Monsters of Land, Sea, and Air

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Monsters of Land, Sea, and Air

While so many of the mysterious creatures that are frightening and disturbing may belong completely to the realm of the supernatural and fanciful, judgment must be reserved concerning some of the monsters reported roaming the forests and jungles. In recent decades a large number of animals previously unrecognized by the experts, although well-known to the aboriginal inhabitants of the locales that were the creatures' natural habitat, have been officially "discovered."

Although hunters in Kamchatka, Manchuria, and Sakhalin had long been telling excited stories of the giant carnivorous brown bear they had encountered, European scientists did not accept the existence of the bear until 1898. The largest land animal next to the African elephant is the white rhinoceros, which remained officially unacknowledged until 1900. The largest of the apes, the mountain gorilla, was considered a native superstition until 1901. The dragons of Komodo Island, Indonesia, were considered the creations of a strange myth conjured up by the islanders until 1912. And the British zoologist who described the bizarre "royal hepard"a half-leopard and half-hyena beast long claimed by the natives of Rhodesia to be an actual beast of preywondered how such a large animal, and one so distinct from other species, could have remained "unknown" for so long.

In June 1994, the first living specimen of the Vu Quang ox was caught in a rugged area on the Vietnamese-Laotian border, and its verified existence was hailed as the zoological find of the half-century. This horned mammal, weighing more than 200 pounds with cinnamon, black, and white coloration, is a hemibovid, a species ancestral to both oxen and antelope that was thought to have become extinct four million years ago. Zoologists estimated their present population to be in the hundreds.

In July 1999, zoologists saw the first photographic evidence that the Javan rhinoceros, thought completely wiped out on the Asian mainland in the 1960s, still thrived 130 kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh City in the Lam Dong province of Vietnam. These huge animals, which can weigh more than 3,000 pounds, have somehow been misplaced or missed for nearly 40 years.

In December 2000, scientists set out to search the northern jungles of Thailand for conclusive proof of the sightings of large, hairy elephants that witnesses claim strongly resemble the long-extinct woolly mammoth. What these scientists and forestry officials may discover is either a new species of elephant or long-lost descendants of the great-tusked mammoth of the Ice Age.

For at least 200 years now, stories have emerged from the swamps, rivers, and lakes of African jungles that there exists a brownish-gray, elephant-sized creature with a reptilian tail and a long, flexible neck. The native people call it "mokele-mbembe" ("the one who stops the flow of rivers") or "emela-ntuka" ("the one who eats the tops of trees"). In 1980, Dr. Roy Mackal led an expedition into African swamps that are "Mokey's" hangouts and stated later that the descriptions of the beast would fit that of a sauropod, the giant plant-eating reptile that supposedly became extinct about 60 million years ago.

J. Richard Greenwell, an expedition member from Tucson, Arizona, told of having discovered huge tracks that led into the Likouala River. In his opinion, no animal smaller than an elephant could have left such a path through the thickets near the river, and, Greenwell noted, elephants always leave an exit trail when they leave a river. Whatever left these massive prints made no such sign of an exit, which may indicate that Mokey is a marine, as well as land, creature.

Tracking even dinosaur-sized creatures is not that simple in the Likouala swampland, which is twice the size of Scotland, and thick with venomous snakes and disease-bearing insects. On November 28, 1981, Herman Regusters, an aerospace engineer from South Pasadena, California, and his wife, Kia, claimed to have seen and to have photographed a dinosaurlike animal in a remote African lake. Kia Regusters said that the gigantic reptile was dark red with a long, thick neck, and longer than two hippopotamuses. Unfortunately, the photograph taken by the Regusters was rather fuzzy, and their tape recording of the "roaring trumpeting noise" heard frequently around Lake Tele was impossible to identify.

Dr. Bill Gibbons, a zoologist who specializes in attempting to track down new species, told the (London) Sunday Times (June 3, 1999) that he is certain that mokele-mbembe exists. According to Gibbons, cryptozoologists had heard reports that hunters from the Kabonga tribe had killed a mokele-mbembe and had tried to eat it. Its flesh proved inedible and the carcass was left to rot and be gnawed and pecked at by scavengers.

