Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: cryptozoology from The Penguin English Dictionary

the study of animals, e.g. the yeti, which are generally believed to be extinct or mythical

cryptozoologist noun.


Summary Article: Cryptozoology
from Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained

The term ‘cryptozoology’ is derived from the Greek roots kryptos (‘hidden’), zoon (‘animal’) and logos (‘discourse’ or ‘study’), and therefore translates literally as ‘the study of hidden animals’. It is generally defined as the study of unexpected animals whose existence or identity is currently undetermined by science. This definition emphasizes the crucial fact that such animals are unknown only to scientists; almost invariably, they are familiar creatures to the people who share their native domain (and hence are said to be ‘ethnoknown’ – a term coined in print by cryptozoologist Richard Greenwell in 1985). It also underlines that, to be classed as cryptozoological, such animals need to be unexpected in some way, eg relatively large and inhabiting a locality where scientists would not expect them to be; otherwise, any undiscovered animal, including the tiniest insect or least significant worm, could be considered cryptozoological.

Veteran Belgian cryptozoologist Dr bernard heuvelmans, popularly dubbed ‘The Father of Cryptozoology’, frequently claimed that he was the person responsible for coining this term, during the 1950s, but so too did leading American cryptozoologist Ivan T Sanderson (1911–73). Moreover, Sanderson’s claim was even acknowledged by Heuvelmans himself, so it is likely that it was coined independently by these researchers. It first appeared in print in 1959, when Lucien Blancou, Chief Game Inspector of the French Overseas Territories, who had reported a number of African mystery beasts in various publications, dedicated his latest book, Géographie cynégétique du Monde, to ‘Bernard Heuvelmans, maître de la cryptozoologie’ (‘master of cryptozoology’). In 1983, Manitoba resident John E Wall coined the companion term cryptid, referring to any creature classed as a cryptozoological animal. Until then, such creatures had been referred to by a plethora of loose, generalized terms, such as ‘mystery animal’, ‘hidden animal’, ‘unknown animal’, ‘undiscovered animal’ or ‘unidentified animal’.

What precisely constitutes a cryptid has engendered much controversy, even among cryptozoologists, with some investigators expanding its definition to include exotic out-of-place animals and even paranormal entities. Consequently, in 1985, Richard Greenwell of the International Society of Cryptozoology published a formal classification system for cryptozoology in the Society’s refereed scientific journal, Cryptozoology. He proposed and defined a series of seven cryptid categories. These are as follows:

Category I: Cryptids constituting aberrant individuals, ie individuals of known species or subspecies whose form, size or colouration is unusual or unique. Such cryptids include giant-sized anacondas, Sri Lankan horned jackals and the blue tiger of fujian.

Category II: Cryptids constituting known species or subspecies in geographical areas in which they are currently unrecognized by science as naturally existing, because there is no conclusive evidence, as yet, to confirm this unexpected zoogeographical distribution. The leopard Panthera pardus as reported in Bali is an example of this category of cryptid. Conversely, alien big cats are not, because these are merely escapee or deliberately released exotic, non-native individuals (ie their occurrence in, for instance, the United Kingdom is not an example of natural zoogeographical distribution).

Category III: Cryptids constituting presumably living species or subspecies that are known only from incomplete specimens, and do not represent fossil forms – as with the Florida giant octopus from 1896.

Category IV: Cryptids constituting known species or subspecies that officially became extinct in historical times, but which may have survived into more recent times than originally believed – or may even still survive today and thus await rediscovery. The thylacine and the dwarf upland moa (see moa, living) are good examples of such cryptids.

Category V: Cryptids constituting species or subspecies currently known to science only from fossils, but which may have survived into historical times – or may even still exist today and thus await discovery in the living state. Cryptids deemed likely by cryptozoologists to be living plesiosaurs, zeuglodonts or dinosaurs (see mokele-mbembe), for example, fall into this category. Several noteworthy precedents are already known, such as the coelacanth and the Chacoan peccary.

Category VI: Cryptids constituting new species or subspecies of already-known animal groups (eg new species or subspecies of cat, whale or monitor lizard) but for which no physical evidence currently exists. These include such cryptids as the ahool and the rhinoceros dolphin.

Category VII: Cryptids constituting new species or subspecies of animal whose existence is currently unknown not only to scientists but also to native people sharing their domain – ie they are ethnounknown instead of ethnoknown. An excellent precedent for this category of cryptid is the megamouth shark Megachasma pelagios, whose existence remained wholly unknown, not only to science but also to local fishermen, until a specimen was accidentally caught by a research vessel off the Hawaiian island of Oahu in 1976.

