The title of this blog is a quote from Dr. Roy Mackal that came up in conversation while we were having dinner a few years ago. We were discussing the possible continued survival of previously-believed extinct animal species into modern times. This is a subject with which Dr. Mackal is especially knowledgeable, having written three books based upon his research and personal experiences: Searching For Hidden Animals: An Inquiry into Zoological Mysteries, a compendium of cryptozoological enigmas ranging from prehistoric whales in Canada to man-eating plants in Madagascar; The Monsters of Loch Ness, chronicling his six years investigating the mysterious denizens reportedly living in the United Kingdom’s most famous body of water; and A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-mbembe. It is the subject of the third book upon which I would like to focus.
By now the whole “birds are dinosaurs” thing is old news with reams of scientific data backing it up, but to tell you the truth, in my own humble opinion, birds are kind of a step-down when compared to the likes of Allosaurus, Velociraptor, and my personal favorite: Tyrannosaurus rex.
Of course, the idea of extant dinosaurs mingling with modern humans has long been fodder for literary fiction and motion pictures. As far back as 1912, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World was reportedly inspired by sightings of Mesozoic reptiles in South America, and was followed in 1925 by the first film version. The same idea was expanded into the legendary opus King Kong in 1933 (for his 2005 re-make of Kong, Peter Jackson created an intricate back-story of how the dinosaurs survived and even continued to evolve on Skull Island since the end of the Cretaceous), and most recently with the Jurassic Park novels and motion pictures.
Dinosaurs have been good luck, not only for financial returns at the box office, but also for advances in special effects technologies. By attempting to create convincing ways to bring the famed monsters to life on celluloid, filmmakers have employed such devices as men in rubber suits (Godzilla, Gamera, and Gorgo); using modern reptiles such as monitor lizards with rubber fins and horns attached to their heads and bodies (Lost World 1960); stop-motion animation (King Kong 1933, Valley of Gwangi); to the current computer-generated images seen in the Jurassic Park films.
Nevertheless, living dinosaurs are what we are here to discuss. Tales of true Mesozoic cryptids haunting the nearly impenetrable equatorial jungles and swamps of Africa and South America go back decades. A few odd tales of beasts resembling living dinosaurs have even come from Europe and North America. There are also an abundance of reports of living pterosaurs and aquatic saurians seen around the world, but for this particular blog I am going to keep to the land-dwelling Mesozoic throwbacks.
Perhaps the best-known among these animals reputed to still be in existence (at least by name recognition) would be Mokele-mbembe of the central Congo. Descriptions of this animal indicate a small sauropod (the family of dinosaurs that gave us Apatosaurus and Brachiosaurus), ranging around twenty feet in length, with a brownish skin, and an apparently nasty temperament, which includes attacking and killing hippos (no simple feat if you’ve ever watched a nature show focusing on annoyed hippos). Recent expeditions have some researchers believing the animals in the Congo may in fact be smaller juvenile versions of seventy-foot-long creatures reportedly seen in neighboring Cameroon.
One persistent story that continually finds its way into cryptozoological texts is of a confrontation between Congolese Pygmies and an errant Mokele-mbembe which broke through a small barrier erected by the Pygmies to keep the animals from raiding their fishing grounds. The Pygmies ultimately killed the animal and feasted upon its flesh, after which the Pygmies died because the ingested flesh had poisoned them.
It has been said the name “Mokele-mbembe” is really more of a catch-all, not representing one species, but different animals, some of which might even be common mammals. The name actually translates to “One who stops the flow of rivers”. There is a litany of varying names given to these mysterious animals based upon cultures and the regions in which they supposedly live, but for the sake of brevity I shall forgo this.
