giant sharks, sasquatch, and other aberrations, consider a tale related in the book’s sea serpent section. In 1881, Captain J.H. Taylor recounted how “an enormous monster”, more than one hundred feet long, was seen snaking into India’s Madras Harbor. Onlookers could swear they could see the beast’s hair and eyes. The military scrambled to bombard the threat, only to find that they had just attacked a huge chunk of seaweed. Even people in authority, who we might consider as trustworthy and upstanding, can be easily fooled.

The greatest strength of Abominable Science is the toolkit the book presents for examining extraordinary claims. Readers need not be enamored with monsters to gain a better standard of evidence evaluation from the book. Cryptozoology may be mostly harmless, but it could be a sign of pernicious problems.

Does it really matter that people go out into the woods on a regular basis looking for Sasquatch or spend hours hoping that the head of Cadborosaurus will break the waves off British Columbia? Not really. Belief in the Yeti and similar creatures is absurd, as Loxton argues, but not directly harmful. Yet I’ve also argued Prothero’s point that the pervasive belief in cryptids and associated phenomena can be symptomatic of how much our culture is led by gut feelings and intuition rather than thinking about evidence. Even a documentary that is totally fake, and even admits that it’s a fabrication, can convince many viewers that mermaids are real for no other reason that “much of the ocean is unexplored.” Thought stops there.

The “cryptids” Loxton and Prothero dissect are cultural constructions. We made the monsters. That means that the legends, squishy and transmutable as they are, will probably be with us for some time to come. But I hope that Abominable Science convinces readers of that fact so that we can enjoy the myths as what they are – reflections of our wonder and fear from when we venture out into the nighttime woods or swim out to that frightening point where our feet can no longer touch the bottom.

There are 9 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Sparticus
    August 4, 2013

    Heh, I watch Monster Hunter sometimes when they do showcases on strange critters I’ve never heard of, but I like mythology and folkore and there’s a lot of nifty monsters out there that are notoriously hard search for since there’s no good starting point. The pseudo-science gets really annoying though – It would be a great show if they came at it more from a historical “what if” angle than a Serious Search For A Mysterious Cryptid angle, and go into the lore, and similar monsters found elsewhere.

    Don’t even get me started on Ancient Aliens. >.<

  2. Shelldigger
    August 5, 2013

    Grrrr, you just had to mention AA, didnt you? Just the thought of that load of bovine excrement gets my blood boiling…I love my wife, I really do, but for whatever reason she will watch that show. I can’t be in the same room, or even within earshot of it.

  3. B
    August 5, 2013

    I used to love reading about Champ, the ‘sea monster’ in Lake Champlain, VT. When I realized that it was often compared to a plesiosaur – and plesiosaurs are real (but extinct), that was just as cool as trying to spy Champy from the ferry. You can see plesiosaur fossils in many museums, and marvel at their size and structure in person instead of wildly speculating about fictional creatures. Nature is rad, all on its own.

  4. Jonny O
    August 6, 2013

    You’ve missed the point: these shows are not meant for science-oriented viewers, they are produced to attract the non-scientific viewer – and the only way to do that is sensationalize both fact and fiction. At any rate, as any producer worth his (yes – “his” – most if not all of the producers are male – go figure that one out) salt will tell you: “You see? We have everyone talking about sharks – even the critics. No such thing as ‘bad’ publicity!”

  5. ian
    August 7, 2013

    Yes, wishful thinking. I do wish Sasquatch and the Yeti were around. How wonderful that would be, but the world is full enough of biological wonders to keep me interested.

  6. pkbrando
    August 7, 2013

    What’s disconcerting is not that TV is entertainment; we’ve known that for years. There’s no reason to expect the Discovery Channel to be any different — its existence depends upon numbers of viewers.

    It’s that a supposed scientist (ichthyologist David Stead) in 1963 was so credulous about human verbal reports that he based a scientific case on them with little solid corroborating evidence.

  7. Zshelyz
    August 11, 2013

    “100 foot Megalodon” – such statements only make me think of titanic shellfish

    Hehehehehe. :D

  8. Rdizzie
    August 12, 2013

    You know I enjoyed this article even if I have to disagree with some of what you said. While the notion of mermaids and other such mythical creatures are absurd, so is being closed minded. At one time the gorilla was a myth and did not exist, same as the giant squid. Now I am NOT saying all cryptids are real and eye witnesses are notorious for being wrong. You are also wrong about the Chupacabra, while it is likely a new type of K-9 and not the blood sucking alien that some claim, they have live specimens, bodies, and large amounts of clear close up footage and photos. I think for a scientist to say “no this is not possible” is very unscientific. But on the other hand to say the opposite without evidence or proof is just as unscientific. Instead one should examine the available evidence at hand and make an educated decision, each and every person until indisputable proof either way exists.

    Evidence does not support most cryptids, nor does it discount all of them. There too are many examples of extinct animals still roaming the planet alive and well. People like to use the “the ocean is so big” statement as proof of existence as you stated and while this is faulty logic used argue the existence of said creature, it is evidence enough to keep an open mind about what might be out there. We often forget that as technologically advanced as the United States likes to think it is there are still vast tracts of forest in which have been unexplored. I am reminded of 3 new species of bass found in Georgia and Alabama recently, while not cryptids they are evidence that we have not found all the worlds animals yet. I also like to think of the giant rat in the Himalayas that was discovered a couple years back, it too was thought to be a myth. Again I am not saying all Cyrptids are real, I am a believer that extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence, but I am also not arrogant enough to say “no that doesn’t exist”. I however look at all evidence that has merit and then make an assumption based on what I know as fact compared to the evidence presented. I say assumption because quite frankly until we have set foot on every inch of the planet caves and ocean included we simply can not with 100% certainty know. Though in many cases it is safe to say something does not exist, like the wampus cat for example. It is a very safe bet that this animal does not exist. It is also very safe to say that the so called “rods” do not exist as their is strong evidence that these photos are just insects in flight that the camera can not focus on.

    I just think that in science we should be very careful when dealing with definite answers, and I think we should also show these animals to our children give them known facts and let them think about the possibilities without tainting their minds, let them decide that they might find fascination in it and take such steps as you did.

    I agree that mermaids most probably do not exist (I do not subscribe to them) same as C. megladon most likely is extinct and big foot is a mix of myth, people in suits, and escaped primates. I think there is a lot of harm in shutting down the notions of these cryptids though. By your own admission it was the fascination in these things that got you interested in animals. Why then would you be so hard up to shut down these ideas? Mystery is what gets people thinking and the fantastic is what intrigue young minds. If someone wants to believe in the possibility of such creatures there is little or no harm in it, and arguably some good.

  9. Dylan Palmer
    August 13, 2013

    I do not believe that any of these creatures are real or fake. The ocean is a huge place, our scientist have barely scratched the surface of the ocean and its wonders. So to presume that there is not a small chance of the Megalodon not existing is upsurd. A creature of that size would be able to stand extreme pressure and be able to live in deep depths. We also have to keep in mind is evolution, it is very possible that the Megalodon has evolved to live in deep depths and be able to stand extreme pressure. All of us hold on to that small sliver of hope that these mysterious creatures exist. Though most likely they don’t.

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