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What Defines A Cryptid?

Posted by: Nick Redfern on April 20th, 2012

Over the past week or so, I have made a few, brief comments in a couple of posts here at Cryptomundo about what, in my view, amounts to a cryptid, what should be classified as a cryptid, and also what should not. These are issues that, at first glance anyway, seem relatively easy to answer. But, the more we dig into it, it’s clear the issue is a far more problematic one. So, with all that in mind, I figured why not address this very matter today?

The Wikipedia entry on the subject states, in part: “…a cryptid is a creature…whose existence has been suggested but is unrecognized by scientific consensus and often regarded as highly unlikely.”

And, for most people within Cryptozoology, those creatures that firmly fall into the domain of the cryptid and that mainstream science largely, and unfortunately, rejects, would surely include the Bigfoot of the United States, the Yowie of Australia, the Chinese Yeren, the Yeti – or Abominable Snowman – of the Himalayas, and an absolute menagerie of lake-monsters, sea-serpents and other weird and wonderful beasts.

There are, however, other monstrous entities that have been embraced by whole swathes of the cryptozoological field as having direct relevance to the subject, but which seem to have distinct paranormal overtones attached to them. And, of course, there are many people within Cryptozoology that have no time for such things – which I understand, particularly so when it takes matters out of a strictly zoological framework – but which, again, brings us back to the crux of the matter: what defines a cryptid?

Is Mothman a cryptid? Many might say “Yes!” But, given that – as John Keel’s classic title, The Mothman Prophecies, demonstrates – Mothman’s appearance at Point Pleasant, West Virginia in the 1960s was accompanied by a wide range of additional mystifying phenomena, including UFO activity, alien encounters, run-ins with the sinister Men in Black and much more, one has to wonder how many people in Cryptozoology consider Mothman a cryptid or a beast more akin to something of a paranormal nature? And if the latter, should it even be discussed in a cryptozoological context?

And what about England’s closest equivalent to Mothman: the Owlman of Mawnan, Cornwall? Could that be considered a cryptid? Again, for some, the answer is in the affirmative. But, its appearance, its size, its near-exclusive manifestations before young girls, and its sheer overall oddness, suggests that it has less to do with mainstream Cryptozoology and far more to do with definitive Forteana. So, maybe it’s not a cryptid.

Moving on: how do we define the British-based ABCs, or Alien Big Cats? They are, without any shadow of doubt, of interest to most cryptozoologists. But, are they literal cryptids, as the term suggests? No, they are not. If the majority of the reports are valid – and, given the astonishing number of reports from credible eye-witnesses over the decades, I see no reason at all why they shouldn’t be considered valid – then, rather than being cryptids, the ABCs of Britain are simply regular, normal animals far away from their natural environments. The mystery of the ABCs, then, is not so much what they are or are not, but from where they came. And being a stranger in a strange land, does not always a cryptid make.

Coming full-circle: what of the many and mysterious large ape-like animals of our world? I’m talking about the aforementioned Bigfoot, Yeren, Yowie, Yeti and all the rest. Solid arguments have been made that perhaps at least some of these creatures represent surviving examples of the presumed-extinct, Goliath-like beast called Gigantopithecus.

If true, then should we even be using that term -cryptid – to describe a creature that may just be a regular animal that, against all the odds, has survived extinction and thrives in distinct stealth?

The same goes for Nessie and all its long-necked ilk. If flesh and blood animals – and, perhaps just like Bigfoot, survivors from eras long gone – should we be referring to them as cryptids, given the way in which this emotive word conjures up imagery of creatures both monstrous and mysterious?

I’m not suggesting we do away with the word. But, I do sometimes wonder if its very use has influenced – possibly even adversely – the way in which all these various phenomena have been perceived, and are still perceived.