If there are monsters from the Age of Reptiles surviving in the remote jungles of the world, what giant creatures might be thriving in the vast depths of the seas and a number of the larger lakes throughout the world? What prehistoric monsters might be surviving unchanged, unscathed by the Earth changes that annihilated their cousins more than 60 million years ago? Supporting such speculations were the discoveries of numerous coelacanths (crossoptergian fish) off the coast of southeast Africa in 1938. The coelacanths that were dragged from the ocean by the nets of fishermen had survived almost unchanged for 70 million yearsfrom a time even before the Age of Reptiles. Then, after nearly 200 of the supposedly extinct "living fossils" had been discovered on the southeast African coast, the fourth coelacanth, a female almost five and a half feet long, was caught off the coast of Madagascar in March 2001. If a number of coelacanth, whose species preceded the dinosaurs, have survived, why not some aquatic descendants of the giant reptiles?

A popular theory to explain the existence of sea monsters is that they may be survivors of one of the giant reptiles of the Mesozoic Age. Philip Gosse, the famous nineteenth-century naturalist, was an avid exponent of the possibility that plesiosaurs could still be thriving in the Earth's oceans. While the Mesozoic Age ended tens of millions of years ago, he argued, there was no a priori reason why some of the descendants of the great sea reptiles could not have survived. Other marine zoologists favor the unverified existence of an aquatic mammal related to the whales as their candidate for the mantle of sea monster. They maintain that the horselike mane often reported on the so-called sea "serpents" would be an unlikely appendage for a reptileand, they argue that only a warm-blooded mammal would be able to survive in the cold water of the North Atlantic where so many sea monster stories originate.

Still other marine researchers have expanded the theory of the monstrous sea mammal and combined it with another candidate for survival from prehistory. They hypothesize the survival of an ancient species of whale known as Zeuglodon or Basilosaurus, whose fossil remains are well-known. Well-equipped for the role of a sea monster, Basilosaurus was a huge beast with a slim, elongated body measuring over 70 feet in length. Its skull was long and low, and the creature propelled itself by means of a single pair of fins at its forward end. This massive marine monster is known to have survived into the Miocene Epoch, just over 30 million years ago. If the coelacanth has survived for 70 million years, it seems possible that the relatively young Basilosaurus could still be inhabiting the seas.

After years of researching Nessie in Loch Ness and similar long-necked lake creatures all around the Northern Hemisphere, Dr. Roy Mackal has come to believe that rather than beholding "monsters" in the waters, people are witnessing small, remnant bands of Zeuglodons. In Mackal's theory, the creatures migrate from oceans to lakes, following such prey as spawning salmon. Lake Champlain is linked to the Atlantic Ocean by the Richelieu and St. Lawrence Rivers of Quebec. Loch Ness is connected to the sea, and so is Lake Okanagan in British Columbia, where Ogo-pogo is frequently sighted.

Smaller than the Basilosaurus, a later development on the evolutionary ladder, Zeuglodons bear little resemblance to modern whales. Mackal said that the fossil remnants of the creature at the Smithsonian Institute "looks like a big anaconda [a large semiaquatic boa constrictor] with a ridge down its back."

Delving Deeper

Coleman, Loren. Mysterious America. New York: Par aview, 2002.

. "Top Cryptozoological Stories of the Year 2001." The Anomalist, January 4, 2001. [Online]

Heuvelmans, Bernard. On the Track of Unknown Ani mals. New York: Hill and Wang, 1958.

Mackal, Roy P. A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-Mbembe. New York: E. J. Brill, 1987.

. Searching for Hidden Animals: An Inquiry into Zoological Mysteries. Garden City, N.Y.: Double day, 1980.


One of the most universal monster myths is that of the dragon. The awesome, reptilelike beasts appear in the folklore of nearly every country. And the fact that the creature was truly regarded as an actual monster rather than a myth can be demonstrated in several writings of the day. Edward Topsell, writing in his Historie of Serpents (1608), commented that among all the kinds of serpents, there is none comparable to the Dragon, or that afforded and yielded "so much plentiful matter in history for the ample discovery of the nature thereof."

While examining the "true accounts" of dragons in the folklore and records of several cultures, one cannot help wondering if there really were dragonlike monsters prowling the earth, devouring hapless villagers, receiving periodic sacrifices of young maidens, spreading terror into the hearts of all, and being thwarted only by courageous knights. For years, children have been read tales, seen motion pictures, and heard songs of reluctant dragons, kindly dragons, affectionate dragons, magic dragons, and timid dragons.

Behind every myth smolders some spark of truth and reality. A few scientists hold the theory that a number of dinosaurs might have survived into the Age of Man. Pick up any book on dinosaurs and it is apparent that a Tyrannosaurus Rex would have made a terrific dragon in anyone's legend. Such a huge reptile thudding about the countryside of early Europe or Asia could certainly fit even the most dramatic descriptions of a dragon.

