The Science Behind Cryptid Sightings

25:03 minutes

People around the world have long been fascinated by the idea that there are strange creatures out there, ones that may or may not exist. Tales circulate about cryptids–animals whose existence can’t be proved—like Bigfoot hiding out in American forests, or sea serpents lurking just below the water in coastal towns.

Despite the best efforts of monster hunting T.V. shows and amateur sleuths, there may never be concrete proof that these creatures exist. But that doesn’t stop people from analyzing strange photographs or odd carcasses and saying maybe, just maybe, cryptids do exist.

Darren Naish, a paleontologist and author based in Southampton, U.K., has a particular interest in looking at cryptozoology—from a skeptical perspective. His breakdowns of cryptid sightings from a scientific perspective have been published in Scientific American, his website, and in his book, Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths. 

Darren speaks to guest host Sophie Bushwick about faked evidence, his relationship with cryptozoology, and how cryptids may lead to other pseudoscience beliefs.

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Segment Guests

Darren Naish

Darren Naish is a paleontologist and author based in Southampton, U.K.

Segment Transcript

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: People around the world have long been fascinated by the idea that there are strange creatures out there, creatures that may or may not exist. I’m talking, of course, about cryptids, things like Bigfoot hiding out in American forests or sea serpents lurking just below the water in coastal towns.

Despite the best efforts of monster hunting TV shows and amateur sleuths, there may never be concrete proof that these creatures exist. But that doesn’t stop anyone from analyzing strange photographs or odd carcasses and saying maybe, just maybe cryptids do exist. So can we explain these sightings with science? Joining me today is my guest, Dr. Darren Naish, paleontologist and author, based in Southampton in the United Kingdom. Welcome to Science Friday.

DARREN NAISH: Hello. Hi, thanks for having me.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Just a note– this segment was recorded in front of a live Zoom audience. For more information on how to join a future event, go to sciencefriday.com/livestream. You literally wrote the book on this subject, which came out in 2016. It’s called Hunting Monsters– Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths. How would you describe your relationship with cryptozoology?

DARREN NAISH: That’s a very interesting question. Cryptozoology, the study of cryptids, the study of monsters, unknown animals, animals known only from anecdote should be regarded as a part of zoology, as part of my broad interest in zoology, living and extinct animals. Yeah. For me, it was like, wow, all creatures like the claimed sea serpents of the crptozoological literature, and Bigfoot, and Yeti.

And so, are they actual, real animals? That’s why I got interested as a younger person. So that’s an amateur interest. As a working scientist today, I do maintain an interest in that possibility that when people report sightings of these creatures, are they really describing encounters with unknown animals?

I remain open to that idea to a degree and interested in it, certainly interested– any material evidence that people bring back, whether you mean photographic evidence, or things like hairs, or DNA samples, or whatever. But for me, it’s mostly moved into something that is actually difficult to compartmentalize. Because basically, I think our interest in mystery animals is a part of culture.

So if you’re studying accounts of mystery creatures, whether by accounts– I mean, stories, legends, or whether I mean people’s claims, modern encounters, modern folklore, urban folklore, or whatever, what subject is that? Is that social anthropology?

And those of us interested in this subject discuss this all the time. It’s like, where are we going with this field? Are we sure that it’s not part of zoology? Is it still connected to zoology? Or are we completely wrong in that assumption? And is it all to do with culture?

So part of what I’m doing feels like a meta-scientist, like we’re studying the study, as we’re studying the cryptids or just themselves. And we’re studying what they say. And we’re also studying the body of evidence, the claimed accounts. But, yes, for me, it’s quite a confusing and messy subject.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And would you describe yourself as a skeptic?

DARREN NAISH: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. Totally a skeptic. And I think that, unfortunately, today that’s a loaded term. I mean, never mind its role in the culture wars and what certain self-proclaimed skeptics– the way they’ve used the term. It’s related to all kinds of sometimes problematic areas. But in terms of my general approach to science, I mean it’s right to be skeptical. You shouldn’t accept anything without weighing up the evidence for it.

When people talk about, what does it mean to be skeptical of cryptozoological evidence? I know many people that are interested in mystery animals that will be prepared to say, I am convinced that– for example, I am convinced that Yeti is real. Because the eyewitness encounters are just so plausible sounding, and the ecology of the animal makes sense. There are people that hold that position. And I would say as from a skeptical position, I can understand that point of view. I can understand that you say that, yeah, a lot of these accounts sound really good.

But in order to lean towards being convinced of the reality of the alleged creature, I’m going to need a lot more convincing evidence, not just accounts, not anecdotes, not even photographs. But you’re going to have to have actual physical evidence, the same as we have for the animal species that we have recognized as valid. So, yeah, I’m definitely on the skeptical side of things, but that’s not the same as being dismissive.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I’m Sophie Bushwick, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. So let’s get into one of the most famous cryptids– the Loch Ness Monster. There’s a very famous photo from 1934 that looks like a long necked dinosaur is poking out from Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. And people have come up with theories for what this creature could be for decades. So what do you think that this photo of the Loch Ness Monster really is?

DARREN NAISH: Yeah, you’re talking about the most famous Nessie photo and probably the most famous so-called monster photo, the surgeon’s photo taken by Robert Kenneth Wilson in April 1934. And whole books have been written just about this photograph alone.

And I’d always think an interesting thing worth saying about claimed photos of monsters is that unless you’re really, really into the subject, you pick up just through osmosis like, didn’t someone show that was a hoax? Isn’t there a story about it being a hoax? Yeah, I think so. That’s the end of the story, whereas if you really get into it, the stories, they’re just so complicated.

So it’s been claimed over the years that the object in that photo might be quite large. It might be as much as of a meter tall above the surface of the water. Finding the actual original copies of the photo have always been the holy grail. Because normally, you see this tightly cropped version where the monster is quite big.

But you can see from the size of the ripples. You can infer. You don’t have to be an expert on wave dynamics or anything. But you can work out that the object isn’t very big. The water doesn’t look big. It’s not big water. So I think that the object is tiny, 30 centimeters tall or something. Seen within that context, some people have said, could it be the tail of a diving otter, or the neck of a water bird, or something? I’ve never been convinced by those. The object just doesn’t look right for that.

So in the early 1990s, a man called Christian Spurling came forward and said that he, together with his stepbrother and stepfather, they deliberately hoaxed this. And they’ve used a little model clockwork submarine with a model monster’s hair made of plastic wood, which was a thing in the 1930s. It did exist in 1934. They made this.

And they set it up in the Loch in a little bay where they thought the ripples would make the object look quite large. And they said that in the original photo, they deliberately did it. So you could see that it was Loch Ness. You could see the bank on the opposite shore and that they took these photos.

They deliberately used the camera belonging to Dr. RK Wilson, because as a London based– he was called the surgeon. He was actually a medical practitioner [INAUDIBLE]. But he was a gynecologist. But he was seen as a very reputable source, a good person to claim that he’d taken the photos. And apparently, he had a great sense of humor. And he was more than happy to play along with this.

There’s a back story to the taking of the photograph, which is that Christian Spurling’s stepfather, Marmaduke Wetherell, had also, in 1934– he’d taken some photos of fake Nessie footprints on the shore of the Loch, made with a hippo foot. He worked at the time for the Daily Mail newspaper. He thought it was all a bit of a laugh and the Daily Mail would go along with it and front page of the Daily Mail– Nessie’s footprints found.

But they didn’t. They dropped him in it. And they said this is an obvious hoax. This man is a charlatan. And he wasn’t very happy about that. So the story is that together with his son and his stepson, he was involved in the hoaxing of this submarine photo.

More recently, uncropped versions of the photo have been found. And they do confirm– but you can see the bank on the other side. They seem to confirm what Christian Spurling said. And in high-resolution scans of the photo, you can see wires attached to the front and back of the object.

So, of course, if you’re going to release a model submarine into the Loch and just let it pootle away into the water, you don’t want it to just disappear. Loch Ness is more than a kilometer wide. You want to control it, so it makes sense that you have wires.

And there’s even more to the story than that. I’m not going to carry on with it. But I’ll just say there is a compelling paper trail which demonstrates that Christian Spurling’s story about it being a hoax in 1934, about RK Wilson being a stooge who didn’t really take the photo, but was happy to say that he did, there is back-up for this idea. So the most famous Nessie photograph is not a photo of an animal. It is indeed a quite good hoax or quite good. I mean, an un-OK hoax.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: We have to take a break. And when we come back, continuing our conversation with Dr. Darren Naish on the science behind some of our favorite cryptid stories. We’ll be right back after this short break. This is Science Friday. And I’m Sophie Bushwick. We’re continuing our conversation with Dr. Darren Naish, paleontologist and author talking about the science behind famous cryptid sightings. And we have a question about faked evidence from Lara in Santa Clara, California.

LARA: Hi, there. I’m wondering, what’s the best faked evidence for a crypto that you’ve heard of?

DARREN NAISH: Yeah, thanks. That’s a great question, because there’s quite a few. So I’m going to tell you about my favorite photo, my favorite indisputable hoax. And it’s the Robert Le Serrec, 1964, Hook Island Sea Monster photo. So you probably haven’t heard of this one, but it’s the best sea monster photo ever taken. I say photo. It’s not a photo. It’s actually a sequence of photos.

So in 1964, a Frenchman named Robert Le Serrec went on vacation with his family and his friend, Henk Jong, to Hook Island, which is part of Queens in Australia. And in Stonehaven Bay, Hook Islands, Le Serrec said that they all discovered this gigantic tadpole-shaped monster resting in the lagoon.

And if you use your favorite internet search engine, just do Hook Island Sea Monster. You’ll see photographs of this immense, very dark tadpole-shaped monster sat at the bottom of the lagoon with a person and little boat behind it. And like I say, it’s part of a sequence.

They approached quite closely to this creature. They looked down on its head from above. You can see it’s got two little pale eyes. They said that at the base of its tail, there was a big white scrape. And they reckoned it had suffered from a collision with a ship. And it was resting in the lagoon. Le Serrec and Jong supposedly dove and went up close to the creature under water. And it opened its mouth and swam towards them, and so they retreated.

And the photos– they’re just great. I mean, they really look like photos of a real sea monster There’s a prominent person in the history of cryptozoological– Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans. He was the guy who wrote this or pioneering volumes on the subject, mostly during the 1950s, died in 2001. And he was based in France.

And for his 1968 book, in the wake of the sea serpents, he found out as much as he could about Le Serrec. Because he was really interested in this Hook Island Sea Monster story. Now, this is a case where, how much circumstantial evidence do you need to be convinced of something?

Heuvelmans found that Le Serrec was regarded by everyone that he was involved with and knew as an untrustworthy character. He left various unpaid debts. He was wanted by INTERPOL. So on the one hand, you could say, well, being a shady character doesn’t stop you from encountering a real sea monster. But Le Serrec told people before leaving France that he was going to go away and make money from a hoax involving a sea monster.


And I think that’s slightly suspicious, a slightly suspicious coincidence.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Just a little bit. Yeah.

DARREN NAISH: Yeah. So on that basis, Heuvelmans concluded that it probably was a hoax, so did Heuvelmans’ mentor and friend, Ivan T. Sanderson, who also wrote widely about mystery animals. And they both tried to come up with various explanations as to how it could have been hoaxed. And what’s most likely is that they used some kind of giant plastic sheeting or giant bag-like structure that you could tow along and make it look tadpole shaped.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Let’s move from the sea, back onto land and talk about possibly the most famous cryptid here in the US– Bigfoot. So similar to the Loch Ness Monster, one of the most famous pieces of, quote unquote, “evidence” that exists is this old video of what looks like some sort of ape walking in the forest. And many skeptics think that this video was completely faked. What’s your take on the Bigfoot tape?

DARREN NAISH: Yeah. You’re going to have to tell me when to stop talking. Because again, there’s whole books written about this. So, Sophie– is described in there, the Patterson film, sometimes called the Patterson-Gimlin film or the PG film. It was supposedly taken on October 20, 1967. And so we just celebrated the 54th anniversary of when they’re supposed to have filmed it.

