Champ Evolved From Beluga Whales?

Posted by: Craig Woolheater on February 19th, 2012

Cryptomundian champ_is_real pointed out the following article in a comment to the Updated: ABC Champ Video Conspiracy? post.

I felt like it was certainly worthy of its own post.

Searching for Champ

National Geographic explores local’s research on Vt. lake monster

Elizabeth von Muggenthuler grew up with the stories, hearing them from the time she began crawling the tales a monster that lurked in Lake Champlain.

Born and raised in Charlotte, Vt., von Muggenthuler was no stranger to the legend that something—something big with humps and unlike any fish anyone had ever seen—stalked the deep waters of the lake. But, with relentlessly logical parents, the younger von Muggenthuler had refused to let her imagination run away with her, and she never put much stock in such talk.

“My father was a consummate intellect, and I certainly did not believe that my friends and their parents or their grandparents had actually seen something,” she said. “I personally had never seen it before.”

Years later, however, after forging a pioneer career in bioacoustical science—or animal comm-unication and behavior—von Muggenthuler got the opportunity to return to her native soil and research the claims that continued to crop up by people of all walks of life. And this time, with scientific experience under her belt and a trail of sightings dating back hundreds of years, the researcher agreed.

“When asked to go research the lake as an adult, I said why not because so many people and so many of my friends growing up had actually seen something bizarre,” she said. “They’re thrilled because they never tell anyone except their closest buddies over a beer. When I came back to town after being away after 15, 20 years, they were like, ‘Lizzy, we have some stories.’ ”

Researching the mysterious monster of Lake Champlain since 2003, von Muggenthuler’s work has raised some eyebrows and attracted some attention—the particular attention of National Geographic, who sent a production team to the scientist’s Cedar Grove residence for a series called “Wild Case Files,” a string of 10 shows each featuring a mysterious animal.

“We made a series for them last year, which was a huge success,” said Martin Pailthorpe, a producer from Tigress—a production company contracted by National Geographic to shoot various pieces—in an email. “Everyone loves the unexplained, and although we try to answer all the questions we pose, occasionally, like in this story, there’s no definitive answer, so the mystery remains.”

Von Muggenthuler began her research by collecting stories from the locals, particularly fisherman with intimate knowledge of the lake. Most accounts described the creature as having several humps, spanning 15 to 20 feet in length and traveling at tremendous speeds.

“Quite possibly the only way to discover a creature like this, if indeed one exists, is by recording it,” von Muggenthuler said. “Creatures that need to find underwater any sort of food or to navigate in a deep, dark, murky, cold lake would have to use advanced biosonar or echolocation.”

Such communication is used by whales and dolphins to navigate. It’s a highly advanced form of navigation and communication, von Muggenthuler said, and one only used by a few freshwater species.

“When we detected echolocation in Lake Champlain—and Lake Champlain is so old and used to be an inland sea—we recognized that there was something unique,” von Muggenthuler said. “Take into consideration as well that at least 20 beluga whale skeletons from 14,000 years ago have been unearthed intact from the Lake Champlain basin from when it was a sea. Could there be a population of creatures in there? Absolutely.”

Before von Muggenthuler’s research, tales of this beast known as Champ spread throughout the lake area but remained simply that—stories whispered over pints of beer at the local pub. No one had managed to capture the creature on video or camera, and so there was no proof other than hearsay.

“It’s like the U.S. version of the world-famous Loch Ness Monster,” Pailthorpe said in an email. “Sightings go back several hundred years, but there is still no empirical scientific proof that anything out of the ordinary exists there.”

At least until von Muggenthuler came along with her team, bringing scientific equipment and recording the acoustical signals from beneath the waters. Von Muggenthuler said they picked up several creatures of the same description fishermen gave. Judging by the frequency and amplitude of the sounds, von Muggenthuler said the creature is likely related to beluga whales and there is more than one.

“Just like my voice is a different pitch than yours is, we know that we have recorded several different animals,” she said. “It is clearly echolocation. We know by cross-correlation analysis that the creature sounds a lot like beluga whale but is not exact, nor is it exactly killer whale nor exactly dolphin.”

Though von Muggenthuler has seen the creatures herself underwater—describing it as humpy and exhibiting herding behavior—she said her team didn’t manage to capture them on video the last time they were at Lake Champlain. Now, however, technology has caught up, and one of her partners traveled up in October to get video.

The team has already submitted two papers on the discovery, one focusing on the phenomenon as the first lake echolocation in the world and the other exploring the potential for a species to have evolved from a beluga whale into something else entirely after being trapped in a lake for hundreds of years.

“Apart from a couple of species of river dolphins—in Brazil and India—there are no species that live in fresh water, and none in fresh water lakes,” Pailthorpe said in an email about the discovery of an echolocating mammal in Lake Champlain. “We pose the question: Could this sound be being made by a species new to science?”

The nuts and bolts

Tigress Productions is a nature, wildlife and adventure documentary production company based in Britain. Martin Pailthorpe, a producer for the company, has worked for six months throughout the last three years filming marine biologists in widespread corners of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Projects include a special for the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week and an expedition to Mt. Everest.

National Geographic commissions the company to film a particular project, and then Tigress hires freelance workers to do the leg work. For this particular segment on the monster of Lake Champlain, Pailthorpe said he and his crew spoke with a number of people who had seen Champ as well as with a geologist who detailed the formation of the lake.

Ms. Dolittle

Elizabeth von Muggenthuler grew up an only child in rural Vermont with nothing but 26 animals to keep her company.

“We had cats, dogs, horses, cows—pretty much you name it,” she said. “I always wanted to know what they were thinking.”

At Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., in 1990, von Muggenthuler discovered that rhinoceros communicate through infrasound, or sounds below the human hearing. This concept has become the center of the scientist’s research as she delves into the various ways animals communicate.

“That [kind] of understanding animal communication was barely in its infancy when I was in college,” she said. “I felt that there was a tremendous need to fill the niche.”

Von Muggenthuler also works as an animal behavioralist, working to help folks with problems they have with their pets.

“I’m a sincere believer in harmony,” she said. “I am a sincere believer in the ability of house pets to help their owner navigate life. If I can stop a giraffe from trampling people, I can help your cat. It all boils down to empathy. Each animal, regardless of what type of animal, has a certain specific way of thinking.”

By Erin Wiltgen
News of Orange staff writer

About Craig Woolheater
Co-founder of Cryptomundo in 2005. I have appeared in or contributed to the following TV programs, documentaries and films: OLN's Mysterious Encounters: "Caddo Critter", Southern Fried Bigfoot, Travel Channel's Weird Travels: "Bigfoot", History Channel's MonsterQuest: "Swamp Stalker", The Wild Man of the Navidad, Destination America's Monsters and Mysteries in America: Texas Terror - Lake Worth Monster, Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot: Return to Boggy Creek and Beast of the Bayou.

19 Responses to “Champ Evolved From Beluga Whales?”

  1. Gee Phomphakdy via Facebook responds:


  2. Patti Lenker Potis via Facebook responds:

    interesting theory! i wonder if they will be able to capture one to find out

  3. mandors responds:

    I have some memory that prior to the “Surgeon’s Photograph,” the more common Loch Ness description was similar to the one of black humps at Champlain. Wasn’t it only after that photo that the plesiosaur theory came about, and wasn’t this about the time Conan Doyle was putting dinosaurs on “Lost Worlds” and Lowell was theorizing that there were dinosaurs on Venus?

  4. flame821 responds:

    The fact that Champlain was once an inland sea opens up a whole new set of possibilities. Most of the lake monsters seem to come from glacial lakes which makes the possibility of relic populations of ‘dinosaurs’ (using the vernacular here; please see the detailed convo in the ABC/Champ thread on Cryptomundo to see dino vs sea repitles, etc) extremely unlikely.

    The echolocation is exciting and no matter what they find it will be a first. So whether it is a ‘real monster’ or a known species that has developed new skills, or best yet, an entirely new species it will be well worth the effort to find out what is there and making such sounds.

  5. graybear responds:

    I really can’t believe in lake monsters being any sort of creature that depends upon air to breathe. If it breathes air, it has to come to the surface frequently and if there were more of them than one, and there must be a breeding population, so, obviously there must be more than one creature. That would mean even more chances that one of these air breathers would be spotted. We would know about them if they frequented the surface all that often.

    Think about it; while Lakes Champlain, Ness, Morar, etc. are very large lakes, they are miniscule compared to any ocean. Whalers with 18th and 19th century technology found it easy enough to hunt and kill all the air breathing whales they wanted. Captain Ahab could chase Moby Dick all over the world, killing enough other whales to earn a good living for himself, his crew and his investors as he sailed along, so air breathers can’t be all that hard to find. If the lake monsters, which are confined to far, far smaller ranges, lakes versus oceans, and are air breathers, someone would have identified the lake monsters by now, and we would have twice daily excursion boats pulling out onto the monster lakes, packed with tourists all toting cameras.

    I don’t know what the lake monsters really are, but logic says they can’t be air breathers, which means they are not mammals.

