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Cryptozoology

Taking the Bait: The Weird Worminess of the Brazilian Minhocão

If I was a cryptid, and opinions vary as to whether this is actually the case (just ask my wife, previous girlfriends, psychologist, accountant, and lawyer), and I needed a nice ecological niche to inhabit that limited my contact with the human race (which incidentally, is another important life goal of mine), it seems like the Amazon would be a good choice.  Pencil-necked naturalists, and I say that with all due respect since I actually associate the occupation of “naturalist” with the esteemed fictional scientist and super-spy Stephen Maturin of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin Napoleonic naval warfare series (the source material for the Russell Crowe movie Master and Commander for you uncultured heathens out there—and don’t worry, I also have great fondness for uncultured heathens), estimate that there are still at minimum, some 30,000 undiscovered plants alone in the world’s rain-forests, of which the Amazon represents a full 50%). The long and the short of it is that scientists corner me at parties and tell me that we have identified some 1.9 million species on Earth, but nonetheless estimate, which is what scientists are really good at, that there are probably at least 8.8 million species limping around on the planet.  I had to reach for my calculator, which I rarely believe under the assumption that the National Security Administration can feed it any answer that provides an adequate cover story, but this suggests that some 3.45 million undiscovered species are probably lurking under the shade of Amazonian forest canopy.  Consequently, we should probably take Amazonian monsters seriously, particularly monsters like the Minhocão, the giant worm of the Amazon.  No doubt there are countless other awful creatures lurking in the jungle waiting to devour us, but frankly, I like most of my fellow Homo sapiens, am exceedingly suspicious of worms, particularly gigantic ones.

Fear of snakes and worms (and legless land critters in general) is not uncommon, but snakes, despite being all slithery, fangy, and sometimes venomy at least have the decency to put on some skin before they leave the house. Worms look like they’re wearing their guts on the outside. Personally, my verminaphobia is well under control, so I have no problem baiting a hook with one of those little bastards, but it’s hard not to recognize that worms have a number of character flaws that are naturally suggestive of monstrosity, particularly to the vertebrate crowd (among which I sometimes number myself). First, although we give a pass to those unfortunates burdened with an exoskeleton, humans seem to believe that a proper living creature that isn’t a plant should have bones. We like bones. If you have no other redeeming qualities, at least you have a skeleton.  Second, worms ignore us. They come creeping out after a rain en masse, completely oblivious to and uninterested in humans. This not only offends our mammalian vanity, but because we project our own plans for world domination on every other living thing, makes us worry that humans will be incidental or irrelevant to any worm agenda.  We resent being ignored.  Third, worms are the closest living thing we have to a zombie.  One of the most terrifying aspects of zombies is that they keep coming.  Cut off its arms and a zombie merrily continues to try to bite you. Remove its legs, and it will crawl after you.  The mere fact of serious bodily trauma and a dead brain doesn’t phase them.  This is unpleasant to us, as we have a certain expectation that things of the natural world will eventually cease forward motion if you remove enough pieces of them.  Cut a worm in half, and the two distinct pieces just go about their business as if this sudden change in stature meant nothing, which we find inherently disturbing.  And this is true even when the worm in question is only a few inches long.  A monster worm represents all these creepy aspects writ large.  Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that even the small ones eat us when we’re dead.  Obviously, this has me concerned, particularly when encountering stories of gargantuan worms hidden in locales where I’ve been assured that there are millions of unclassified species.

Jules Verne mentions the Minhocão in a story called Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon (although he calls them giant reptilians, artistic license and all), and while plainly a fictional plot device, let’s not forget that the good Mr. Verne was writing about submarines before anybody thought about building them.  Luckily we have no shortage of ostensibly non-fictional accounts of the Minhocão from numerous adventurers in South America, many of which made it into relatively reputable 19th Century science journals.  Renowned French botanist Augustin François César Prouvençal de Saint-Hilaire (1779–1853) spent a lot of time in the backwaters of Brazil in the early 19th century cataloging thousands of flora and fauna, and made note of the local reports of a giant worm in the Amazon.

