Prof. Roy P. Mackal (1925-2013) (© Roy P. Mackal)
Back in 1998, I prepared and conducted an interview with esteemed American cryptozoologist Prof. Roy P. Mackal (who was also a well-respected, much-published biochemist at the University of Chicago during his professional scientific career). This was then published in the British partwork magazine The X Factor, which was devoted to mysteries (including cryptozoological ones) and the unexplained (and was no relation, incidentally, to the later TV pop star talent show of the same title!). Sadly, Roy, who was also a personal friend of mine and had kindly written the foreword to my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors, passed away in September 2013.
My X Factor interview with Roy enabled him to provide his own personal insights into some of the many cryptozoological researches that he had conducted down through the years, and thus made fascinating reading. Consequently, as The X Factor was not readily available outside the UK during its run, I am reprinting it here now as a ShukerNature exclusive.
I also offer it as my personal tribute to someone who was both a greatly-valued friend and a leading, highly-influential figure in the field of cryptozoology who will continue to be so for as long as there are cryptids out there still awaiting discovery. Thank you, Roy, for inspiring me and so many others like me to search for hidden animals, both in the field and in the archives. May we be worthy of you.
MY X-FACTOR INTERVIEW WITH PROF. ROY P. MACKAL:
Now retired from the University of Chicago after a lifetime of internationally-acclaimed research in the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology, Professor Roy P. Mackal is also the world's leading field cryptozoologist, and has investigated many classic mystery beasts over the years. He has, for instance, performed a biochemical examination of preserved tissue samples from a supposed gigantic octopus washed ashore on a Florida beach in 1896, and during the 1980s he famously led two expeditions into the People's Republic of the Congo in search of a putative living dinosaur known locally as the mokele-mbembe. He has also been involved with various research projects conducted at Loch Ness, and even experienced a close encounter with a mysterious flippered creature that briefly appeared above the water near his boat. In Namibia he has investigated reports of pterodactyl-like 'flying snakes'; and during the early 1990s he acted as scientific advisor to a Japanese TV crew who filmed a controversial lake monster called the migo in Lake Dakataua, on the island of New Britain, near New Guinea.
Vice-President of the International Society of Cryptozoology and also the author of three well-respected books on cryptozoology, Professor Mackal took time out recently to chat with The X Factor concerning his longstanding involvements, interests, and thoughts on the ever-intriguing subject of mystery beasts.
Q1: As a professional biochemist, what originally attracted you to cryptozoology?
A1: I was always interested in new species of animals, zoology being my second love. My reading of The Lungfish and the Unicorn, Dragons In Amber, and other pioneering cryptozoology-oriented books by self-dubbed 'romantic zoologist' Willy Ley in the 1950s played a major role in fanning my interest. My first serious cryptozoological investigation began in 1965, at Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands, during the golden years of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau.
Q2: Assuming that the mokele-mbembe does exist and is indeed a living dinosaur, why did early Western explorers and other travellers never bring back any physical remains of this very large mystery beast for scientific study?
A2: Although there were efforts by people like the famous animal collector Carl Hagenbeck and others to obtain hard evidence for the mokele-mbembe, the circumstances of the difficult, disease-ridden Congolese swamps produced no results to speak of. The main problem is that the area is so formidable and is so large - approximately 55,000 square miles of unexplored jungle swamp in the Likouala region where the creature is reported - that it takes a great deal of time and effort to mount an expedition. Furthermore, one must remain in the area for long periods of time, which is extremely difficult, in order to obtain any information about these animals, which are apparently quite rare.
Roy's famous book documenting his searches for the Congolese mokele-mbembe, published in 1987 (© Prof. Roy P. Mackal/E.J. Brill)
Q3: Since first spying it in 1994, your opinion has changed concerning the likely identity of the migo, the monster of Laka Dakataua in New Britain. Why is this, and what do you now believe the migo to be?