No theorist favoring the surviving dinosaur solution to dragons claims that the great reptiles existed in anything approaching abundance. But even a handful of such ancient monsters existing in isolated lakes and forested valleys would not have gone unnoticed, even in the sparsely populated Europe of the Dark Ages. The discovery of even just a few of these great reptiles would have given rise to a far-reaching legend.

A more palatable theory is that the ancient historians were actually describing huge snakes such as the python, which often reaches a length of more than 30 feet. A number of dragon stories from the Middle Ages tell how the dragon wound itself about its prey and slowly crushed it.

The giant snake theory does not account for descriptions of the dragon's feet or its ability to walk on all fours, but some species of giant lizard, such as the Komodo dragon, attains a length of 1012 feet. The Komodo presently resides in the East Indies, but in ancient times, it is possible that St. George and his fellow dragon-killers might have fought some unknown species of monster lizard in Europe and Asia.

A third, more believable theory has an adventurer of the Middle Ages coming upon a cave filled with the bones of a giant cave bear and mistaking them for the skeletal remains of a dragon. Workmen excavating earth for a cathedral might even have unearthed the fossil remains of a dinosaur. It was not until the nineteenth century that scientists realized that the age of fossil bones often ran into millions of years. Previously, the skeletons were considered to have been the remains of some giant creature only recently dead. If, at the time the dragon legend was flourishing in Europe, a discovery of fossil remains was unearthed or sighted in a cave, the find would seem to offer conclusive proof for the existence of dragons. It is likely that the bones of the mammoth, the woolly rhinoceros, and the giant cave bear were not that uncommon in early Europe. The tusk of the mammoth was often called for in the recipes of medieval love potions.

In the marketplace of the Austrian city of Klagenfurt, there is a statue of a giant killing a dragon. The dragon's head has quite obviously been modeled on the skull of a woolly rhinoceros. The connection can be proven by the fact that old records note the discovery of a "dragon's skull" in Klagenfurt in the sixteenth century, 30 years before the statue was constructed. The skull has been preserved all these years by the city fathers and can be identified today as that of the Ice Age rhinoceros.

Delving Deeper

Carrington, Richard. Mermaids and Mastodons. Lon don: Arrow Books, 1960.

Heuvelmans, Bernard. On the Track of Unknown Ani mals. New York: Hill and Wang, 1958.

Mackal, Roy P. A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-Mbembe. New York: E. J. Brill, 1987.

Loch Ness and Other Lake Monsters

In 1936, Glasgow filmmaker Malcolm Irvine filmed a dark blob, approximately 30 feet in length, moving slowly across Loch Ness and offered what he believed to be proof that the most famous monster in the world actually existed in the Scottish lake where it had been sighted since the fifteenth century. With that brief filmstrip, Nessie mania had been brought into the twentieth century and has never subsided, seemingly growing stronger each year. And in spite of Irvine's intentions, his cinematic record of the Loch Ness Monster did not put an end to the controversy over the creature's existence.

Sightings of Nessie, most often described as a long-necked monster resembling a prehistoric brontosaurus, have been seen in and near Loch Ness since St. Columba made the first recorded sighting in 565, and nearly two million tourists each year come to Scotland to see if they might obtain a glimpse and a photograph of the elusive water beast. For the past several decades, volunteer Nessie spotters work in relays from mid-May to mid-October. Each volunteer is equipped with log pads, field glasses, and video cameras with telephoto lenses.

Could a prehistoric creature actually be living in a lake in Scotland? Loch Ness is certainly large enough and deep enough. It is 24 miles long by about a mile across. It has a mean depth of 433 feet, twice that of the North Sea into which it flows through the River Ness at its eastern end. Five rivers and 50 mountain streams feed Loch Ness. The loch never freezes, and snow rarely lies near its shores. Its temperature remains fairly constant at about a chilling 42 degrees Fahrenheit, summer or winter.

One of the more verifiable of the sightings of a large creature in Loch Ness was made in the mid-1960s by Tim Dinsdale, a member of the Defense Ministry's Joint Air Reconnaissance Center (JARIC), who said that the 12- to-16-foot-long thing that he photographed traveling at a speed of 10 knots was "almost certainly animate."

On January 24, 1966, the Royal Air Force issued its analysis of the Dinsdale filmstrip, stating that the movement in the water of the "hump" of the creature indicated that the object was moving at a speed of about 10 miles per hour. After much technical discussion about the relative size and perspective of the "solid black, approximately triangular shape" (the hump) and a comparison of the unidentified creature with a motorboat moving in the same area (filmed immediately after the creature had swum past), the RAF conceded that the object was "not a surface vessel." And: "One can presumably rule out the idea that it is any sort of submarine vessel for various reasons, which leaves the conclusion that it probably is an animate object."

In the spring of 1968, David James, a former member of the British Parliament and head of the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau, stated that in the studied opinion of the bureau, it should be made clear that there was no single monster that had lived in Loch Ness for a few thousand years. What the bureau was investigating was the possibility of an unidentified creature, "breeding, evolving like any other speciescut off from the sea, for 5,000 to 7,000 years." The Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau also wished to make one assertion clear: "There is something there. Too many reliable persons have seen too much, with too little possibility for coincidence, connivance, or conjuration to pass the entire matter off as only a figment of someone's imagination."

In 1968, Dr. Roy P. Mackal, University of Chicago biologist and head of the U.S. branch of the bureau, received a three-year grant from Field Enterprises Educational Corporation of Chicago that incorporated the services and the submarine of Dan Taylor. Although the expedition had sophisticated photographic equipment, biopsy darts, and other advanced research materials the murky brown waters of Loch Ness rendered all the underwater devices relatively useless. Mackal has theorized that the type of creature that most neatly fits the mass of descriptive evidence and photos compiled by researchers and witnesses has to be some kind of large aquatic mammal that would be capable of thriving above 50-degrees north latitude.

Dan Taylor of Hardeeville, South Carolina, accompanied Mackal on the 1969 quest for Nessie that was sponsored by Field Enterprises, publishers of the World Book Encyclopedia. He had been selected to become a part of the expedition because of his expertise with submarines, and he brought with him a small fiberglass submarine that he had built to explore the murky depths of Loch Ness. It was on one of his last runs around the loch that Taylor encountered Nessie. The submarine was hovering around a depth of 250 feet when he said that he felt the craft beginning to turn, unnaturally, "like the secondhand of a clock being pushed backward by a finger," he told J. R. Moehringer of the Los Angeles Times (August 16, 1998). Taylor knew that something had pushed up against the submarine and turned it around, but he said that it didn't dawn on him that it had been Nessie until he surfaced.

D. Gordon Tucker, head of the electronic engineering department at Birmingham University, and a team of sonar experts did have better luck finding evidence of Nessie in the peat-stained loch waters with the special equipment that he had developed. During a number of expeditions to the lake (196870) and probing Loch Ness with sonar, Tucker's study appeared to provide evidence that a family of monsters does indeed inhabit the loch. In one 13-minute period, Tucker stated, sonar echoes defined large objects moving underwater. A massive object was recorded swimming at a speed as high as 17 miles per hour and diving at a rate of 450 feet a minute. "From the evidence we have," he concluded, "there is some animal life in the loch whose behavior is difficult to reconcile with that of fish."

In 1971, Bob Rines, a world-renowned patent attorney, physicist, and engineer, saw Nessie for himself. In the middle of the lake, his binoculars focused clearly on the creature for 10 minutes, he saw what looked like the back of an elephant. He shrugs off the skeptics who say that he merely saw a school of fish or a trick of the light. He is familiar with the dwellers of the deep. It was his groundbreaking research on sonar that was used to locate the Titanic.

In 1972, Rines set up an underwater sound stage at the lake, designed to trigger lights and start a camera whenever a large object passed the station. In 1975, the camera, rigged to roll at one frame every 45 seconds, captured the image of a creature that he believes resembles a plesiosaur, an aquatic, air-breathing dinosaur that should have been extinct 65 million years ago.

In March 1998, Scottish pet food salesman Richard White won a prize award of $825.00 for the best photograph of the Loch Ness Monster of the year. White had been on his way to the village of Foyers above the loch when he noticed an unusual disturbance in the water halfway across the loch toward Urquhart Castle on the opposite bank. He stopped to take a took, grabbed his camera, and began snapping photos of the monster in the water.

Gary Campbell, president of the Official Loch Ness Monster Fan Club, declared White's photos of "Nessie" to be among the best that he had ever seen. The fact that scientists using computer enhancement techniques had been unable to assess exactly what the pictures showed, Campbell said, only added to the mystery of Loch Ness. Although Nessie is far and away the most famous of all monsters inhabiting inland bodies of water, there are reports of equally large, equally strange aquatic creatures in lakes all over the world.

Delving Deeper

Bord, Janet, and Colin Bord. Alien Animals. Harris burg, Penn.: Stackpole Books, 1981.

Coleman, Loren. Mysterious America. New York: Par aview, 2002.

Dey, Iain. "Monster-hunters Set to Trap Nessie with the Net." The Scotsman, October 30, 2001. [Online]

Dinsdale, Tim. Loch Ness Monster. 4th ed. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.

Mackal, Roy P. The Monsters of Loch Ness. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1976.

"Monster Hunter." 60 Minutes II, December 5, 2001. [Online],1597,320220-412,00.shtml.

Russell, Davy, ed. "When Lake Monsters Attack!" X-Project, August 16, 2001. [Online]

Sea Serpents

"Any fool can disbelieve in sea serpents," commented Victoria, British Columbia, newspaper editor Archie Willis in 1933. Willis's pronouncement came as a sharp rejoinder to the skeptics who laughed at the hundreds of witnesses who swore that they had seen a large snakelike creature swimming in the waters off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Willis christened the sea monster "Cadborosaurus," and the nickname stuck.

The creature with its long serpentine body, its horselike head, humps on its back, and its remarkable surface swimming speed of up to 40 knots, has been a part of coastal lore from Alaska to Oregon for hundreds of years. While the waters of the Pacific Northwest border one of the deepest underwater trenches on the planetwhere almost any massive seabeast could residethe greatest number of sightings of Cadborosaurus have occurred in the inland waters around Vancouver Island and the northern Olympic Peninsula.

In Cadborosaurus: Survivor of the Deep (2000), Vancouver biologist Dr. Edward L. Bousfield and Dr. Paul H. Leblond, professor of oceanography at the University of British Columbia, describe the creature as a classic sea monster with a flexible, serpentine body, an elongated neck topped by a head resembling that of a horse or giraffe, the presence of anterior flippers, and a dorsally toothed or spiky tail.

When the crew of the yacht Valhalla sighted a sea monster off Parahiba, Brazil, on December 7, 1905, it was fortunate to have among its passengers E. G. B. Meade-Waldo and Michael J. Nicoll, two expert naturalists, Fellows of the Zoological Society of Britain, who were taking part in a scientific expedition to the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. Meade-Waldo prepared a paper on the sighting, which he presented to the society at its meeting on June 19, 1906. In his report, he told how his attention was first drawn to a "large brown finsticking out of the water, dark seaweed-brown in color, somewhat crinkled at the edge." The creature's fin was an astonishing six feet in length "and projected from 18 inches to two feet from the water." Under the water and to the rear of the fin, the zoologist said that he could perceive "the shape of a considerable body. A great head and neck did not touch the [fin] in the water, but came out of the water in front of it, at a distance of certainly not less than 18 inches, probably more. The neck appeared to be the thickness of a slight man's body, and from seven to eight feet was out of the water."

The head, according to Meade-Waldo's expert observation, had a "very turtlelike appearance, as had also the eyeit moved its neck from side to side in a peculiar manner; the color of the head and neck was dark brown above and whitish below." Meade-Waldo also stated that since he saw the creature, he has reflected on its actual size and concluded that it "was probably considerably larger than it appeared at first."

Nicoll discussed the incident of the Valhalla sea monster sighting two years later in his book Three Voyages of a Naturalist: "I feel certain that [the creature] was not a reptilebut a mammal. The general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubberlike fin, gives one this impression."

Off shore on the Atlantic seacoast of North America, there is a sea serpent that has been paying periodic visits to the Cape Ann area and Gloucester, Massachusetts, for more than 340 years. An Englishman named John Josselyn, who was returning to London, made the first sighting of the creature as it lay "coiled like a cable" on a rock at Cape Ann. Seamen would have killed the serpent, but two Native American crew members protested such an act, stating that all on board would be in danger of terrible retribution if the sea creature was harmed.

On August 6, 1817, Amos Lawrence, founder of the mills which bore his name, sighted the sea monster and issued a proclamation to that effect. Col. Thomas H. Perkins, one of Boston's wealthiest citizens, also testified to the reality of the great serpent, stating that it was about 40 feet in length with a single horn nine to 12 inches long on its head.

On that same August day, a group of fishermen spotted the marine giant near Eastern Point and shouted that it was making its way between Ten Pound Island and the shore. They said later that they could clearly see the thing's backbone moving vertically as it appeared to be chasing schools of herring around the harbor. Shipmaster Solomon Allen judged the serpent to be between 80 and 90 feet in length.

Generations of Gloucester residents and tourists have sighted the Cape Ann sea serpent, often as they sailed the harbor and nearly always stating that they were frightened by the appearance of a huge snakelike creature at least 70 feet in length.