  6. Loren Coleman responds:

    Roy Mackal, decades ago, wrote of his theories that various Sea Serpents and Lake Monsters might be surviving ancient whales, specifically, Basilosaurus.

  7. champ_is_real responds:

    Thank you for posting this article. I found it very interesting because it conflicts with Dennis Hall’s identification of Champ creatures being something along the lines of Tanystropheus. It makes me wonder who is closer to the truth? Could Champ be a cross between Tanystropheus and a Beluga Whale?

    Personally I believe Elizabeth von Muggenthuler is taking the correct approach with the scientific community on the Lake Champlain creatures. Think about it. If she came to them saying a creature that evolved from a Tanystropheus is living in or near the lake and uses echolocation. Scientist would think she was off her rocker and dismiss her claims. Thus rejecting the idea. Now if one were to come forth with a claim that there is an identified species that could have evolved from a Beluga whale and uses echolocation. That is more plausible far as the scientific community is concerned.

    Obviously something in Lake Champlain uses echolocation. What it is I hope we soon find out. I have been waiting a long time to see these creatures be identified. Hopefully I see it in my lifetime.

  8. wuffing responds:

    Hello graybear,

    You wrote “I don’t know what the lake monsters really are, but logic says they can’t be air breathers, which means they are not mammals”.

    – and I think you could have added “or reptiles or amphibians” for the same reason. That leaves us with birds, fish and invertebrates. And red herrings, which are much more common than people realise. Those two “not crazy” Vermont fishermen certainly netted one. How anyone can not see that the pictures show a reflection of a nearby structure or vessel is beyond me, and I go with the idea it is dinghy davits over the stern of a yellow boat. Which the “not crazy” fi$hermen haven’t told us about.

  9. lordoftheonionrings responds:

    “Though von Muggenthuler has seen the creatures herself underwater—describing it as humpy and exhibiting herding behavior”.

    If she has seen them herself couldn’t she come up with a little better description than that?

  10. champ_is_real responds:

    @ lordoftheonionrings

    I honestly believe she is being very careful in her description when describing these creatures. Keep in mind she is part of a scientific study and has or is submitting papers to the scientific community.

    For example if she were to say “it looks similar to a Cadborosaurus, Plesiosaur, or Tanystropheus”. I believe all her credibility would be tossed out the window. She would be cast into the Gordon Holmes category and she would not be taken seriously. Just like Gordon Holmes’s credibility was tossed after when we all learned he was advocating fairies (that were proven to be fakes) on one of his DVDs. His fairy advocating was discovered by Loren shortly after he taped the supposed Nessie footage in May of 2007.

    By leaving a description vague by saying “humpy and shows herding behavior” is a very smart approach IMO. Especially if she wants to be taken seriously within the scientific community or by everyone in general.

    Just my 2 cents.

  11. Redrose999 responds:

    Loren, I am so happy you mentioned this! I remember hearing about the Basilosaurus in Lake Champlain myself (on a tv program actually). And I recall them saying there was fossil evidence for it, but I can’t seem to find any reference to finding fossils for it. Most of the fossils I find on the Lake Champlain Basin are more modern whales and such) I myself think it is an exciting and fascinating theory.

    Do you know of any links referring to fossil evidence for the Basilosaurus to support the theory?

  12. Mïk responds:

    To threadjack a little, The article pointed out, “von Muggenthuler discovered that rhinoceros communicate through infrasound, or sounds below the human hearing.” And in other articles involving Bigfoot, it’s been said that carnivores make sounds that make their prey animals give up the fight earlier. I can’t find much about that, but I find it intriguing it pops up here. I wonder if Bigfooters oughta be checking for out-of-range sounds. Hmmmm?

    Threadjack over…

  13. AreWeThereYeti responds:

    I have to agree with graybear on this one. He makes a very valid argument against an air-breathing mammal being the basis of the legend and also got me thinking…

    Now I’m not a native of the Lake Champlain area so I can’t be positive, but a quick on-line check indicates that Lake Champlain does, in fact, freeze COMPLETELY over, during cold winters. As such, it’s difficult to see how a large mammal could have survived, unnoticed, until now. Even if the supposed beluga-type creature were able to maintain ice-free breathing holes, surely their “spouts” i.e. heated breath, would be clearly visible in the cold air, over long distances, across the open ice.

    While von Muggenthuler appears to have recorded “something” using echolocation in the lake, the aforementioned circumstances make me wonder how it could be any type of cetacean.

  14. wuffing responds:

    @champ_is_real – I was interested to read that Ms von Muggenthuler has seen the creatures herself underwater—describing it as “humpy and exhibiting herding behavior”… – did it/they try to herd her? What was she doing underwater?

    Also, the article informs us that “Before von Muggenthuler’s research, tales of this beast known as Champ spread throughout the lake area but remained simply that—stories whispered over pints of beer at the local pub. No one had managed to capture the creature on video or camera, and so there was no proof other than hearsay.” So Sandra Mansi and Dennis Hall never existed?

    The main point of my post though is to ask what possible effect can a videographers beliefs have on a video tape recording he makes? The tape is an independent recording medium. Should we also discount any photographic evidence recorded by anyone who believes in big hairy monsters in the woods? I think you owe Gordon Holmes an apology – he is a very genuine person who gets out and does his experiments and shares the results for free, – no hype, no press releaks. Now that is a rare thing these days.

  15. Redrose999 responds:

    I finally found a reference to Roy Mackal and Basilosaurus fossils located near Charlotte, Vermont, near the lake. I’m not sure how good the source is though. Interesting theory, however it supports the air breathing animal idea, and (as people here have pointed out) someone would have seen a blow hole spouts.

    Now my next question have there ever been reports of spouts associated with Champ?

  16. ModernShanahan responds:

    @Champ_is_Real: Among others, I feel that you make a good point as well. I’m not fish expert so a long neck fish may be out of the question. As for non long necked creatures that are cryptid, it could very well be a giant fish with teeth and/or armor! Ancient whales can be a good fit but what about the long necked creatures then? I don’t recall any whale relative has a long neck. If Nessie, Champ,.etc are air breathers, then they’re a rare small population of creatures. It so happens they pop up randomly when no one is looking or they somehow live in underwater caves and get their air there or go swim to sea and get their air there. I stated before, they might be unknown to fossil records so we obviously wouldn’t know what they are. Then again, we don’t know everything about the animals that are in the fossil records. If they do live out in sea, I can understand why we wouldn’t be able to catch them on film.etc. All those sea creature legends that deal with the “Sea”, I think those are more plausible then lake giants. The lake giants are more likely to be hoaxed then out in sea for many reasons.

    1. The sea is to large and no one is capable to seeing all creatures surface.
    2. I honestly think it would be hard to hoax something out in sea.
    3. The sea is larger than any lake…..

  17. AreWeThereYeti responds:


    Read your post and a couple of your points caught my attention, specifically:

    “If Nessie, Champ, etc. are air breathers… It so happens they pop up randomly when no one is looking or they somehow live in underwater caves and get their air there or go swim to sea and get their air there.”

    Although a small population of air-breathing animals would be difficult to spot on a consistent basis, the fact that they would have to regularly come to the surface to breathe suggests they would eventually be seen/discovered in a landlocked environment.

    Moreover, while underwater caverns are a remote – and I stress remote – possibility, one wonders:

    1. How the air would be replenished and,

    2. How the creatures would be able to successfully hunt for food while “tethered” to their underwater air source?

    Finally, while Lake Champlain used to be attached to the ocean, it no longer is; even if it were, the distance between the two bodies of water are so great that it would be akin to holding your breath while you walked across town, only to take another breath to return home (and then repeated those trips for the rest of your life!)

  18. flame821 responds:

    What about it being amphibian? Many of them hibernate during the cold, can use lungs, gill and in many cases skin to capture oxygen. (Japanese Giant Salamanders come to mind) And we have precious little in the fossil records regarding prehistoric amphibians. But to the best of my rather limited knowledge on this subject, no amphibian has been noted to use echolocation, relying instead on electro-impulses given off by prey or plain old eyesight.

    Although if we are going with whale ancestors, the rodhocetus would be a fairly good match IF it developed a longer neck. It still seems to have the same humpy, upturned boat body shape and four distinct flippers. However there are a lot of sighting also claiming a serpentine body so I’m not sure if we’re looking at eye witness mis-sightings or two completely different phenomena (one an animal, the other strange wave formations).

  19. kingofaquaria responds:

    The most interesting article about beluga whale skeletons found in Lake Champlain’s basin now really makes this a mystery! The iconic Sandra Mansi photo suggests Champ is a plesiosaur. But now there is good reason to believe that a family of zeuglodons could exist in the former inland sea. Ogopogo from British Columbia’s Lake Okanagan is believed to be a zeuglodon. Since Lake Champlain was – at one time – connected to the sea there is no reason why a group of primitive cetaceans could not still be residing there. But that Mansi photo! Could perhaps Lake Champlain be housing both zeuglodons and plesiosaurs?

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