A3: Our original video recordings of the migo clearly established that there were animals, or animal, at least 50 ft or about 14 m in overall length present in the lake from time to time. Lake Dakataua is a freshwater lake, completely isolated from the sea by only 400-500 ft. It is freshwater without any fish in it, due primarily to the salts spewed out by the active volcano at its edge. Images of the serrated back and the contours of the migo that we obtained on the videos in the Japanese expedition suggested that its zoological identity might involve reptiles, or even primitive whales known as archaeocetes.
During the second expedition a few months later, additional video sequences and observations were made at close range, establishing that the 50 ft creature was in fact three specimens of the saltwater or estuarine crocodile Crocodylus porosus - a female in heat being tracked by two males. One of the males was clasping the female's tail, and the other male was clasping the tail of the first male. Altogether this produced a composite 'creature' possessing what had seemed to be a head, neck, and two humps, and measuring in the order of 50 ft or so in total length.
Q4: Another close encounter with a lake monster featured Nessie, spied by you at Urquhart Bay, in September 1970. Tell us about your sighting, which is among the most notable of all Nessie reports.
A4: My observation at Loch Ness occurred at approximately 4-5 pm in the afternoon, on an absolutely clear, sunny, calm day. The water was as smooth as glass from time to time, but of course occasionally small ripples would appear. My underwater engineer Robert Love and his assistant Jeff Blonder were servicing hydrofoam equipment that we had deployed in the depths of the bay in order to record any unusual animal sounds. I was minding our work boat Fussy Hen, supposedly keeping it in trim. Actually, I was only half-awake, sort of dozing off with boredom, when to my surprise, about 30 ft away, 10 m or so, I noticed the water begin to boil up, as a result of a large mass moving towards the surface.
In a moment, the black back of a creature, which was elongated and convex, broke the surface. The texture appeared like the skin of an elephant - no hair, scales, or anything else notable. The back had a slight ridge-like configuration, but no serrations. The part that showed was of the order of 2-3 m, protruding in length above the water, more or less twisting or rolling from left to right. As it rotated to the right, occasionally a black triangular flipper-like structure broke the surface on the left anterior side of the creature. It was separated from the main body of the creature by probably about 1 ft or so of water. This varied as the animal twisted from left to right and right to left. I estimate that the triangular object at the water line when it protruded maximally was probably 12 in or so, and protruding 10-12 in at maximum height. The object looked very much like a black rubbery flipper, exactly like what was later photographed underwater by Robert Rines. Nothing else ever became visible.
I called Bob and Jeff's attention to the object as we watched with racing pulses for 2-3 minutes, after which the object submerged almost straight down, with only a slight forward motion. Nothing that could be attributed to a head, neck, or any other structure was ever observed.
Roy's classic, extensively-researched book investigating the Loch Ness Monster phenomenon, published in 1976
Q5: Nowadays, anyone with an interest in cryptozoology, however slight, readily refers to themselves as a cryptozoologist. Do you agree with this trend?
A5: If people are doing cryptozoological research, I have no objection to calling them cryptozoologists. If some day cryptozoology becomes a recognised scientific discipline, and scientific training in this area is formally available, then I would consider that perhaps the term should be applied more to those who have actually undergone training and studied the subject and obtained academic, scientific credentials, although I feel that the term 'amateur cryptozoologist' would still be appropriate for others. At the present time, we all are amateurs in a strict sense.
Q6: As a world-acclaimed professional scientist, what types of response have you received from colleagues over the years regarding your cryptozoological interests, and how (if at all) have attitudes towards cryptozoology changed within scientific circles in recent times?
A6: In the 1960s, I experienced a great many raised eyebrows among my colleagues regarding my taking things like Loch Ness seriously. There were many exceptions, however, which were encouraging. In the past 40 years or so, I have experienced a significant change in attitudes towards consideration of cryptozoology as a legitimate science rather than pseudoscience. After all, in the 19th Century, while it was not formally named it was always considered zoology. There are still, of course, plenty of philistines inside and outside of the academic community who take a very negative view towards cryptozoological research.
TWO BOX FEATURES WRITTEN BY ME THAT WERE PUBLISHED ALONGSIDE MY INTERVIEW WITH PROF. ROY MACKAL IN THE X FACTOR:
Was Florida's St Augustine globster really a giant octopus?