So, I ask the readers of Cryptomundo: what defines a cryptid? What does not define a cryptid? And, if the most famous beasts of Cryptozoology are merely living examples of creatures that science tells us vanished thousands, or millions, of years ago, should we even be using the term, cryptid? In doing so, are we ironically – albeit wholly inadvertently and certainly not deliberately – only adding to the image of mystery, rather than trying to demystify it?

Nick Redfern About Nick Redfern
Punk music fan, Tennents Super and Carlsberg Special Brew beer fan, horror film fan, chocolate fan, like to wear black clothes, like to stay up late. Work as a writer.


19 Responses to “What Defines A Cryptid?”

  1. DWA responds:

    Personally, I don’t have much trouble with the word.

    I think that any hominoid outside of the ones that science presumes to exist right now – man and the known great apes – is not only a cryptid, but the utter quintessence of the word. It’s a “hidden animal” – one for which evidence exists, but that isn’t accepted by the scientific mainstream. I don’t even believe that the fossil progenitors of these animals have necessarily been found yet.

    Lake monsters? Every one’s a cryptid, until, as with any other, we find out what it is and classify it. By definition, one doesn’t know exactly what a cryptid is, even though in the cases of some – yeti and sasquatch for example – we can make educated guesses.

    But I believe that cryptids leave footprints; eat things; digest things and leave evidence of that; etc.

    In other words: Mothman doesn’t qualify, to me, because there is no zoologically-verifiable evidence. It’s a “phenomenon” of you-tell-me what sort. Cryptids are alleged, by those who allege them, to be animals.

    I think the hangup we have is less with terminology than with a misunderstanding of what evidence is and how it can be tested.

  2. Nick Redfern responds:

    DWA:

    I do see what you are saying, but I sometimes think that the very word “cryptid” provokes imagery of “monsters.”

    Whereas using words like “unidentified animal” or “a creature not recognized by science” still does so to a degree, but to a lesser amount. And, after all, I co-wrote with Ken Gerhard a book called “Monsters of Texas,” so I’m guilty of using terminology that provokes a certain image!

    But, I do sometimes wonder if the field might benefit to a significant amount if terms like “monster,” “cryptid,” “beast of the woods” etc were not used and more down to earth, less sensational (and less specific image-inducing words) were used instead.

    That was my main point: what is a cryptid, and does the use of that particular word have a bearing/bias on perception of what it implies – an unknown, mysterious beast, rather than just an animal which may have managed to survive extinction.

  3. robin_bellamy responds:

    I don’t think there is any “rule” that says “cryptids” are not paranormal. In fact, the definition of paranormal means other than normal, therefore fitting nicely with cryptids. If they are unknown, they are paranormal.

    Witnesses do describe “bigfoot” often as having a sort of telepathic bent, seeming to know what the witness is thinking. To research the being without taking that into SOME kind of consideration would be, quite frankly, doing it wrong. Until we find out what these things are, we cannot really rule out anything they MIGHT be.

    Same goes for Mothman. During the Point Pleasant flap, there was physical evidence of a physical being; namely tracks and scratches. The creature was seen by many, so it follows that it must be physical, right? After all, those are the conditions for Nessie. I don’t recall anyone offering up scales or scat for that being.

    In that regard, would extraterrestrials qualify as cryptids? Absolutely. If they can/do exist on our earth at any given time, and have a physical mass, then I vote them cryptid.

  4. DWA responds:

    Nick:

    I think that cryptozoology needs to be zoology. It’s the connotations of words, not their actual meanings, that I think is the problem.

    Cryptid has an explicit zoological context. People don’t realize how much evidence exists for cryptids, and tend to let their imaginations run wild rather than reading up on the evidence.

    I’ll just take the two examples I am most familiar with. The sasquatch and yeti have left, or at least are alleged to leave, every kind of evidence we have for animals we know about – from hair and footprints (and unique parasites) to feces and blood. (And bones. And bodies, plural.) Lots of those footprints have been analyzed by experts who have found them to have animated sources that scientific knowledge doesn’t cover yet. No one has successfully contested the expert findings. As to the feces, blood, bones, etc.: if those were proven, we’d have the animal. But all have been alleged to have been found in compelling conjunction either with encounters or with other circumstances that indicate their origin is with an uncatalogued animal. There is no more reason to disbelieve the accounts than there is to believe them.