Luiz Antonio da Silva e Souza, whose acquaintance I made during my travels, and to whom we owe the most valuable researches on the history and statistics of Goyaz, says, in speaking of the lake of Padre Aranda, situated in this vast province, that it is inhabited by minhocoes; then he adds that these monsters—it is thus he expresses himself—dwell in the deepest parts of the lake, and have often drawn horses and horned cattle under the water. The industrious Pizarro, who is so well acquainted with all that relates to Brazil, mentions nearly the same thing, and points out the Lake Feia, which is likewise situated in Goyaz, as also being inhabited by minhocoes. I had already heard of these animals several times, and I considered them as fabulous, when the disappearance of horses, mules and cattle, in fording the rivers, was certified by so many persons, that it became impossible for me altogether to doubt it. When I was at the Rio dos Piloes, I also heard much of the minhocoes; I was told that there were some in this river, and that at the period when the waters had risen, they had often dragged in horses and mules whilst swimming across the river. The word Minhocão is an augmentative of minhoca, which in Portuguese signifies earth-worm; and indeed they state that the monster in question absolutely resembles these worms, with this difference, that it has a visible mouth; they also add, that it is black, short, and of enormous size; that it does not rise to the surface of the water, but that it causes animals to disappear by seizing them by the belly. When, about twenty days after, having left the village and the river of Piloes, I was staying with the Governor of Meiapont, M. Joaquim Alvez de Oliveira, I asked him about these minhocoes: he confirmed what I had already been told, mentioned several recent accidents caused by these animals, and assured me at the same time, from the report of several fishermen, that the Minhocão, notwithstanding its very round form, was a true fish provided with fins (de Saint Hilaire, 1847, p130).

Andrew Wilson, a 19th Century lecturer on zoology, physiology, and comparative anatomy at the University of Edinburgh gathered a wealth of accounts of the Minhocão, which he identified as a gigantic earthworm inhabiting the highlands of southern Brazil, and reasonably pointed out (demonstrating remarkable open-mindedness for a Victorian professor) that there were in fact so many people reporting encounters with the Minhocão, from indigenous Brazilians to travelling Europeans, that while he would be unwilling to definitively conclude what the critter was, there certainly seemed to be something big and wormy in the neighborhood.  For you Frank Herbert fans out there, Wilson also mentioned the physical evidence of worm transit left in the form of deep trenches carved into the ground where the massive creature slithered by, or in other words, “worm sign”.

About eight years ago a Minhocão appeared in the neighborhood of Lages. Francisco de Amaral Varella, when about ten kilometres distant from that town, saw lying on the bank of the Rio das Caveiras a strange animal of gigantic size, nearly one metre in thickness, not very long, and with a snout like a pig, but whether it had legs or not he could not tell. He did not dare to seize it alone, and whilst calling his neighbors to his assistance, it vanished, not without leaving palpable marks behind it in the shape of a trench as it disappeared under the earth. A week later a similar trench, perhaps constructed by the same animal, was seen on the opposite side of Lages, about six kilometres distant from the former, and the traces were followed, which led ultimately under the roots of a large pine tree, and were lost in the marshy land, Herr F. Kelling, from whom this information was obtained, was at that time living as a merchant in Lages, and saw himself the trenches made by the Minhocão. Herr E. Odebrecht, whilst surveying a line of road from Itajahy into the highlands of the province of Santa Caterina, several years ago, crossed a broad marshy plain traversed by an arm of the river Marombas. His progress here was much impeded by devious winding trenches which followed the course of the stream, and occasionally lost themselves in it. At the time Herr Odebrecht could not understand the origin of these peculiar trenches, but he is now inclined to believe that they were the work of the Minhocão (Wilson, 1882, p26).

English geographer and explorer Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), best known for travelling in disguise to Mecca, took a break from his obsession with the sexual practices of indigenous peoples, and mentioned the Minhocão when relating a tale of his adventures in Brazil, although he was fairly skeptical about the existence of the monster.

On the south appeared three long terraces curving into several bays; below the horizontal surfaces of the upper heights long white lines of perpendicular wall, like sea cliffs, capped their slopes, regular as if laid out by the hand. Descending the hill, we found the wind breaking the current into backward-rolling yellow yeast. Occasionally taking shelter under a Girao of four posts with fascined top, we collected the zebra’d snail-shells scattered over the fields. They were met with chiefly in the Maniba, the dwarf manioc, which ripens in six or seven months. At 2:30 we embarked, but shortly afterwards an opalescent “Olho de boi,” crowning a thin column of rain which was falling in little sheets all around, drove us to an anchorage under “As Queimadas.” Here the bank, twenty-two feet high, is cut into broad steps by the floods which spread two miles into the country. The people attribute the extensive caving in of the side, where, by-the-bye, the river forms a gut, to the gambols of the monster” Minhocão” in the days that were. No one, however, would affirm that he had seen the “Worm” (Burton, 1869, p351).

Interestingly, observers appear to agree that the Minhocão had an affinity for water, which does seem to be a standard worm preference.  In fact he noted that an alternative name for the Minhocão was “Mother of Waters”, as the monster was believed to be so large that the water level of rivers rose or fell as the worm passed by.