So this was at Bluff Creek in California. Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin specifically went to Bluff Creek because of Bigfoot activity that was supposed to have happened there before that. Northern California is meant to be one of the hot spots for Bigfoot. So their story is they were specifically looking for Bigfoot. They’re on their horses. They walk into Bluff Creek, alongside the creek of Bluff Creek.

And [INAUDIBLE] at the side, possibly drinking, they see an obviously female Bigfoot who stands up and strides from left to right and just keeps walking. She just keeps going. Patterson– according to some accounts, his horse or pony was scared. And his horse reared, and Patterson fell off. But he managed to get the camera.

We know exactly what kind of camera he used. A huge amount of research has been done on the camera and its frame rate, which is something that’s very important to how the object in the film looks. And he recorded about a minute of footage of this creature, affectionately known as Patty to people in the Bigfoot community.

And I’m sure most of you know the footage. In particular, you probably know frame 352, which is the famous shot where she’s striding with her legs, arms even, iconic bit of Americana, really. So among those people that are quite committed to the existence of Bigfoot, the Patterson film is one of the best bits of evidence we have.

And there are people that include qualified primatologists, anthropologists, people that are experts in movement and stuff. They have actually said that this doesn’t have the proportions of a human. Its arms are longer than those of humans. Its head to total height ratio is slightly different from that of humans.

Aspects of its musculature, the movement of its pelt, and various other of its parts look absolutely accurate. Its gait is not like that of a human. It’s walking with a compliant gait, which means it’s bending its knees in a certain way. And it’s got a particular kind of stride that’s different from our species. That’s the kind of pro-Bigfoot stance.

Now, on the other side of things, the skeptical side of things, and the way I’ve tended to lean in my more recent writings– because I’ve flipped and flopped on this footage, I’ve been very inconsistent on this. My current thinking is that a lot of the things that are said to be compelling and anatomically interesting about it could actually be faked by a person in moving in a particular way.

So things like walking with a compliant gait, moving with bent limbs, and swinging your arms a lot and stuff– a person can do that. This claim about their proportions being utterly different from Homo sapiens is not true. The proportions are not that different from us.

And we’ve got this massive amount of circumstantial data compiled by an author called Greg Long who wrote a book called The Making of Bigfoot. I think it was published in 2004, not a very fun read. I didn’t like the book at all. But he does a really good job of showing that this is an important thing for a lot of these cryptozoological stories.

Roger Patterson is not just some guy with a camera. He’s not a guy who goes into the woods, and all this Bigfoot gets on film. He’s someone who’s got years and years of background of being obsessed with Bigfoot and specifically of drawing Bigfoot, building life-sized Bigfoot illustrations, and of basically using Bigfoot as a way of making money.

In a book that he published in 1966– that’s a year before he made this film– Patterson drew the William Roe encounter from the late ’50s. So William Roe is this guy who, in Canada, claims that he observes an obviously female Bigfoot in a forest clearing. She’s eating leaves. And then she realizes she’s being watched, and stands up, and strides across the clearing, and gave quite a good description of what he saw to his daughter who drew a very distinctively proportioned Bigfoot.

And Patterson drew his take on the Roe encounter in ’66. And it’s basically almost like a prototype storyboarded version of what Patterson filmed in 1967. So I can’t shake this. I can’t lose the potential importance of this whole aspect of the story.

If Patterson was just some guy who went into the woods and just recorded the best Bigfoot film ever, then maybe it would seem more powerful. But the fact that he’s got this long background of looking for Bigfoot, of making films about Bigfoot, he’s excellent artist, designer, and craftsman. You just can’t shake that fact, I think.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And even today, there’s people who believe in Bigfoot. There is TV shows, all about looking for Bigfoot. As we’ve said, it’s one of the most famous cryptids out there. So why do you think it’s Bigfoot that’s gotten this level of fame? What is it about this particular creature that’s captured the imagination?

