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Fantastic Creatures

The first evidence that a fabled donkey-like creature existed in the heart of the Congo appeared in Henry Morton Stanley's 1860 book In Darkest Africa. Stanley wrote that the Wambutti pygmies, who lived in the Ituri forests, "knew a donkey and called it 'atti.' They say that they sometimes catch them in pits. What they can find to eat is a wonder. They eat leaves."

But no one had ever heard of asses in the Congo. The only member of the horse family known from the region was the zebra, and zebras don't live in forests, especially the deep jungle where the pygmies hunted.

ByPeter TysonNova


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The gorilla is one of many animals that remained mythical to Europeans for centuries before they themselves finally laid eyes on them.
© Roberto A. Sanchez/iStockphoto

Intrigued by Stanley's report, Sir Harry Johnston, then Governor of Uganda, questioned some pygmies he met in 1899. "They at once understood what I meant," he wrote, "and pointing to a zebra-skin and a live mule, they informed me that the creature in question . . . was like a mule with zebra stripes on it." When they showed him the elusive creature's cloven-footed tracks, Johnston changed his mind. "I disbelieved them," he wrote, "and imagined that we were merely following a forest-eland." (The eland is a large African antelope.) Finally, when he got hold of a skin, Johnston changed his mind yet again: "Upon receiving this skin, I saw at once what [it] was—namely, a close relation to the giraffe."

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From that skin, a pair of skulls, and the pygmies' tales, Johnston was able to conceive what the mysterious animal must look like. It was a strange beast. As the zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans has noted, it reminded one of those mythical creatures comprised of the body parts of various animals. It was like a large antelope but with no visible horns; it had ears similar to but larger than a donkey's; its hindquarters were striped like those of a zebra; and it had an anteater's long tongue.

The antelope-donkey-anteater-giraffe, otherwise known as the okapi
© Heather Robertson/iStockphoto

Could a more fantastical beast be imagined? Few Europeans believed it existed, but Johnston's persistence paid off. In the early part of this century, the animal finally became known to science as the okapi. Named for Johnston, Okapia johnstoni is a heavy-bodied animal with a coat of reddish chestnut, yellowish-white cheeks, and thighs ringed with alternating stripes of cream and purplish black. Johnston's last guess about this oddball creature was right—it is related to the giraffe. To bring to light a huge, unknown mammal in this century astounded the world. As one scientist has written, we today have no idea of "the romance surrounding the discovery of the Okapi, nor of the excitement caused in natural history circles, first by the vague reports of its presence, and later by its actual finding."

Those who disbelieve indigenous tales of fabulous creatures might do well to remember the okapi, as well as certain points surrounding its discovery. To wit:

man with elephant-bird egg
An Antandroy tribesman holds the fossil egg of an elephant bird, which stomped through Madagascar until it went extinct about a millennium ago.
© Frans Lanting/Corbis

Legends often hold some truth. In the Middle Ages, ivory horns supposedly taken from unicorns were peddled to European royalty for 20 times their weight in gold. Few if any collectors knew that these long, spiraled tusks came from an actual animal, the narwhal, a cetacean that lives in the Arctic. Scholars believe that the remarkably human aspect that the heads of seals and manatees rising above the waves can take on may have given rise to tales of the mermaid, the fabled half-woman, half-fish of the deep.

While traveling across Arabia on his return from China in 1294, Marco Polo heard of a bird on Madagascar that was so large it could carry elephants aloft in its talons. Baseless? Nope. Until they went extinct about a thousand years ago, Madagascar's elephant birds were the largest birds that ever lived. Though they couldn't lift an elephant, they did stand ten feet tall and weigh close to half a ton.

pygmy hippo
The forest-dwelling pygmy hippopotamus is alive and well in West Africa.
© Dirk Freder/iStockphoto

Local people's tales of fantastic creatures should not be dismissed out of hand. For centuries, Europeans traveling in remote areas were wont to disregard any legend an indigenous person might have of beasts that they themselves had not seen. This was part paternalism, part justifiable caution in the face of the possibly apocryphal.

Yet indigenous people often know whereof they speak. In 1840, for example, outsiders first heard of a dwarf version of the hippopotamus that native Liberians claimed they hunted in the jungle. But since no Europeans had seen a live one, it was not until the early part of this century that biologists finally conceded that the West African pygmy hippo actually exists.

In Africa alone, there are myriad instances of animals that foreigners thought fabulous even as locals calmly informed them they were quite real. "Most of these animals were known first from native reports about them," writes the late naturalist Gerald Durrell, adding wryly, "and, of course, primitive tribesmen all over the world spend their time making up stories about animals in order to confuse and delude European zoologists."

Komodo dragon
Named for the Indonesian island that is its chief remaining habitat, the Komodo dragon is the world's largest lizard.
© pius99/iStockphoto

Just because a scientist hasn't seen it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. In 1912, a pilot crash-landed his plane on a small island in the heart of the Indonesian archipelago. "The airman came back with a tale that he had met fierce and monstrous dragons, at least four meters [13 feet] long, which according to the inhabitants ate pigs, goats, and deer, and even attacked horses," writes Bernard Heuvelmans in his classic 1955 work On the Track of Unknown Animals. "Needless to say, nobody believed a word of his story." Soon, however, a Dutch botanist based in the region, following up on a story by locals of a boeaja darat, or "land crocodile," traveled to the island and "discovered" the Komodo dragon.