Another fabulous aquatic monster, in all likelihood a near relation of our celebrated sea-serpent, is the so-called Minhocão (big worm), a snake of such immense size that the riverines assert with all seriousness that the river rises or falls as the monster either enters or leaves it. It is also called mac d’agua (mother of waters), which name it shares, though, with a sort of Brazilian Lorelei, haunting the picturesque fall of the Taruma, a little influent of the Rio Negro (Keller, 1874, p83).

We don’t relate well to worms, as Franklin D. Roosevelt pointed out when he said, “I think we consider too much the luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm”.  Next time you go fishing, take a moment to honor your bait, as you thoughtlessly offer him up as a sacrifice to the fish gods.  If and when the Minhocão come creeping out of the Amazon to assert their rightful place in the natural order of things (that is, on top of the food chain), his older, meaner brother may come looking for a little payback.

References
Burton, Richard Francis, 1821-1890. Explorations of the Highlands of the Brazil: With a Full Account of the Gold And Diamond Mines. Also, Canoeing Down 1500 Miles of the GreatRiverSão Francisco, From Sabará to the Sea. London: Tinsley brothers, 1869.
De Saint Hilaire, M. Auguste.  “On the Minhocão of Goyannes” (1847). From YaleUniversity. Department of Geology and Geophysics. The American Journal of Science, Ser. 2: Vol. 4. New Haven: J.D. & E.S. Dana, 1880.
Keller, Franz, 1835-1890. The Amazon and MadeiraRivers. London: Chapman and Hall, 1874.
Wilson, Andrew, 1852-1912. Facts and Fictions of Zoology. [New York,: J. Fitzgerald & co., 1882.

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Cryptozoology

The F.B.I. Once Helped in the Hunt for Bigfoot

Bigfoot.That is all the F.B.I. said (well, tweeted) Wednesday when it released 22 pages of eyebrow-raising documents related to a 1970s hair analysis it conducted at the request of a well-known Bigfoot researcher.

The researcher, Peter Byrne, then the director of the Bigfoot Information Center and Exhibition in The Dalles, Ore., had a simple question for Jay Cochran Jr., the assistant director of the F.B.I. laboratory division: Have you been testing possible Bigfoot hair samples? And if not, would you like to start?

The 1970s were something of a heyday for Bigfoot researchers — the grainy Patterson-Gimlin film, which claimed to show one of the creatures strolling through a California streambed, was shot in 1967. Mr. Cochran did not seem terribly surprised by the question.

The F.B.I. had been asked several times in the past year whether it had been testing hair samples for possible Bigfoots, Mr. Cochran replied. “However, we have been unable to locate any references to such examinations in our files,” he wrote.

Mr. Byrne had a sample he wanted the F.B.I. to examine. It was 15 strands of hair attached to a small piece of skin that was “the first that we have obtained in six years which we feel may be of importance,” he wrote.

The F.B.I. laboratory was not normally in the business of examining tufts of hair for their potentially fantastical origins — it was more focused on criminal investigations, Mr. Cochran said — but for a reason that may be lost to history, he agreed.

“Occasionally, on a case-by-case basis, in the interest of research and scientific inquiry, we make exceptions to this general policy,” he wrote. “With this understanding, we will examine the hairs and tissue mentioned in your letter.”

Today, the idea of an earnest search for Bigfoot has become the province of reality TV shows like “MonsterQuest” and “Finding Bigfoot.” Not very many people take it seriously. But the 1970s were a different time.

The documents released by the F.B.I. on Wednesday included a long New York Times feature from June 1976 that described Mr. Byrne’s work, including “a handful” of Bigfoot sightings that “hold up and are given high credibility.”

The article, which Mr. Byrne sent to the F.B.I. to illustrate the seriousness of his endeavor, also bemoaned the paltry state of Bigfoot studies in the United States.

The Times said interest in “America’s own ‘monster’” could not hold a candle to the “increasing sums of money” that were “being spent by reputable scientists to investigate Loch Ness.”

In this one instance, at least, it appears that the F.B.I. tried to do its part in the hunt for Bigfoot.

According to the documents released Wednesday, the hairs sent by Mr. Byrne were subjected to a battery of tests, including examinations of root structure, medullary structure and cuticle thickness.

But when the results came back, they were bad news for Bigfoot hunters.

“It was concluded as a result of those examinations that the hairs are of deer family origin,” Mr. Cochran wrote in February 1977. “The hair sample you submitted is being returned as an enclosure to this letter.”

Melissa Hovey-Larsen, the president and founder of the American Bigfoot Society, said she was not surprised that the hair turned out to be from a deer.

“What we hear a lot when we get back hair samples is horse or deer or cow or bear,” she said. “We hear everything. But every so often you get one that comes back and it says ‘unknown source,’ and then nothing ever comes of it from there.”