On 30 November 1896, a massive, highly-decomposed carcase was washed onto a beach near St Augustine, Florida. When its description was first read by esteemed biologist Professor A.E. Verrill of Yale University, he stated that it was probably a colossal octopus, with a tentacular span of up to 200 ft - far greater than any currently accepted by science - and he christened this spectacular new species Octopus giganteus. A little later, however, Verrill changed his mind, claiming that the carcase, nowadays dubbed the Florida or St Augustine globster, was merely rotting whale blubber. Since then, there has been appreciable dispute as to what this really was, so in the 1980s Professor Mackal subjected to amino acid analyses some of its tissue samples (preserved at the Smithsonian Institution), alongside control tissue samples obtained from a number of other animal species, including two octopuses. And the result?
In a scientific paper documenting his study, Mackal revealed: "Comparison with the amino acid composition of known proteins indicates that the O. giganteus tissue is mainly collagen and certainly not 'whale blubber'...Comparative determinations of Cu [copper] and Fe [iron] content of O. giganteus tissues and controls were inconclusive, but consistent with a cephalopod [squid, octopus] identification. These analytical results support the original identification of the tissue and carcass by A.E. Verrill as an exceptionally large cephalopod, probably octopus, not referable to any known species".
In 1995, conversely, a zoological team from Maryland University announced that according to their own recent biochemical and microscopical study of the St Augustine globster's tissues, the collagen's specific composition was mammalian, thus supporting the whale identity. In reality, however, as noted by Florida University cytobiologist Dr Joseph Gennaro, whose histological researches on the globster's tissues back in 1971 had indicated an octopus identity, the preserving fluid in which the tissue samples have been retained for over a century may well have distorted their chemical composition, rendering any conclusive taxonomic identification of the St Augustine globster impossible.
Could flying reptiles unknown to science await discovery in Namibia?
According to traditional native lore, the hilly, desert terrain of Namibia in southwestern Africa is home to a mysterious flying creature, which if real is certainly unknown to science. The Namaqua people of southern Namibia claim that it is a winged snake, and a creature fitting this description has apparently been seen by eyewitnesses of European descent too, as revealed by Professor Mackal in his book Searching For Hidden Animals (1980).
One of the most famous eyewitnesses is Michael Esterhuise, who as a teenager in 1942 encountered a very large snake with a pair of wing-like structures projecting from the sides of its mouth. On a second occasion, a huge serpent-like beast actually launched itself from the top of a rocky ledge and soared down through the air towards Esterhuise, creating a very loud air disturbance as it did so, and hitting the ground with such force that it left its tracks behind, to be later examined by perplexed scientists.
Roy's first cryptozoology book, originally published in 1980; the version illustrated here is the first UK edition, published in 1983
Writing about this bizarre incident in his book, Mackal discounted earlier proposals that the snake had merely been an injured python falling to earth, adding: "In fact, it is hard to attribute such a disturbance even to a large gliding creature, suggesting instead that some kind of wing action must have been involved".
Mackal had also collected accounts of a pterodactyl-like beast supposedly spied in Namibia. So in summer 1988, he and a group of fellow investigators journeyed to an isolated private property owned by German Namibians, where reports had emerged. According to these, the creature was apparently "...capable of sustained flight, thus was not just a glider. In particular, one of the animals was said to fly (mainly glide) at dusk between crevices in two kopjes [hills] separated by about a mile. The animal was described as having a wingspan close to 30 feet, and having no feathers". Despite daily watches, however, the team failed to observe such a creature, and Professor Mackal returned home to America. Conversely, one member of the team who remained there, James Kosi, later claimed to have spied a giant creature, black with white markings, gliding through the air approximately 1000 ft away.
So could such a creature truly exist? Mackal's thoughts on the matter encapsulate the sober scientific attitude that he has shown in relation to all of his cryptozoological investigations:
"In contrast to some who state, 'Today there is no possibility whatsoever of finding a flying reptile or any of its progeny in some lost corner of the world; all such reports can be nothing but hoaxes,' I suggest we keep an open mind".