Technically, as conceded by Greenwell, Categories I and VII are only semi-cryptozoological, as cryptozoology in its strictest sense does not deal with freak individuals (Category I) or with mystery beasts that are not ethnoknown (Category VII).

Although Greenwell’s classification system was an admirable attempt to introduce a degree of order and categorization to the diverse array of cryptids on file, it is ultimately unsatisfactory for the simple reason that, by definition, the zoological identity of any given cryptid remains undetermined until the moment that conclusive physical evidence for its existence is obtained – whereupon it is no longer a cryptid but an officially recognized, classifiable animal. Consequently, as frequently happens, especially when a particular case attracts attention from several different cryptozoologists, more than one identity may be proposed for a cryptid – which means that it could conceivably be placed into more than one of Greenwell’s categories.

A good example of this futility in attempting to pigeon-hole cryptids into specific categories is the North American thunderbird. As discussed in detail by British zoologist and cryptozoologist Dr Karl Shuker in In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), a number of different identities are on offer for this cryptid. It may, for instance, be a surviving species of prehistoric condor-related vulture known as a teratorn (which therefore places it in Category V of Greenwell’s classification system), or it could be an unknown species of eagle (placing it in Category VI) or possibly a population of Andean condors well outside this species’ recognized zoogeographical distribution (Category II). It may even be based upon freak, extra-large individuals of a known species of North American vulture (Category I). In short, any attempt to categorize cryptids taxonomically can only be speculative at best, and, at worst, a needless detraction from the cryptids themselves.

Whereas the investigation of many famous unexplained phenomena as discrete subjects set apart from mainstream studies date back to the earliest ages of human enquiry, as with ghosts, extrasensory perception and unexplained aerial phenomena, for instance, cryptozoology is something of an anomaly, because there was no need for its delineation from mainstream zoology as a separate field of study until as recently as the 20th century. This is because there was once (and still is even today, for that matter) so much virgin, unexplored territory in the more remote, exotic regions of the globe that zoologists had no doubt whatsoever that major new animal species still awaited discovery. Consequently, every report of an ostensibly new, unclassified species attracted serious attention from the scientific community. This open-minded trend continued until the early 1800s, when a number of leading figures in the international zoological community began to cast doubt on the prospect of further such discoveries being made, believing instead that the world was now too well explored for any significant new animals to remain concealed.

Prominent among these sceptics was Baron Georges Cuvier, an eminent French zoologist, who, in 1812, boldly, but also (as it soon transpired) rashly, proclaimed: ‘There is little hope of discovering new species of large quadrupeds.’ A mere seven years later, he was startled to receive a communication from a colleague concerning a spectacular new mammal freshly discovered in Asia. It was a very novel species of tapir, a trunked hoofed mammal related to horses and rhinoceroses which was previously only known to occur in the New World. Moreover, unlike the American species, which are all uniformly dark, the newly revealed Asian tapir was instantly distinguished by its showy saddle of white colouration across its back and flanks. Although hitherto undescribed by science, it was well known to the local people, setting a precedent for future cryptozoological discoveries. So too was another previously unsuspected species of tapir, the pinchaque or mountain tapir of South America’s high Andes, formally documented scientifically in 1835. During the remainder of the 19th century all manner of other dramatic new species were exposed, including the lowland gorilla, pygmy hippopotamus, Himalayan takin, Père David’s deer, lesser panda and giant panda, Grant’s gazelle, gerenuk and Grévy’s zebra.

Nevertheless, the dark shadow of scepticism that had been cast by Cuvier and a number of other influential but highly sceptical zoologists, including Sir Richard Owen and Rudolf Virchow, lingered on. Indeed, such was the extent to which it blighted scientific enthusiasm for new finds that even the discovery in 1901 of the Congolese okapi, an incongruous short-necked forest-dwelling giraffe with zebra-striped haunches, which created a scientific sensation worldwide, was nonetheless deemed to be surely the last great zoological find. Of course, it was not – just as the Asian tapir was only the first of many remarkable new animals to be unveiled in the 19th century, so too was the okapi merely the herald of a new wave of extraordinary new creatures that would be discovered and documented in the 20th century. Indeed, more than 300 major new animals were revealed during the 1900s, including the rediscovery of a number of spectacular creatures hitherto assumed to have died out long ago.

