Do you believe in Bigfoot? According to a 2014 study, one in five Americans is convinced that Bigfoot is an actual living, breathing creature. They are sure of this, despite the total lack of evidence. There are no skeletal remains. No one has ever captured a Bigfoot, alive or dead. All we have are stories, a few plaster foot print casts, and some bear and cow hairs collected from barbed wire fences.
Cryptids are creatures that science has not been able to confirm, but many people believe they are out there nonetheless. Some of them are based on mythology, like Bigfoot and his Florida cousin, the skunk ape (who supposedly doesn’t shower as often).
Others used to be alive but are now extinct. The Loch Ness Monster, often pictured as a plesiosaur, is an example. So is the ivory-billed woodpecker. The last known bird was killed in 1944, but that doesn’t stop excited birders from claiming to see this species to this day.
Some cryptids are living animals that can be found in the wild, but people keep seeing them in places where they’re not. Black panthers are the best known. The black panther is a melanistic color form of the leopard, and they have been reported from many places where leopards are native, including Africa and India.
Florida panthers don’t have a gene for melanism, but about a third of the people who tell me they’ve seen wild panthers also tell me the cats were black. They have no explanation when I tell them every single Florida panther ever documented was tan or brown. Besides, it doesn’t click anyway — they still insist they saw a black one.
In some cases, cryptids have turned out to actually exist. The platypus is a famous example. When the first preserved hide was brought back to Europe, scientists laughed and derided it as a fraud of the most egregious kind. Who would believe this scrap of fur with a duck beak and beaver tail sewn could possible be taken seriously? Oops.
Other animals that started out as cryptids include the Komodo dragon, giraffes (“a cross between a camel and a leopard,” according to the old bestiaries), okapi and mountain gorillas. Zoologists have had to eat a lot of crow over the years as these “imaginary” creatures showed up in the flesh.
To avoid embarrassments of this kind, biology has developed new tools. One of the latest is environmental DNA surveys. Animals don’t always present themselves to be studied, but they are constantly scattering their DNA about in the form of shed skin cells, excreted waste matter and even rotting carcasses.
This so-called eDNA will rat you out every time. It’s mostly used to confirm the presence of uncommon species that would be difficult or impossible to find by other means. Cryptid or not, they can hide, but they’ll be discovered all the same.
An eDNA study was in the news recently. Biologists studying Loch Ness (yes, looking for some kind of rational explanation for the famous monster) found large amounts of eel DNA. This lends some credence to the old hypothesis that Nessie is a large eel.
Of course, eDNA can’t prove when something isn’t there. You can’t prove a negative. Go ahead: Provide irrefutable evidence that there is no skunk ape. (While you’re at it, prove the Flying Spaghetti Monster didn’t create us with his Noodly Appendage.) I’ll wait.
And this is what true believers in various cryptids rely on. No one can prove it’s not out there, so it must be. A lack of evidence is no problem at all. In fact, the more scientists say it’s probably not (because science doesn’t work in absolutes), the more they say it definitely is.
It’s probably not shocking that a belief in cryptids is correlated with a belief in various conspiracy theories. There’s a certain mistrustful personality type that buys into both and refuses to trust anyone who claims authority, because of course they’re lying to you, because they don’t want you to know. And they’re all covering it up!
So pick your team. Is it going to be Team The Truth Is Out There, or Team Rational Thinking? It’s absolutely your choice. Just remember, whichever you select, the illuminati lizard people are watching.
Capt. Josh Olive is a fifth-generation native Florida Cracker and a Florida Master Naturalist, and has been fascinated by all sorts of wild things and places since he was able to walk. If you have questions about living with wildlife, contact him at Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com or 941-276-9657. You can also follow him on Instagram @florida_is_wild.