Other dinosaur-like creatures are said to exist in similar regions, but their physical descriptions make it obvious they are not the same animals. Emela-ntouka — the killer of elephants — has been described as a large quadruped with an ivory horn upon the tip of its snout and a long, crocodilian tail. It doesn’t take much to put two and two together to see that we may be dealing with a modern ceratopsian: something from the family that brought us Triceratops and Styracosaurus. Although Emela-ntouka’s lifestyle is indicative of an animal that wanders the jungles and waterways alone, it is difficult to ignore that Mesozoic ceratopsians traveled in large herds across open plains, much like the hundreds of herding mammalian species seen all over the world today.
There is a third mystery denizen of the African continent, which goes by the name Mbielu-mbielu-mbielu, an animal with planks growing out of its back. Not a whole lot is known or written about this particular creature, but it has still captured the fancy of living dinosaur enthusiasts everywhere as a possible descendant of the Stegosaurus.
Yet, there is something about these rumored creatures that has convinced explorers and scientists to take on tremendous expense, risk very real and serious physical danger, as well as ridicule, to venture into largely unexplored jungles and swamps in an attempt to lay the mystery to rest once and for all. Dr. Mackal went to the Congo twice. Other expeditions before and since have not fared much better in the way of evidence beyond the anecdotal. That has not deterred the true believers, as more expeditions in search of living dinosaurs are planned for the near future. If someone were to come back with proof that Mesozoic monsters still roam among us, they will definitely have earned their rightful place in the history books. Even the skeptics and debunkers would love to be proven wrong.
Naturally, the field of cryptozoology has always been a playground for hoaxers and the advent of computer programs, like Photoshop, have made it much easier to create extremely believable hoaxed photographs of various cryptids of all sizes and descriptions. Living dinosaurs are no exception, with the story of the “Kasai Rex” being a fairly well-known example. I remember having first read about it in a book about unknown animals when I was a kid (a very long time ago). Supposedly what had happened was a farmer in Africa came upon a Tyrannosaur-like animal feasting upon the remains of a large rhinoceros it had killed. Every once in a while a “photo” of the incident will be show up on the Internet via Photoshop or some other similar computer program. Some people have even tried to legitimize the tale by saying what was seen may have been a giant monitor lizard as opposed to a living theropod. Whatever the case, the story of the Kasai Rex has become extinct.
Some hoaxes come in the form of motion picture film. I remember an episode of the That’s Incredible! television show, which showed footage supposedly taken of Mokele-mbembe by an expedition team in the 1980s. What the film showed was a swamp heavily shrouded in fog, while in the distance the silhouette of a long neck and small, cylindrical head rose up from the water, remained still for a few beats, and then dropped back below the surface. Not bad, but certainly nothing to write home about. In the years since I heard several stories of how the film was faked, but the one which stuck with me was told to me by my former boss at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. He had been in that part of Africa at the time collecting specimens for the museum. He had spoken to somebody involved in the hoax who told him that they simply found a tree branch of desirable length with a smaller stump angling to the side, just like a sauropod head and neck. They hired a local boy to raise and lower it on their cue and the rest is history. Once again, whatever the case really was, the evidence clearly indicates yet another hoax.
One particular hoax that has gained extensive notoriety and is even argued-over today are the Ica Stones of Ica, Peru. The story of the stones, as well as the Acambaro figures from Guanajuato, Mexico, make for fascinating reading and will give you far more detail than I am going to cite here. The Ica stones are famous because they bear carvings upon their surfaces, which depict dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures interacting with human beings. They also depict advance technologies from a time when only Native tribes were known to exist. As for the Acambaro figures, these are sculptures and figurines of extant dinosaurs with human beings from a time when the known peoples would have had no knowledge of such animals from fossil remains. Alas, it all proved too good to be true and the evidence is clear these items were all fraudulent.
Is there any hard evidence to support the idea of living Mesozoic dinosaurs beyond the anecdotal? Not a whole lot. In his book, In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors, Do Giant ‘Extinct’ Creatures Still Exist?, Dr. Karl P.N. Shuker presents a photograph of a small, gold statuette resembling something akin to a sauropod dinosaur on page 21. While it is rough and clearly cartoon-like (most likely due to the skill level of the native artist), it is an interesting artifact, given the unlikelihood of the artist or his people being familiar with the history of dinosaurs.