In April 1975, some fishermen saw the monster up close and personal and were able to provide one of the more complete descriptions of the monster.

According to Captain John Favazza, they had sighted a large, dark object on their starboard side, about 80 feet away, that they had at first thought was a whale. Then a serpent-like creature lifted its head from the surface, saw the fishing boat, and began to swim directly toward them. Favazza later told reporters that the sea serpent was black, smooth rather than scaly, with a pointed head, small eyes, and a white line around its mouth. It swam sideways in the water, like a snake. It was longer than his 66-foot boat, and he estimated its girth as about 15 feet around.

Some cryptozoologists, individuals who study the possibility of such creatures as sea and lake monsters truly existing, have theorized that plesiosaurs, one of the giant reptiles of the Mesozoic Age, which ended about 70 million years ago, could have survived in the depths of the relatively unchanged environment of Earthl's oceans. Because some sea monster sightings occur in cold waters, other researchers favor the survival of an ancient species of mammals, such as the ancestor of the whale known as Zeuglodon or Basilosaurus. The Basilosaurus had a slim, elongated, snakelike body measuring more than 70 feet in length which the huge creature propelled by means of a single pair of fins at its forward end.

The debate over what monstrous creatures best wear the mantle of "sea monster" could have been solved for all time back in 1852 when two New Bedford whaling vessels, the Monongahela and the Rebecca Sims, were drifting slowly in the Pacific doldrums, their sails limp from lack of wind. When the lookout's shout of "something big in the water" caused Captain Seabury of the Monongahela to use his telescope to view the object; he could distinguish only a huge living creature, thrashing about in the water as if in great agony. The captain's immediate deduction was that they had come upon a whale that had been wounded by the harpoons of another whaler's long-boats and was now dying.

Seabury ordered three longboats over the side to end the beast's pain, and he was in the first boat as it pulled alongside the massive thing that he still believed was a wounded whale. The instant a harpoon struck the beast, a nightmarish head 10 feet long rose out of the water and lunged at the boats. Two of the long-boats were capsized in seconds. Before the monster submerged, the terrified whalers realized at once that they were dealing with a sea creature the likes of which they had never seen.

Unfurling her sails to catch what little wind there was, the Monongahela managed to come alongside the capsized longboats and began to pick up the seamen who were bobbing in the water, fearing that the hideous beast might at any moment resurface and eat them. The Rebecca Sims, under the command of Captain Gavitt, pulled alongside her sister ship, and the crews of the two ships began discussing the strange monster that they had encountered.

The next morning, the crewmen had pulled in only about half of the line when the massive carcass suddenly popped to the surface. It was much greater in length than the ship, which measured 100 feet from stem to stern, and it had a thick body that was about 50 feet in diameter. Its color was a brownish gray with a light stripe about three feet wide running its full length. Its neck was 10 feet around, and it supported a grotesque head that was 10 feet long and shaped like that of a gigantic alligator. The astounded crewmen counted 94 teeth in its ghastly jawsand each of the three-inch, saberlike teeth were hooked backward, like those of a snake.

Seabury was fully aware of the ridicule accorded to sailing masters and their crews who claimed to have encountered "sea serpents," so he gave orders that the hideous head be chopped off and placed in a huge pickling vat in order to preserve it until they returned to New Bedford. In addition, he wrote a detailed report of their harpooning the sea monster and he provided a complete description of the thing. Since Gavitt and his crew were homeward bound, Seabury gave him the report in order to prepare New Bedford for the astonishing exhibit that he and his men would bring with them upon their own return.

If only Seabury would have transferred the grisly head to Gavitt's vessel along with his report of the monster, the doubting world would have had its first mounted sea serpent's head more than 150 years ago. Captain Seabury's account of the incredible sea serpent arrived safely in New Bedford and was entered into the records along with the personal oath of Captain Gavitt. But the Monongahela never returned to port with its incredible cargo. Years later her nameboard was found on the shore of Umnak Island in the Aleutians.

Delving Deeper

Carrington, Richard. Mermaids and Mastodons. Lon don: Arrow Books, 1960.

Cleary, Ryan. "Monster Beached." The Telegram, August 2, 2001. [Online]

Coleman, Loren. Mysterious America. New York: Par aview, 2002.

Ellis, Richard. Monsters of the Sea. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Heuvelmans, Bernard. In the Wake of the Sea Serpents. New York: Hill and Wang, 1968.