Surprisingly for many, discoveries of large, previously unknown animals continue to occur.

One of the most famous of once-fabulous creatures was first described in 1625. That year, an English adventurer named Andrew Battel published a story about a monster in the heart of Africa known as the pongo.

This Pongo is in all proportion like a man, but ... he is more like a Giant in stature, than a man: for he is very tall, [and] hath a man's face, hollow-eyed, with long haire vpon his browes. His face and eares are without haire, and his hands also. His bodie is full of haire, but not very thicke, and it is a dunnish colour... Hee goeth alwaies vpon his legs, and carrieth his hands clasped on the nape of his necke, when he goeth upon the ground... They goe many together, and kill many Negroes that trauaile in the Woods ... Those Pongos are neuer taken aliue, because they are so strong, that ten men cannot hold one of them....

Despite such a detailed portrait by a white man, few Europeans believed such a beast existed. A full century-and-a-half after Battel's story appeared, one writer claimed that "the large species, described by Buffon and other authors as of the size of a man, is held by many to be a Chimera." It was not until the mid-19th century that biologists finally described the animal, giving it the scientific name Gorilla gorilla.

It took a specimen shot in China by sons of Teddy Roosevelt to finally convince outsiders that the giant panda actually existed.
© Sam Lee/iStockphoto

Just because it hasn't been seen in a long time doesn't mean it doesn't exist. In 1869, the French missionary Armand David became the first Westerner to lay eyes on a giant panda, when Chinese hunters brought him a young panda they had killed. David never saw a live panda, and in the ensuing decades, as expedition after expedition failed to turn up the animal, people in the West began to wonder whether the purported black-and-white "bear" even existed. A German expedition to southeast Tibet finally saw one in 1915, but it was not until 1929, when two sons of Theodore Roosevelt shot one in China and placed its stuffed skin in Chicago's Field Museum, that the giant panda finally came into being for many.

Even when scientists have specimens in hand, they may remain fantastic. One of the most famous of the sea serpents in days of yore was the kraken, from the Norwegian word denoting a tree trunk with its roots. Alfred, Lord Tennyson once described the kraken's many arms:

And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber'd and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.

Many have felt that the kraken was none other than the giant squid, a tentacled beast with eyes the size of hubcaps and a length that can exceed 60 feet. Yet is the giant squid any less mythical than the kraken? No one has ever seen a giant squid in its natural habitat*; the animal is known only from a few specimens hauled up by fishermen. In 1997, a $5 million expedition funded by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society tried to outfit sperm whales with video cameras in order to observe their chief prey in its abode 2,500 feet down. Alas, they saw no giant squid.

Before a fisherman caught one in 1938 off the Comoros Islands, the coelacanth was thought to have been extinct for 90 million years.
© Hoberman Collection/Corbis

Sometimes animals thought long extinct turn up alive. The five-foot-long fish known as the coelacanth was thought to have died out a full 25 million years before the dinosaurs vanished, until a fisherman caught one off the African coast in 1938. (The coelacanth has recently turned up in Indonesian waters as well.)

Long-lost creatures are still found on land, too. In 1995, the French ethnographer Michel Peissel discovered what appears to be an ancient breed of horse in a remote valley of northeastern Tibet. The Riwoche horse, as his team named the animal for its home region, looks just like horses in cave paintings of the European Stone Age. If an ancient horse can be found in a remote Tibetan valley, is it possible that the fabled giant sloth might one day be found in the remote Amazonian jungle?

Despite common wisdom, the world has not been fully explored. In 1812, the renowned French naturalist Baron Georges Cuvier boldly asserted that "there is little hope of discovering new species of large quadrupeds." Alas, Cuvier was off the mark. A short list of large mammals that have been identified since 1812 might include, in addition to all those mentioned above, the mountain gorilla, Indian tapir, black ape, siamang, gelada, Himalayan takin, Père David's deer, Przewalski's horse, white rhinoceros, pygmy chimpanzee, and Kodiak brown bear.

Przewalski's horse, a wild horse native to the steppes of Central Asia, was first described by a Russian colonel as late as 1881.
© Laurent Rozier/iStockphoto

Surprisingly for many, discoveries of large, previously unknown animals continue to occur. Since 1986, several new species of primate have turned up in Madagascar. In the past few years, in a single, mountainous region on the border between Vietnam and Laos, scientists have identified a new species of giant barking deer, a new kind of pig, and a 200-pound bovid, or cow-like animal, known as the pseudo oryx. The seas, in particular, continue to reveal secret beasts, some of them quite sizeable. Marine biologists have identified three new species of beaked whale off Japan in 1958, off California in 1966, and off Peru in 1991, respectively. And in 1976, fishermen near Hawaii hauled up a 15-foot shark weighing just under a ton. Never before seen, this monster plankton-feeder has since been dubbed "megamouth."

The great 19th-century American naturalist Louis Agassiz once held that "[e]ach time that a new and surprising fact is revealed by science, people say first that 'it is not true,' then, that it 'disagrees with religion,' and, finally, that 'everyone has always known it.'" Those who hold no truck with local tales of strange creatures off in the forest may do well to consider these words, just as they may do well to remember the story of that fantastic antelope-donkey-anteater-giraffe, the okapi.

*Editor's note: Since this article was written, Japanese scientists have observed and photographed a giant squid in its natural habitat (see Further Reading).

Editor's Notes

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program The Beast of Loch Ness.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the NOVA Science Trust, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers.