[- Dinosaurs, Living -]Do dinosaurs still exist? The question may sound absurd. After all, conventional wisdom holds that these giant reptiles lapsed into extinction some 65 million years ago. Still, occasional reports from remote regions of the earth have kept the issue alive, if only to readers of tabloid newspapers and to the handful of scientists, adventurers, and nature writers who have tried to make sense of the accounts and, where possible, to investigate them.
Much of the investigation has centered on a legendary creature generally referred to mokele-mbembe and described as a sauropod-like animal, with a long neck, small head, bulky body, and tail. The first printed mention of the huge, plate-shaped tracks associated with the beast appears in a 1776 history of French missionaries in west-central Africa. In the next two centuries missionaries, colonial authorities, hunters, explorers, and natives would provide strikingly consistent descriptions of the animals supposedly responsible for tracks of this kind. Sighting reports in recent years have been confined to the swampy, remote Likouala region of the Congo.
In 1980 and 1981 University of Chicago biologist Roy P. Mackal led two expeditions to the area, the first in the company of herpetologist James H. Powell, Jr., who had heard mokele-mbembe stories while doing crocodile research in west-central Africa. Many have researched mokele-mbembe whether in relation to various online degrees or for their own personal interest, but no research has been as in depth as Mackal's. Neither expedition produced a sighting, though Mackal and his companions interviewed a number of native witnesses. The creatures, greatly feared, were said to live in the swamps and rivers. A band of pygmies supposedly killed one at Lake Tele around 1959.
Though the Mackal expeditions were unable to reach the nearly inaccessible Tele, a rival group, headed by American engineer Herman Regusters, successfully made the journey. Over a period of two to three weeks, he and his wife Kia Van Dusen would claim, huge long-necked animals came into view on several occasions, both in the water and in the swampy areas around the lake. Congolese government biologist Marcellin Agagna, who had participated in Mackal's second expedition, arrived there in the spring of 1982 and reported a single sighting. Both Regusters and Agagna said that camera problems frustrated their attempts to obtain photographic evidence of these fantastic sights. Three subsequent expeditions, one English and two Japanese, produced no sightings.
If there is such a thing as a living dinosaur, mokele-mbembe is it. Other claimed candidates cannot marshal a comparably compelling case. There is no a priori reason why dinosaurs could not survive in the Congo basin, where the climate and the geography have not changed since the age of reptiles. Its known fauna include such ancient animals as crocodiles, which coexisted with dinosaurs and whose form has remained stable over tens of millions of years. Of course, absent flesh, skin, or bones, mokele-mbembe's existence remains unproven and intriguing possibility at best, an absurdly inflated legend at worst.
Enigma of the sirrushAround 600 B.C., during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, a Babylonian artist fashioned bas reliefs on bricks used in the enormous archway of the Ishtar Gate and the high walls of the approach road. The bas reliefs consist of three animals, and each row of bricks displays numerous images of one of them. The rows alternate, some showing lions, others rimis (as the Babylonians called them), and still others sirrushes (dragons).
Though extinct in Mesopotamia, the rimi was a real animal which was either remembered or known through specimens brought over from Eurasia, where these wild oxen (usually called urus or aurochs) lived on until 1627. The dragon, of course, was a purely imaginary animal. Or was it?
Willy Ley has described the sirrush, which he considered a "zoological puzzle of fantastic dimensions," thus:
... a slender body covered with scales, a long slender scaly tail, and a long slim scaly neck bearing a serpent's head. Although the mouth is closed, a long forked tongue protrudes. There are flaps of skin attached to the back of the head, which is adorned (and armed) with a straight horn....
The Apocrypha's Book of Bel and the Dragon relates a curious story: that in the temple of Bel, Lord of the World, Nebuchadnezzar's favored god, the priests kept a "great dragon or serpent, which they of Babylon worshipped." The king challenged the Hebrew prophet Daniel, who had been going about sneering about nonliving gods of brass, to dispute this god, who "liveth, and eateth and drinketh; you canst not say that he is no living god; therefore worship him." To remove himself from this quandary, Daniel poisoned the animal.
The fortieth chapter of Job in the Old Testament, though written anywhere from 100 to 1300 years earlier than the Ishtar Gate's construction, may refer to the sirrush by another name:
Behold now Behemoth ... he eateth grass as an ox. Know now his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly. He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together. His bones are as strong pieces of brass, his bones are like bars of iron.... He lieth under the shady trees, in the cover of the reed, and fens. The shady trees cover him with their shadow; the willows of the brook compass him about.... His nose pierceth through snares.
The behemoth's identity has long puzzled biblical scholars, who have not doubted that Job was writing of a real animal, even if no satisfactory candidate among known animals seems to exist. Mackal offers this interpretation: "The behemoth's tail is compared to a cedar, which suggests a sauropod. This identification is reinforced by other factors. Not only the behemoth's physical nature, but also its habits and food preferences are compatible with a sauropod's. Both live in swampy areas with trees, reeds and fins (a jungle swamp)."
The discoverer of the Ishtar Gate, German archaeologist Robert Koldeway, gave serious thought to the possibility that the sirrush may have been an actual animal. Unlike other fantastic beasts in Babylonian art, he noted, images of the sirrush remained unchanged over centuries. What struck him about these depictions was the "uniformity of [the sirrush's] physiological conceptions."
The sirrush, he said, was more like a saurian than any other animal. Such creatures did not coexist with human beings, he wrote, and the Babylonians, who were not paleontologists, could not have reconstructed a saurian from fossil remains; yet the Old Testament states explicitly that the sirrush was real. All this considered, he was reduced to speculating that the Babylonian priests kept "some reptile" in a dark temple and led the unsuspecting to believe it was a living sirrush.
The Babylonians are known to have penetrated equatorial Africa, home of the mokele-mbembe, and Ley, Bemard Heuvelmans, and Mackal have all suggested that in the course of their travels they heard of such creatures, perhaps sighted them, or even brought a specimen home with them. This is not an unreasonable hypothesis, if we assume that mokele-mbembe exists.
On the other hand, some modern scholars, for example Adrienne Mayor, dispute the assumption that the ancients did not know of, or had no interest in, prehistoric animals. Mayor has written, "Reliable ancient sources relate that, when fossils were discovered in antiquity, they were transported with great care, identified, preserved, and sometimes traded. Reconstructed models or the remains of 'unknown' species were displayed in Greece and Rome." She adds that ancient writings seem to indicate that "some representations and descriptions of crypto-animals in antiquity were based on reconstructions from skeletons of living or extinct animals." If such was the case with the sirrush, however, the fossilized remains would have had to be brought in from elsewhere. Dinosaur fossils did not exist in Mesopotamia.
Other dinosaurs in AfricaWhile at Lake Tele, Herman Regusters reported, he and his companions heard a peculiar story. A few months earlier, in February 1981, according to local people, the bodies of three adult male elephants had been found floating in the water. The cause of death seemed to be two large puncture marks in the abdomen of each. These were not bullet holes, and the elephants still had their tusks, indicating that poachers had not killed them. The natives attributed the deaths to a mysterious horned creature which lived in the nearby forests.
This creature is called emela-ntouka ("killer of elephants"). Reports consistently describe it as the size of an elephant, or larger, with heavy legs which support the body from beneath (as opposed to the side, as in crocodiles) and a long, thick tail. Its face is said to be generally rhinoceros-like, with a single horn which protrudes from the front of the head. It is semiaquatic in habit, eats foliage, and kills elephants and buffaloes with its great horn.
In A Living Dinosaur? (1987) Mackal suggests that such animals, if they exist, are likely to be a kind of prehistoric rhinoceros or a horned dinosaur of the triceratops variety. If the former, it is a mammal.
Mackal also has collected a handful of vague reports of mbielu mbielu mbielu, "the animal with planks growing out of its back," said to resemble a stegosaur. More compelling were sightings of nguma monene, an enormous serpent-like reptile with a serrated ridge along its back and four legs situated along its sides. Among the witnesses was American missionary Joseph Ellis, who in November 1971 said he saw such a creature emerge from the Mataba River and disappear into the tall grass. Ellis did not get a good look at its entire body, though he was only 200 feet away and had the creature under observation for two minutes. He never saw its head and neck, but from the portions of the body above water, he determined that it had to be over 30 feet long.
As one well familiar with the Congo's fauna, he was positive that the animal could not have been a crocodile. Native reports, which do include descriptions of a head and extended tail, suggest to Mackal that "we may be dealing with a living link between lizards and snakes," perhaps a "lizard type ... derived from a primitive, semi-aquatic group known as dolichosaurs, rather than more advanced monitors."
In 1932 biologist Ivan T. Sanderson and animal collector W. M. (Gerald) Russell had a bizarre and frightening experience in the Mamfe Pool, part of the Mainyu River in West Cameroon. The two men, with native guides, were in separate boats and passing cliff-like river banks dotted with deep caves when suddenly they heard ear-shattering roars, as if huge animals were fighting in one of the caves.
Swirling currents sucked both boats near the cave's mouth. At that point, Sanderson would recall, there "came another gargantuan gurgling roar and something enormous rose out of the water, turned it to sherry-colored foam and then, again roaring, plunged below. This 'thing' was shiny black and was the head of something, shaped like a seal but flattened from above to below. It was about the size of a full-grown hippopotamus-this head, I mean."
Sanderson and Russell chose not to stick around to see anything more. Upstream they found big tracks which could not have been placed there by a hippopotamus because hippos did not live in the area. This was because the creatures had killed them all, the natives said. The creatures were not carnivorous, however; their diet consisted of the liana fruits that grew along the rivers. The natives called these creatures, in Sanderson's phonetic rendering, "m'kuoo m'bemboo."
If, however, the part of the animal the party saw really was its head, the animal was not the sauropod-like mokele-mbembe. Sauropods by definition have small heads. Mackal found during his own expeditions 50 years later that some local people used "mokele-mbembe" as something of a generic description of any large, dangerous animal including those described above living in rivers, lakes, or swamps.
Dinosaurs in the lost worldIn his 1912 novel The Lost World Sir Arthur Conan Doyle imagined the discovery, by a band of hardy English explorers, of a plateau on the Amazon basin where prehistoric monsters lived on millions of years past their time. Considering the enduring popularity of this romantic tale, which one biographer calls "perhaps his finest work in fiction," it is perhaps surprising that relatively few claims of relic dinosaurs in South America have been made in real life.
One such account was published in the January 11, 1911, issue of the New York Herald. Its author, a German named Franz Herrmann Schmidt, of whom little is known, claimed that one day in October 1907 he and a companion, Capt. Rudolph Pfleng, along with Indian guides, entered a valley composed of swamps and lakes in a remote region of the Peruvian interior. There they discovered some strange, huge tracks, indicating the presence of more than one unknown animal in the waters, and crushed trees and vegetation. They also noticed the "queer" absence of alligators, iguanas, and water snakes.
Despite the guides' visible fear the party camped in the valley that night. The next morning expedition members got back into their boat and resumed their search for the animals. Just before noon they found fresh tracks along the shore. Pfleng declared that he was going to follow them inland, however dangerous the quest. just then they heard the screams of a troop of monkeys which had been gathering berries from some trees nearby. According to Schmidt's account:
... [A] large dark something half hidden among the branches shot up among [the monkeys] and there was a great commotion.
One of the excited Indians began to paddle the boat away from the shore, and before we could stop him we were 100 feet from the waterline. Now we could see nothing and the Indians absolutely refused to put in again, while neither Pfleng nor myself [sic] cared to lay down our rifles to paddle. There was a great moving of plants and a sound like heavy slaps of a great paddle, mingled with the cries of some of the monkeys moving rapidly away from the lake.... For a full 10 minutes there was silence, then the green growth began to stir again, and coming back to the lake we beheld the frightful monster that I shall now describe.
The head appeared over bushes 10 feet tall. It was about the size of a beer keg and was shaped like that of a tapir, as if the snout was used for pulling things or taking hold of them. The eyes were small and dull and set in like those of an alligator. Despite the half dried mud we could see that the neck, which was very snakelike, only thicker in proportion, was rough knotted like an alligator's side rather than his back.
Evidently the animal saw nothing odd in us, if he noticed us, and advanced till he was no more than 150 feet away. We could see part of the body, which I should judge to have been eight or nine feet thick at the shoulders, if that word may be used, since there were no fore legs, only some great heavy clawed flippers. The surface was like that of the neck....
As far as I was concerned, I would have waited a little longer, but Pfleng threw up his rifle and let drive at the head. I am sure that he struck between the eyes and that the bullet must have struck something bony, horny or very tough, for it cut twigs from a tree higher up and further on after it glanced. I shot as Pfleng shot again and aimed for the base of the neck.
The animal had remained perfectly still till now. It dropped its nose to the spot at which I had aimed and seemed to bite at it, but there was not blood or any sign of real hurt. As quickly as we could fire we pumped seven shots into it, and I believe all struck. They seemed to annoy the creature but not to work any injury. Suddenly it plunged forward in a silly clumsy fashion. The Indians nearly upset the dugout getting away, and both Pfleng and I missed the sight as it entered the water. I was very anxious to see its hind legs, if it had any. I looked again only in time to see the last of it leave the land -a heavy blunt tail with rough horny lumps. The head was visible still, though the body was hidden by the splash. From the instant's opportunity I should say that the creature was 35 feet long, with at least 12 of this devoted to head and neck.
In three seconds there was nothing to be seen except the waves of the muddy water, the movements of the waterside growth and a monkey with its hind parts useless hauling himself up a tree top. As the Indians paddled frantically away I put a bullet through the poor thing to let it out of its misery. We had not gone a hundred yards before Pfleng called to me and pointed to the right. Above the water an eighth of a mile away appeared the head and neck of the monster. It must have dived and gone right under us. After a few seconds' gaze it began to swim toward us, and as our bullets seemed to have no effect we took flight in earnest. Losing sight of it behind an island, we did not pick it up again and were just as well pleased.
This story appears in the course of an otherwise credible-sounding narrative about an expedition along the Solimes River. Schmidt writes that a few months later, on March 4, 1908, his companion Pfleng died of fever. Thus the story cannot be checked. Of the tale Mackal remarks, "The details ... seem to ring true and probably reflect the experiences of an actual expedition. It does not necessarily follow that the encounter with the alleged creature also occurred and may be nothing more than a clever addition to an otherwise authentic expedition."
Still, Schmidt's is not the only reference to a huge swamp-dwelling beast in the South American backwaters. In the early twentieth century Lt. Col. Percy H. Fawcett surveyed jungles for the Britain's Royal Geographical Society. A careful, accurate reporter, Fawcett wrote that native informants had told him of "tracks of some gigantic animal" seen in the swamps along the Acre River, near where the borders of Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil intersect (and 500 to 600 miles from the site of Schmidt and Pfleng's alleged encounter). The natives said they had never actually seen the creature responsible for the tracks.
Farther south, according to Fawcett, along the Peru-Bolivian border "some mysterious and enormous beast has frequently been disturbed in the swamps-possibly a primeval monster like those reported in other parts of the continent. Certainly tracks have been found belonging to no known animals-huge tracks, far greater than could have been made by any species we know."
Since then few reports or rumors of South American dinosaurs have found their way into print. In two articles published in Pursuit between 1977 and 1980 Silvano Lorenzoni suggested that the flat-topped, steep mountains of the Guavana Massif, which have remained geologically and ecologically stable for tens of millions of years, may harbor surviving dinosaurs. For his intriguing idea, however, Lorenzoni had only the thinnest supporting evidence: a trader's report of three "plesiosaur like things" in a lake on one such plateau, Auyantepuy, in southeastern Venezuela where Angel Falls originates. He also noted reports of exceptionally large, lizard-like reptiles in mountain valleys near the Venezuelan coast.
Dinosaurs from the twilight zoneIf living dinosaurs in Africa and South America seem at least marginally conceivable, the presence of such creatures in the United States or Europe exist hardly need be stated-flatly impossible, at least this side of the twilight zone. Probably unsurprisingly, this consideration has not entirely prevented the occurrence of a few reports anyway. A couple of examples are offered here for their curiosity and entertainment value.
In a letter published in the August 22, 1982, issue of Empire Magazine, a Sunday supplement, Myrtle Snow of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, wrote that in May 1935, when she was three years old, she saw "five baby dinosaurs" near her hometown. A few months later a local farmer shot one after it took some of his sheep. "My grandfather took us to see it the next morning," she said. "It was about seven feet tall, was gray, had a head like a snake, short front legs with claws that resembled chicken feet, large stout back legs and a long tail."
But these were not her only sightings. There were two more: (1) "1 saw another one in a cave in 1937, but it was dark green." And (2) "On October 23, 1978, as I was returning from Chama New Mexico, about 7:30 P.m., in a driving rain, I saw another one going through the field towards the place where I had seen the one in 1937."
In 1934 a South Dakota farmer claimed that a giant, four-legged reptile forced his tractor off the road before disappearing into nearby Campbell Lake. Investigators found huge tracks on the shore. Prior to this sighting sheep and other small animals had been disappearing mysteriously.
An Italian man reported being attacked by a 15-foot reptile, like a dinosaur," at Forli in December 1970. Fifty miles northwest of there, in June 1975, a monster appeared in a tomato field near Goro and badly frightened a farmer named Maurizio Tombini, who press accounts said "has a reputation for seriousness."
The story was widely publicized but poorly reported in the Italian press; no entirely coherent or comprehensive description of the creature emerges from any of it. A careful reading indicates that the creature was about 10 feet long and eight inches around, with legs and feet which left impressive looking tracks. Tombini likened it to a "gigantic lizard" and denied it was a crocodile. According to police, several other people also reported sightings. They declared that the creature had a wolf-like howl.
German anomalist Ulrich Magin asks, "Could it have been the most southerly sighting of the Austrian 'Tatzelwurirn'?" The tatzelwurm ("worm with claws") is a strange, sometimes dangerous animal which, though unrecognized by zoology, figures in a number of sighting reports in the Alps and in one dubious photograph. Some theorists have suggested it is an unrecognized species of large lizard.