DARREN NAISH: Yeah. I would say interest in Bigfoot and possibly belief in Bigfoot is on the up and not just in your country and Canada as well, but probably worldwide. Why is Bigfoot so fascinating? I think, first of all, because it’s a gateway drug, if you like.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: A gateway cryptid?

DARREN NAISH: A gateway cryptid– a gateway cryptid to the whole subject of mystery animals. So I think most people are naturally quite interested in all these things that are claimed to exist by some people. And Bigfoot is at the front of the list. That’s one of the first things that people– they’ll hear about that or read about that before they will– alleged sauropod dinosaurs of the Congo, or the Mongolian death worm, or the Ropen of New Guinea.

Then, secondly, if the claims about Bigfoot are true– well, this would be, were it real, Sasquatch, Bigfoot– it would have to be one of the most remarkable creatures on the planet. We’re pretty amazing animals. And we are really interested in things like bears, tigers, and gorillas, and stuff.

Bigfoot is all of those things combined into one. You’re talking about a human-shaped creature that is able to live in environments where we know we can’t survive, due to the extremities of cold, and the elements, and whatnot. And it’s supposed to be incredibly vocal, able to use, possibly, infrasound as well as long distance, these remarkable howls. There’s claims that it’s a tool user, a tool maker, that it’s very good throwing things, that it’s basically a super-human creature.

But again, if you are living in a world where you imagine that Bigfoot is real, I think if you’re really into it, you probably can’t stop thinking about it. So every day, you’re pondering Bigfoot. It’s like, wow. Oh, it’s also super terrifying and probably predatory. It’s not like in Harry and the Hendersons, its friendly berry-eating, vegan creature. It’s meant to be, yeah, truly predatory and to probably be responsible for loads of human disappearances.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I’m Sophie Bushwick. And this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’d like to talk about the conspiracy side of cryptozoology. Many of us have grappled with how dangerous pseudoscience can be during this pandemic. And I don’t think that looking for Bigfoot is as dangerous as people ignoring the scientific evidence on COVID-19. But I am wondering how you feel about this conspiracy side of cryptozoology and if it could be a gateway to other types of more harmful pseudoscience.

DARREN NAISH: Yeah, that is something that has been considered quite a lot. And there’s different opinions on it. So there is a book called Abominable Science! A skeptical approach to cryptozoology. And the two authors in the final chapter– one of them says– Loxton says he thinks cryptozoology is mostly harmless and that even if people go in, in search of Bigfoot, aren’t really doing anything considered useful. They’re not doing any harm.

And they are actually doing a greater good, because they’re making themselves happier. They’re connecting with the wilderness. The more connection people have with wild places, the more likely they are to want to hopefully preserve it, whereas Prothero says the opposite.

He says that it has been shown– there are studies demonstrating this– that say a belief in Bigfoot is connected to beliefs in other things that are often regarded as part of the supernatural or the paranormal, and that belief in those is connected with a broader swathe of things that we generally don’t really want to persist in culture, like people that are big on a belief in UFOs and therefore tend to have an interest in conspiracy theories.

And then it’s only a couple of steps, really, before you are into a problematic area. So basically, the argument there is something like interest in Bigfoot is thin end of the wedge. And that’s not difficult to demonstrate. If you pick up a book– there’s loads of it. It’s called the unexplained. You’ll buy them if you’re interested in Bigfoot, because they’ve got sections on Bigfoot.

But then, also, in the same work, they will have stuff on government conspiracies. And are the Illuminati real? And are we controlled by lizard people? And like I say, it’s only a couple of steps from there, before you get to something that’s probably not good for society as a whole.

And I don’t know either way. I would say it’s a mix of both things. A lot of cryptozoologists are perfectly sensible, even pro-science people, even qualified scientists. And then there are others who are the opposite of that. So there isn’t a simple answer.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s about all the time we have for now. I’d like to thank my guest, Dr. Darren Naish, paleontologist and author based in Southampton in the United Kingdom. Thank you so much for joining us.

DARREN NAISH: Thanks for having me. It was great fun.

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About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

About Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

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