The Thunderbird figures prominently in the traditions of many Native American tribes. For some, it is the flapping of the Thunderbird's wings that one hears during rainstorms rumbling in the skies and it is the Thunderbird's eyes and beak that flash the lightning. To the Lakota of the prairie, the Thunderbird is an embodiment of the Great Mystery, the Supreme Being, which created all things on Earth. For the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy of the northeast, Hino, the Thunderbird, guardian of the skies and the spirit of thunder, could assume the form of a human when it suited its purpose. The cosmology of many of the western tribes establish a Thunderbird in each of the four corners of the world as guardians and protectors, fighting always to keep away evil spirits.

Many scholars over the centuries have attributed the Native American myths of the Thunderbird to their reverence for the eagle, the largest of indigenous birds in North America. Interestingly, however, many people have claimed to have seen for themselves a great bird, far larger than the eagle, flying overhead. In fact, even in the nineteenth century, some witnesses were claiming to have seen flying monsters that resembled pterodactyls, the winged reptiles that should have been extinct 60 million years ago.

On April 9, 1948, a farm family outside of Caledonia, Illinois, saw a monster bird that they all said was bigger than an airplane. In different parts of the state on the same day, a Freeport truck driver said that he, too, had seen the creature. A former army colonel admitted that he had seen a bird of tremendous size while he stood talking with the head of Western Military Academy and a farmer near Alton. On April 10, several witnesses saw the gigantic bird. One man said that he had at first believed it to be a type of plane that he had never before seen. On April 24, back at Alton, a man described it as an enormous, incredible thing, flying at about 500 feet and casting a shadow the same size as that of a Piper Cub at the same height. Two policemen said that the monster bird was as big as a small airplane.

Giant Thunderbird-type creatures have continued to be sighted in various parts of the United States, from the northeast to the northwest and many points in between. On September 25, 2001, a witness sighted a giant bird flying over South Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Researchers soon found other witnesses who claimed to have had sightings of Thunderbirds in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. On November 5, a resident of Bristol, Connecticut, who was out walking his dog at dawn, said that he had sighted a giant birdlike creature the size of an ultralight plane flying over a community center.

In addition to the ancient Native American legends of the Thunderbird, there are certain old pioneer records that support the existence of giant birdlike creatures in the skies of North America. From the mouth of the Illinois River at Grafton to Alton (Illinois), a distance of 20 miles, the Mississippi River runs from west to east, and its north bank (the Illinois side) is a high bluff. When the first white men explored the area, they found that some unknown muralist from some forgotten tribal culture had engraved and painted hideous depictions of two gigantic, winged monsters. The petroglyphs were each about 30 feet in length and 12 feet in height.

Father Jacques Marquette (16371675), the celebrated Jesuit priest-explorer, mentioned the strange petroglyphs in his journals of the Mississippi, published in Paris in 1681. In a small volume published in 1698, Father Louis Hennepin (1626after 1701), another early explorer of the wilds of the west, had also described the two enormously large petroglyphs. In his 48-page booklet The Piasa or the Devil Among the Indians (Morris, Ill., 1887), P. A. Armstrong described the creatures as having "the wings of a bat, but of the shape of an eagle'sThey also had four legs, each supplied with eagle-shaped talons. The combination and blending together of the master species of the earth, sea, and airso as to present the leading and most terrific characteristics of the various species thus graphically arranged, is an absolute wonder and seems to show a vastly superior knowledge of animal, fowl, reptile, and fish nature than has been accorded to the Indian."

Whatever the petroglyphs truly represented, all the native tribes of what then constituted the Northwest Territory had a terrible tradition associated with the creatures they called the Piasa (or Piusa). Sometime in the 1840s, Professor John Russell of Jersey County, Illinois, explored the caves that the Piasa were said to have inhabited and reported that the roof of the cavern was nearly 20 feet high and vaulted. The shape of the cave was irregular, but so far as Professor Russell and his guide could judge, the bottom averaged 20 by 30 feet. According to Russell: "The floor of the cave throughout its whole extent was one mass of human bones. Skulls and other bones were mingled together in the utmost confusionwe dug to the depth of three or four feet in every quarter of the cavern and still found only bones. The remains of thousands must have been deposited there."

Some of the traditions of the native people state that the Piasa was fond of bathing in the Mississippi and was a rapid swimmer. When it was splashing about in the Father of Waters, it raised such a commotion as to force great waves over the banks. Other ancient traditions state that when the Piasa was angry it thrashed the ground with its tail until the whole earth shook and trembled. The Piasa was generally feared because of its propensity for snatching tribes-people and making off with them. John Russell published an account of the Piasa's insatiable appetite for human flesh in the 1848 July issue of The Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate : "[the Piasa] was artful as he was powerful, and would dart suddenly and unexpectedly upon an Indian, bear him off into one of the caves of the bluff and devour him. Hundreds of warriors attempted for years to destroy him, but without success. Whole villages were nearly depopulated, and consternation spread through all the tribes of the Illini."