Then there is the Sirrush or the Dragon of the Ishtar Gate. When the ancient city of Babylon was found and excavations began in the late 1800s, one of the more amazing items found was the Ishtar gate, the main entrance into the city. Upon this massive structure were three animals sculpted in relief upon brightly-colored ceramic tiles. The first was a lion, the second was the Auroch (an extinct bull known for its ferocity), and the Sirrush: a dragon-like creature with a long, slender neck, reptilian head with a pair of horns on top, the hind legs of an eagle, and the front legs of a lion. While the lion and the Auroch are clearly real animals, much debate has swirled around the image of the dragon. Some people see it as positive evidence of dinosaurs having survived into biblical times as the prophet Daniel is said to have killed a dragon while held prisoner in Babylon. Others see it as an imaginary creature, a chimera made up of various beasts as the embodiment of the Babylonian god Marduk. One very curious item is a reproduction of animals found in a cave painting in Tanganyika, in Mackal’s A Living Dinosaur. On page 10 of the book, one of the creatures depicted bears a very strong resemblance to the Sirrush on the Ishtar gate. So much so, it is almost as if a child in elementary school had tried to draw the same creature.
During that aforementioned dinner with Dr. Mackal, he joked that if there really were dinosaurs living in the jungles we had better find them soon, before somebody clones one and plants it there. Maybe science will do it. They have found soft tissues within the fossilized bones of certain dinosaurs, but the scientists will tell you it is not the right material to yield DNA in order to start working on the genome. Then again science may surprise us. Along with advancements in technology, new and amazing discoveries in the field are made all the time. Who would have believed they would find soft tissue inside the fossilized bones of an eighty million year-old T. rex a decade ago?
I had an opportunity to ask paleontologist Robert Bakker, author of The Dinosaur Heresies, what he thought about dinosaurs continuing to exist into the present. He stated emphatically it was out of the question as such a species would need a breeding population of at least a thousand members and something like that could not remain hidden.
Now that brings us to Chickenosaurus. The name sounds like something from a bad cartoon and the mental picture it conjures hardly helps. However, this proposed animal may very well be the first true theropod dinosaur to come into existence since the last ones died out at the end of the Cretaceous. The theory has been posed by paleontologist John Horner of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana and author of the book How To Build A Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn’t Have To Be Forever. His idea is to re-create a theropod dinosaur by calling out dormant genetic traits that still exist within modern birds: arms with clawed fingers in the place of wings, a long tail instead of the pygostyle, a pebbled skin like that found with certain fossil dinosaur finds, and teeth. These atavistic features can be drawn out during the embryonic development of a chicken by altering the nucleic acid base of specific genes at specific points of their development, thus determining which physical characteristics will be allowed to fully-develop, resulting in the creature described here. The purpose of this experiment is not to create some kind of object for public curiosity and entertainment, but rather to prove absolutely the genetic link between extinct dinosaurs and their avian progeny.
In my line of work I write fiction, which I try to base on research carried out by experts in the field of cryptozoology in order that my novels will not only be entertaining, but hopefully in line with what is known and accepted by those who read them. I look at it from two perspectives: the first, being a writer of fiction novels, is there enough evidence related to the subject animal for me to be convinced I can write a plausible and exciting story? The second is from the perspective of a curiosity seeker, which is where I am much more skeptical. Do I believe such animals really exist? If I were writing non-fiction what would my take be? I think it’s better to leave you guessing as to where I stand.
One final mention from the evening that Dr. Mackal made his Godzilla remark. While we were on the subject of Mokele-mbembe he said to me, “If I ever came across a living dinosaur and got my arm bitten off, I’d look lovingly at that stump for the rest of my life.”