    There is an attitude that says this is nonsense! that keeps scientists from following up evidence that seems very zoologically testable.

    I have never been interested in any angle on crypto other than the zoological angle. That may be why I have no problem with the word cryptid. It’s an innocuous, very down to earth zoological word, that shouldn’t have anything associated with it other than putative animals for which there is at least alleged to be testable evidence.

    Sightings are testable. The test? Look where the sightings were. But you have to be able to find other evidence an animal leaves. Unless Mothman poops, or leave footprints, that disqualifies him.

    I don’t know what to do to pry the lid off closed scientific minds, other than to admonish them, emphatically, to get outside more and exercise that curiosity muscle (and quit scoffing! Scientists should never scoff).

    But I think in that battle, the word “cryptid” is the last thing to worry about.

    (Beast, monster, behemoth, etc. might, yeah, be a problem.)

  5. Nick Redfern responds:

    DWA:

    Well, I would agree.

    The term “cryptid” – and its usage and what it implies or does not – is certainly not the most important thing when it comes to Cryptozoology.

    Although, I’m not sure anyone actually has a “worry” about this – as you worded it – do they? I certainly don’t.

    I just wonder, now and again and from time to time, what goes through the minds of people when they hear that word – “cryptid.”

    I think for some people it may well imply not just an unknown animal. But, instead, something strange, something weird, something living but beyond normal.

    Calling Britain’s ABCs “cryptids” provokes imaginative, exciting and maybe even Fortean-themed imagery. Calling them “normal animals that may have escaped from private enclosures” does not.

    But, the latter – in the long term – may be more beneficial for Cryptozoology (in terms of cultivating credibility outside of our community) than the former. That’s all I was really trying to say.

  6. DWA responds:

    robin_bellamy:

    Now. I DO think that the anything’s-a-cryptid! approach is part of the problem Nick may have with the word. Catch-all bins set themselves up for being conflated into “monsters.”

    “If they are unknown, they are paranormal.”

    Not really. “Paranormal” refers to unknowns that don’t fit into our basic knowledge base. Cryptids do. We’re not going to have to redefine the laws of physics and chemistry when we find one. At least the evidence doesn’t suggest that. If it’s “paranormal” science doesn’t even accept it as verifiable, and so won’t touch it. Animals are verifiable.

    “To research the being without taking [telepathic bent] into SOME kind of consideration would be, quite frankly, doing it wrong. Until we find out what these things are, we cannot really rule out anything they MIGHT be.”

    You can’t test for telepathic bent. So no, you don’t have to consider it. All the evidence says that sasquatch poop, bleed, leave footprints, etc. I don’t believe that we actually know what Mothman “tracks” are. But a scientific paper has been accepted classifying sasquatch tracks. A scientist, sticking strictly to science, wrote a book in 2010 saying that the sasquatch has been discovered; science just hasn’t recognized that yet. Nobody’s ruling anything out. But if science can’t apply a test for it, now, then how can scientists look for it?

    One of the basic reasons science won’t touch cryptids with a ten-foot-pole is what they call “woo-woo.” Hard to blame them, because we don’t have tests for that stuff yet.

    Not only are there lots of Nessie sightings, there are some intriguing photos and other evidence, a lot of it. I don’t find it compelling, yet, and I think that what Nessie is isn’t what many think it is, but descriptions of Nessie decidedly put it in the animal kingdom. You drag the loch, and you’ll know. I don’t think a search has been done to the extent that would be required, so I reserve judgment. But sounds like a critter, if it’s real.

    And the only way science can “test” for extraterrestrials is: take me to your leader. Until they test us, we can’t test them, so, no, I wouldn’t consider them cryptids.

    To me, the evidence has to make clear that if you look, you have a good chance of finding out what this is. If it doesn’t fall into that category – and I don’t think mothman, little green men, or unicorns do – then it isn’t a cryptid..

  7. AreWeThereYeti responds:

    DWA put it quite succinctly, but I’ll add my 2-cents anyway…

    While I appreciate Mr. Redfern’s attempt to “stir the pot” I think the term is fairly self-explanatory: Cryptozoology = “science of hidden animals.”

    I take it to mean any biologically plausible creature which is thought to exist but, as of yet, is not recognized by mainstream science – for instance: Bigfoot & its ilk, assorted lake/sea monsters, remnant populations of supposedly extinct animals, i.e. thylacines, thunderbirds and other Ice Age megafauna, along with ABC’s to the extent that they may represent either new species or survivors of extirpated local populations.

    Creatures such as the Mapinguary, Mokèlé-mbèmbé and Mongolian Death Worm, while having supernatural overtones ascribed to them by the local populous, certainly do not fall outside the realms of biological possibility and so are worthy cryptozoological candidates.

    However Mothman, witches, the Flatwoods Monster, lizard-men, mermaids, skinwalkers and sundry were-creatures, to name a few, do NOT qualify as they either: invoke the paranormal, extra-terrestrial and other-dimensional realms, or describe entities that are barely-tethered to the biological world.

    Now, do I want to debate, on a case-by-case basis, every possible fringe candidate? No, but let me sum-up my position as follows: Cryptozoology is the study of “hidden animals” – no more and no less; thus has it been and so should it remain.

  8. Loren Coleman responds:

    On August 29, 2007, here at Cryptomundo, I dealt with the definition issues regarding “cryptid” and other cryptoterms in “Cryptozoology, Cryptid and Hominology.”

    I defined the word, of course, in 1999, in Cryptozoology A to Z.

  9. DWA responds:

    …and I’m down with Loren’s definition.

    It shouldn’t be too narrow to capture things science should be looking at; nor so broad that, well, science hears the word and goes, too much dross here for us to look at.

  10. Nick Redfern responds:

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Loren!

  11. Loren Coleman responds:

    The shorthand view of this is that “cryptid” is a word that means “an unidentified animate object or animal.” A water-based cryptid, as I’ve said, could be a tire tube, an alligator, or a new prehistoric species as yet undiscovered. Until it is caught and identified, it is a cryptid.

    When we get into defining it backwards, by saying that it “might be paranormal,” then trying to say it may or may not be a cryptid because of some theory someone has, we really undermine the open nature of the “cryptid” definition.

    Mothman, for example, as I have pointed out too often, was first called a “Big Bird” by the eyewitnesses, until a newspaper employee dreamed up the term “Mothman.” Keel’s demonological view added to the confusion. But strictly speaking, what was seen is a “cryptid” because we don’t know what it was, not because we knew what it really was.

  12. Nick Redfern responds:

    AreWeThereYeti:

    I wasn’t attempting to stir the pot. At all. I was merely pointing out that I sometimes muse on the possibility that the word “Cryptid” provokes imagery of something truly weird. Rather than something that may just be an animal that has survived extinction, or, an animal seen way outside of its normal environment (like wallabies and pumas in the UK).

    I have stressed there’s nothing wrong – at all – with the term “cryptid,” and there’s nothing to lose sleep over when it comes to whether or not it’s the right word to use or not. I am merely offering my own opinion as to how some people might perceive the image and nature of an animal described as a “cryptid.” Rather than an animal described as simply being out of place.

    Numerous cryptozoological-themed books have been written with the word “monster” in the title. That word, too, provokes a specific image.

    And that’s all I’m saying: no deliberate pot-stirring. Just an observation that specific words relative to specific creatures may provoke specific imagery in the mind of the person reading that word. And if a different word is used, it may provoke different imagery in the mind.

    “Monster” may very well provoke a far different image in the mind of the general public to “cryptid.” In the same way that “unknown cat-like beast” might provoke a far different image to “probable out of place cougar.”

    How we describe these things does, I think, affect how the public – in particular – perceives them. That was my point. And at the end of the day, it’s actually a minor point! I really do have far better things to do with my time than stir pots for the sake of it!

  13. TheForthcoming responds:

    I agree with Loren and DWA on this and wanted to add that Cryptid to me also means, simply put, an unknown animal or one that we are not familiar with or not yet documented by science.

  14. springheeledjack responds:

    I think the word “cryptid” and “cryptozoology” in general have acquired “baggage” over the years. Baggage because things like Bigfoot and Nessie and Yeti are the flagships for cryptids and they are mysterious and unknown with that word “monster” thrown in or at least associated with them.

    I think your mainstream population still equates “monsters” with Bigfoot and Nessie and the like (I refrain from even using cryptid or cryptozoology because I know first hand that when I throw one of those words into a conversation, a lot of people have no idea what I just said). And because of shows like Finding Bigfoot, Destination Truth and so on, cryptid gets lumped in with monsters and the strange and the weird.

    For my money, cryptids are living breathing critters that have yet to be “Recognized” officially. Now critters such as Bigfoot are in a much better position to be accepted by the mainstream population these days, and largely I think because of the shows associated with them, but also because of the internet. I remember that before the net (you know, back in the bronze age of man), I could read about cryptids, occasionally catch a show about them, but there was very little way to connect with others who hunted for these things unless you actually lived in or near an environment populated by one (who was I to know that there might be one in my backyard–again it wasn’t until the introduction of the internet before I was able to assemble such info).

    As to everything else: I think the minute anything “supernatural” (another buzz word) comes into the mix, I think we’re relegating it to Fortean or supernatural. Precisely because of what DWA and others have said–because there’s no way to quantify what is being seen. There’s no physical evidence to push it into the next level.

    Then again, I think we can also blame the media for adding that supernatural element a lot of times. As Loren said, Mothman was being described as a big bird before others got a hold of it. The more mysterious and monstrous a thing seen, the more people are likely to tune in or read past a headline.

    That’s why I’m not a fan when people start associating things like Bigfoot and UFO sightings. Well, there may indeed have been a UFO sighting in the general area of a Bigfoot sighting, but there’s plenty of other answers available other than UFO’s and Bigfoot are connected. With a large enough population of Bigfoots and their ability to cover a lot of distance, I’d say it would be tough not to find a place where the two have intersected. It still doesn’t mean they’re connected.

    Again, UFO’s are mysterious and unexplained, and oh my gosh, so is Bigfoot, so since they’ve got those things in common, they must be related (don’t even get me started on the logical fallacy of that argument). I think that’s the real correlation there. Weird means everything else weird is related too.

    My point on that front is that it’s easy for cryptids to get sucked down into that “Supernatural” or Fortean realm. Granted, in the beginnings, things like Nessie and Bigfoot were probably chronicled as part of the Fortean, and it’s only been separated with the onset of cryptozoology, but what are ya gonna do?

    Bottom Line: cryptids are things that we attempt to quantify–eventually proving that it either exists or doesn’t.

  15. AreWeThereYeti responds:

    Mr. Redfern:

    I enjoyed your reply, thank you.

    Actually, no malice intended on my part. The “pot-stirring” metaphor was merely used to acknowledge your intention to spark a discussion – which, undeniably, you accomplished.

    If nothing else, our little exchange seems to nicely reinforce your supposition that certain “loaded” words can provoke different – or even unintended – perceptions…

    So, please, keep stirring – life is boring otherwise!

  16. robin_bellamy responds:

    Granted I’m being single minded here, but I would truly suggest folks do more research on Mothman. There WERE tracks. There ARE grainy photographs and shaky videos. And I have not seen anyone produce “Bigfoot Hair” or “Bigfoot Scat” that can be tested to be anything other than “inconclusive”. There is no more “proof” that bigfoot exists than there is for mothman at this point unless you consider the quantity of witness testimony rather than the quality. My issue here is that just because other “weirdities” have not be as fully studied by mainstream pseudoscientists doesn’t mean they should not be.

    And the idea that “bigfoot” or “alien big cats” or “nessie” is being studied by mainstream scientists is ridiculous. A few folks with some knowledge and access to cash do serious research. The rest of the scientific world looks at the rest of us and shakes their collective head.

    Perhaps when we gather enough tangible, testable, evidence then a cryptid will move into “Zoology” for “real” study. But for now, unless you have quantifiable proof that something ISN’T a cryptid, it’s still a level playing field.

  17. DWA responds:

    robin_bellamy:

    The problem with Mothman that sasquatch and yeti don’t have:

    Not many more people have seen Mothman than have seen unicorns and centaurs.

    The other two have so much evidence in their favor that one could randomly toss 50% and the rest would be compelling. Not only have many, many people in all walks of life seen both the animals and their tracks, but the encounters span just about everything a wild animal can do, including pooping, fighting, garbage-can raiding and sex. It’s almost not possible to have an encounter with a wild animal the type of which I haven’t read of someone having with a sasquatch. (Authenticity earmark first class.) Both sasquatch and yeti tracks have been found with diagnosible genetic deformities. Decades before anyone had spent any significant time studying the known great apes in the field, key great-ape characteristics and behaviors confirmed by science in those studies had already been described, many times, in yeti and sasquatch encounters.

    John Bindernagel – a straight-up, 40-year wildlife biologist – says that the sasquatch has been discovered. He’s written two books on this that scientists not wanting to sound like utter ignoramuses should crack. He’s not the only scientist who thinks so. It’s just that like other discoveries now part of scientific canon, it hasn’t been acknowledged by the mainstream yet.

    That’s the only difference between “evidence” and “proof.”

    Don’t think we’re there yet with Mothman.

    But people (go to Texasbigfoot.com) are heading into the field, in places where they expect encounters with sasquatch, and having them.

    Maybe this is what I think a cryptid is:

    If you have the testable hypothesis “this is an animal, and if one goes to x, one can find it there”

    …then, you have a cryptid.

    And you can’t have something test out “sasquatch” if there isn’t a type specimen that everyone agrees is “sasquatch.” DNA will not get us there; it will only give us more info after the mainstream finally takes the blindfolds off.

  18. Redrose999 responds:

    I’ve always associated the word Cryptid with “hidden animals” and not monsters. I agree that it can easily become a word associated with “monsters” rather than a new species of fish, but the word never invoked that image to me. I think of the Ceolacanth, or the Gilled Goat.

    Perhaps it is because in my adult years, creatures like bigfoot, moved from scary monsters that terrified me as a child, to “animals” in my mind.

    Creatures like the werewolf, or Mothman, are lumped in with myths as monsters rather than cryptids because I associate them with the supernatural. Though I am aware that there are arguments against it. The Legends spun around them are more fantastical to me than the legends around Bigfoot (though again you can argue this with some of the a stories in Native American myths).

    Nonetheless it is an interesting debate. I for one use Cryptid for hidden animals and perhaps the Term Mythic-Crypids for the ones that are “monsters” or have more of a supernatural bent like the Jersey Devil?

  19. Taylor Reints responds:

    An animal or life-form with no connection to supernaturalism (which is just a word meaning “We have no possible answer so let’s answer it by saying it is supernatural.”) that is unknown to science. Mythological figures = not cryptids. Owlman and ghosts = not cryptids. It’s like saying God is a cryptid. He is supposedly supernatural but nobody* is sure if he exists or not.

    * Nevermind, Christians are certain, atheists say certainly not.



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