The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Nature Calls.
(Image credit: The NeatoShop)
We asked our friend Andy the Talking Humpback Whale to settle this once and for all: Do these creatures exist or not? We’d tell you what Andy’s answer was… but then we’d have to krill you.
You’ve possibly heard of cryptozoology. It’s the study of animals that some people think exist, but whose existence has yet to be proven. Of course, the field includes a lot of wackadoodle creatures (Uh-oh— here comes the angry letters from Bigfoot and Chupacabra!), but there’s some serious science involved, too. That includes the study of animals that are believed to be extinct… but not by everybody. Meanwhile, take these possibly imaginary creatures… please.
1. RHINOCEROS DOLPHIN
(Image credit: Bob Jones)
This odd cetacean (a marine mammal such as a porpoise, dolphin, or whale) was first sighted in the Mediterranean Sea in the 1800s. The reports, which claimed the animal was a dolphin with two dorsal fins— hence the name “rhinoceros dolphin”— were not taken seriously, because no other known cetacean has two dorsal fins. (They all have either none or one.) That would have been that, but in 1819 two respected French naturalists, Joseph Paul Gaimard and Jean René Constant Quoy, backed up the story when they reported seeing very similar creatures while sailing the South Pacific: “Every one on board was surprised to perceive that they had a fin on their head bent backwards, the same as that on their backs,” they wrote. The naturalist duo even gave the creature the scientific name Delphinus rhinoceros. Sightings of similar two-finned dolphins have been recorded over the years since, but none have been confirmed. (If you see one— take a picture and send it to us!)
2. GIGLIOLI’S WHALE
On September 4, 1867, Italian zoologist Enrico Hillyer Giglioli was on the Italian warship Magenta in the Pacific Ocean, about 1,200 miles off the coast of Chile, when a whale surfaced very close to the ship and stayed alongside for several minutes. Giglioli wrote that it looked like a member of the baleen whale family, which includes blue whales and humpbacks, was about 60 feet long— and had two dorsal fins. Again: No known cetaceans have two dorsal fins, and no such creature has ever been captured. But (also again) there have been other sightings since, one of the most recent in 1983, when sailors on a boat between Corsica and France reported that a large whale with two dorsal fins followed their ship for several hours. Whale experts still think it very unlikely such creatures exist, mostly because large whales were so heavily hunted during the whaling era that surely at least one whale with two dorsal fins would have been seen.
The earliest credible sighting of this small, human-like biped was reported by British explorer Captain William Hichens. Writing in the British magazine Discovery, Hichens claimed he saw two of the creatures in what is now Tanzania in the 1920s. He described them as standing about four feet tall, covered in russet-colored hair, and walking upright like humans. His local guide called them agogwe, explaining they were legendary creatures that would, for example, work in people’s gardens in exchange for food and beer. Similar creatures with a variety of names are said to exist all across the region. There have been many reported sightings of small, bipedal “humans” over the years, but no solid confirmation. Some say agogwes could be ancient hominids long thought to be extinct, many of which were small in stature, like the agogwe. If they exist, that is.
4. BERGMAN’S BEAR
In the 1920s Swedish zoologist Sten Bergman identified what he claimed was a subspecies of the brown bear on the Kamchatka Peninsula in northeast Russia. He described it as significantly larger than common brown bears, and much darker, almost black in color. But here’s the thing: Bergman never actually saw one of the bears: He saw a hide, and saw what he said were very large tracks of the animals. There have been no further sightings of what is still known as Bergman’s bear.
(Image credit: Ryan Somma)
The story of Bergman’s bear was understandably mostly forgotten— until the 1980s, when Russian biologist N. K. Vereshchagin heard that native peoples in Kamchatka were talking about having seen a strange bear there. They called it irkuiem, meaning “trousers pulled down” because it had bunches of fat that hung down between its rear legs, which made it look like it was wearing falling-down trousers. The reports revived the stories of Bergman’s bear, but Vereshchagin suggested the animal might be something much more remarkable: a surviving strain of Arctodus simus, one of the largest bears that ever lived. Before it went extinct, the bear inhabited North America for millions of years, from Mississippi to Alaska— right across the land bridge from Russia, where the locals were telling their irkuiem stories.
(Image credit: WENDIGO)
This fanciful creature is supposed to resemble an anteater, except that it lives in rivers and lakes, can grow to 18 feet in length, has a horn on its head, a poison-secreting tail like a scorpion, and tusks like a walrus (hence its other name: the “jungle walrus.”) According to legend, dingoneks inhabit the jungles of western Africa, where they prey on crocodiles, hippos, and people. They’re best known from a description by British explorer John Alfred Jordan, who claimed to have seen and shot at one in the river Maggori in Kenya in 1907. Alas, it got away. (The origin of the name “dingonek” is unknown.)
7. NANDI BEAR
The forested mountains of eastern Africa are the supposed home of this supposed creature, whose name is taken from the Nandi people of Kenya. It’s been described as about four feet tall at the shoulders, with reddish-brown fur, and much longer forelegs than hind legs, which makes it look more like a hyena than an actual bear. According to legend, it’s a ferocious carnivore that eats only the brains of its victims, which include humans (a kind of zombie bear!). Sightings have been reported for centuries, but no Nandi bear has ever been captured or photographed. Some cryptozoologists say it may be a surviving Pachycrocuta brevirostris, or “giant hyena,” which most paleontologists say went extinct 500,000 years ago. Others say it could be a relative of the Atlas bear, Africa’s only known native bear, which roamed the Atlas Mountains of northwest Africa before being driven to extinction by overhunting in the late 1800s. Even famed paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey added his two cents to the debate, wondering if the Nandi bear could be related to the Chalicotherium, which according to fossil evidence has been extinct for more than 7 million years, and rather than being a brain-eating carnivore (zombie bear!) was an herbivore.
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Nature Calls. From hornywinks to Dracula orchids, from alluvium to zymogen, Uncle John is embarking on a back–country safari to track down the wackiest, weirdest, silliest, and most amazing stories about the natural world.
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