In 1993, the first book ever devoted solely to such creatures was produced – The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (republished in 2002 as The New Zoo), written by Dr Karl Shuker. The book has become the standard work on the subject, and contains every major animal to have been discovered or rediscovered between 1900 and 1999. In addition to the okapi, these include the gigantic but gentle mountain gorilla (discovered in 1902), the equally sizeable giant forest hog (1904), the resurrected lobe-finned coelacanth (1938) that belongs to an ancient lineage of fishes formerly believed to have died out at least 64 million years ago, large spectacular birds such as the Congo peacock (1936) and Vo Quy’s pheasant (1964), the once-mythical king cheetah (1926) that is now known to be a rare striped variety of the normal spotted cheetah, the megamouth shark (1976), a pig-like mammal called the Chacoan peccary (1974) hitherto believed to have died out during the Ice Ages, several different species of beaked whale, the formidable Komodo dragon (1912) that constitutes the world’s largest lizard, the Cambodian wild ox or kouprey (1937), the Queen of Sheba’s gazelle (1985), the amazing saola or Vu Quang ox (1992), the giant muntjac deer (1994) and a great many more.

Yet despite such discoveries as these turning up on a regular basis during the 1900s, zoological scepticism concerning new animals still awaiting scientific detection paradoxically remained rife throughout much of that century, with each new find being dismissed as a mere exception, an anomaly, not likely to be repeated – until the next time. Meanwhile, however, a new generation of more open-minded zoologists was also springing forth, encouraged by such finds to investigate and document reports of additional mystery beasts. The first true cryptozoology book was published in 1950, and was entitled Von Neuen und Unentdeckten Tierarten (‘Of New and Undiscovered Animals’), written by German zoologist Dr Ingo Krumbiegel. This was followed five years later by Dr Bernard Heuvelmans’ major two-volume study Sur La Piste des Bêtes Ignorées, which was translated into English in 1958 as the single-volume tome On the Track of Unknown Animals. This comprehensive work introduced a host of previously obscure mystery beasts to a worldwide readership, containing exhaustively researched investigation and documentation of such nowadays-familiar cryptids as the yeti, queensland tiger, nandi bear, waitoreke, mokele-mbembe, tatzelworm, minhocão, orang pendek, kongamato, nunda, loys’s ape, tratratratra and numerous others. It also inspired the foundation of a new zoological discipline, cryptozoology, concentrating exclusively upon the investigation of creatures still apparently unknown to science through field searches and bibliographical research.

During the decades that followed, numerous additional publications appeared, dealing with a vast range of mystery beasts, and many expeditions sought these beasts in their native terrain. In January 1982, the first scientific society devoted to cryptozoology, the International Society of Cryptozoology, was founded in Tucson, Arizona, with Heuvelmans as its president, Greenwell as its secretary and publications editor and a distinguished panel of leading zoologists with cryptozoological interests as its board of directors. After decades in the wilderness, cryptozoology, and the beasts that its supporters sought, had finally become respectable.

None of the principal cryptids discussed half a century ago in Heuvelmans’ book has so far been discovered – although not all of them have attracted major searches. However, the cryptozoological principle of listening to native testimony, and pursuing the leads offered by it, has yielded some other, no less exciting, finds – including a number of sizeable new mammals in Vietnam and South America. Even in modern times, the potential for discovering spectacular new species is still present. The 21st century has already seen expeditions in search of such diverse cryptids as the mokele-mbembe, the orang pendek, several different lake monsters and the mongolian death worm, to name just a few. After almost 200 years, it would appear that the sceptical influence of Cuvier and others is finally receding, and cryptozoology continues to gain acceptance as a valid and worthwhile discipline within the mainstream scientific community.

Dr Karl P N Shuker

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2007

Related Articles


Full text Article Cryptozoology
Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained

The term ‘cryptozoology’ is derived from the Greek roots kryptos (‘hidden’), zoon (‘animal’) and logos (‘discourse’ or ‘study’), and...

Full text Article Cryptozoology
The Seafaring Dictionary: Terms, Idioms and Legends of the Past and Present

Generally considered a pseudo-science, cryptozoology refers to the study of hidden animals (Greek kryptós = hidden + zôon = animal + logos = knowled

Full text Article cryptozoology
The Penguin English Dictionary

/kriptohzooholəji, -zooholəji/ noun the study of animals, e.g. the yeti, which are generally believed to be extinct or mythical ...

See more from Credo