In the legends of the Miami tribe, the Miamis were fighting their traditional enemies, the Mestchegamies, at the upper end of the lower canyon near the cave of the Piasa. As the fighting was reaching its climax, the war whoops apparently disturbed the Piasa, and two fierce, winged creatures emerged from their caves, "uttering bellowings and shrieks, while the flapping of their wings upon the air roared out like so many thunderclaps." The awful winged beasts swooped low over the heads of the combatants, and each snatched a Miami chieftain in its massive talons. The Miamis became instantly demoralized, believing that the Great Spirit had sent the Piasa to aid and assist their enemies.

The Miamis were so crippled as a nation that the survivors fled toward the Wabash River and did not feel safe until they had crossed its waters. Here they remained for generations before returning to Illinois territory. If these stories are true, then the seeming assistance by the Piasa to the Mestchegamies in their desperate battle with the Miamis near Alton, Illinois, proved to be a terrible curse instead of a sudden blessing. Soon after the Piasa had flown off with the screaming and struggling Miami chieftains in their talons, the monsters apparently developed a taste for human flesh. Consequently, the Mestchegami came to pay for their victory over the Miamis through an unending sacrifice of their people to feed the ever-hungry Piasa, which now seemed insatiable in their forays for human flesh.

According to Armstrong's little book and his recounting of the Miami tradition, the Piasa existed "several thousand winters before the palefaces came." Armstrong goes on to suggest the Piasa could have been surviving pterodactyl from the age of the great reptiles. "The fossil remains of some 25 species of this monster have been found [c. 1887], and it is sometimes called the pterosaur or flying lizard," he writes. "But the most singular monster of the age yet discovered [and its shape and component parts analyzed] is the ramphorhyneus, which seems to be a connective link between birds, beasts, and reptiles. Its body and neck resemble that of the Piasa, while its tail is identical with it, except it is pictured as dragging behind instead of being carried around the body or over its back and head. The shape of the head is drawn to resemble that of a duck, with the long bill of a snipe or bittern, but it is full of sharp, round teeth, like those of the crocodile. It had four legs, with eagle's talons, and a pair of bat-like wingsits entire length from head to tip of tail was probably 30 feet or more. In many respects the Piasa is a faithful copy of the ramphorhyneus. The form, shape, and description of the Piasa, according to the Indian tradition, were painted from actual sight of the living subjectThus may the traditions of these Indians be true"

Numerous sightings of birds the size of small airplanes were reported in southwest Pennsylvania in the summer and early fall of 2001. On June 13, a resident in Greensville, who said that he was familiar with the wildlife in the area, at first mistook the huge bird for an ultralight aircraft. He estimated the wingspan to be about 15 feet and the body to be nearly five feet in length. In July, a witness in Erie County claimed to have seen a large, black-colored bird with a wingspan of about 17 feet. On September 25, a witness who said that he had a strong interest in ornithology, encountered a massive bird with a head about three feet long and a wingspan of 10 to 15 feet.

In October 2002, Alaskan villagers in Togiak and Manokotak reported seeing a huge bird larger than anything they had seen before. Pilot John Bouker, owner of Bristol Bay Air Service, said that while flying to Manokotak he and his passengers sighted a large "raptorlike" bird with a wingspan that matched the length of his Cessna 207, about 14 feet. When Moses Coupchiak, a heavy equipment operator from Togiak, spotted the monster bird flying toward him, he said that he thought it was a small airplane until it banked to the left and flew away.

Biologists in the region said that they believed the witnesses sighted a bird known as the Steller's sea eagle, a species native to northeast Asia, that occasionally shows up on the Aleutian islands and on Kodiak, Alaska. The Steller's sea eagle can have a wingspan of eight feet and is about three times as large as a bald eagle.

Delving Deeper

Armstrong, P. A. The Piasa or the Devil Among the Indians. Morris, Ill., 1887.

Coleman, Loren. "Top Cryptozoological Stories of the Year 2001." The Anomalist, January 4, 2001. [Online]

Porco, Peter. "Southwest Alaskans See Bird They Say Is Super Cub-sized." Anchorage Daily News, Octo ber 15, 2002. [Online]

Steiger, Brad. Worlds Before Our Own. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1978.