What was more noteworthy, Ms. Hovey-Larsen said, was that Mr. Byrne turned to the federal government in his search for the truth.

“As researchers go, Peter Byrne blazed more trails to get respect for this field than anyone else in that time period, so I am not shocked he went to the F.B.I. but I am surprised,” she said.

She said most Bigfoot researchers eschew that path.

“As I always say to people, ‘What are they going to tell you?’ First of all, we have no proof that this exists,” she said. “We can’t even get a clear picture. Most of us think we’ll just be laughed right out of the room.”

The documents, which an F.B.I. spokeswoman described as “newly released information,” appeared to be the first time that federal law enforcement had acknowledged conducting any Bigfoot-related inquiry.

The spokeswoman said the release of the documents on Twitter was not intended to be an “X-Files”-style big reveal.

The account that published them, @FBIRecordsVault, automatically tweets documents that have been entered into the agency’s Freedom of Information Act library after a successful FOIA request, she said.

Some at the agency were amused at the public interest sparked by the documents and the cryptic tweet that announced their arrival.

“Oh, my God,” a receptionist at the F.B.I. press office said to a reporter who called to ask about Bigfoot. “I cannot believe that is why you are calling.”

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Cryptozoology

The Case Of The Chicago Mothman

Editor’s Note: Listen to the kid-friendly version of the audio story here

The Chicago region has been experiencing a collective case of the heebie-jeebies in recent years, ever since reports of a giant, flying, winged humanoid began surfacing in 2011.

The reports, which peaked in 2017, inspired Chicago-based comics artist Sarah Becan to bring Curious City this question:

There was a rash of sightings in Chicago of a creature that people then called the “Chicago Mothman.” Did we ever find out what it was?

Well, despite exhaustive research, interviews with witnesses and cryptozoologists, and one good old-fashioned monster hunt (for more on that, listen to the SHOCKING audio story!), we were unable to get to the bottom of this mystery. But, for the sake of science, we’ve compiled everything we were able to surmise into a digital case file. Our hope is that Chicagoans will be able to keep this investigation going so that we may one day meet our winged friend and ride upon him like a luck dragon.

DISCLAIMER: We are not responsible for any laws that are broken in the pursuit of Mothman, nor are we responsible for the factualness of any of the information contained herein. The following information should not be used as an excuse to trespass on private property or ensnare your hairier relatives with a comically large butterfly net.

Case File: Chicago Mothman

Subject profile:

In the late 1960s, people around Point Pleasant, West Virginia, began reporting sightings of a creature that would later be dubbed “Mothman.” It would reportedly emerge, fly as fast as 100 mph and, oftentimes, leave witnesses with a deep sense of dread. It was later suggested by some locals that Mothman was trying to warn humans of an impending nearby tragedy: the 1967 Silver Bridge collapse, which killed 46 people. However, others posit that this supposed supernatural connection was simply a way for people to make sense of a tragedy without meaning, as one would think there are more direct ways to warn people of danger than just being spooky.

In the intervening years, Mothman’s cult fame grew, becoming the subject of an annual festival, a museum and even a 2002 movie starring Richard Gere.

More recently, new reports have emerged. Starting in 2011 and peaking in 2017, sightings of a Mothman-like creature began surfacing all over Chicagoland.

It still remains unknown whether Chicago Mothman is a subspecies of the West Virginia Mothman or the same species — or whether it is, perhaps, just a heron that got caught in a garbage bag.

Below are some clues we’ve gathered based on reported sightings and interviews.

Mothman map updated
Although originating in West Virginia, it appears that Mothpeople have expanded their range further north to the Chicago area — perhaps, some suggest, as a result of climate change. (Images courtesy of Sarah Becan, Brian Serway and Lon Strickler)

Physical characteristics:

  • Size and shape: between 6 and 10 feet tall, 10+ foot wingspan.
  • Species it’s been compared to: a big owl, a pterosaur, a bat.
  • Eye color: “Red eyes,” “green eyes,” “yellow eyes” and “orange eyes” have all been reported. Probably all the other colors, too.
  • Other reported features: fur, leather-like skin, bat wings, no neck.
  • Possibly confused with: a barred owl, a shitepoke, a sandhill crane, a drone costume, another Chicago cryptid.
Mothman illustrations
Witnesses and artists have depicted Mothman as a tall, owl-like creature with membrane wings. (Courtesy Lon Strickler of Phantoms and Monsters and Egertron Puck)

Behavior:

Screaming, flying toward lake, disappearing, going real fast, portenting, looking at people with eyeballs.

Diet:

Mothman was alleged to have eaten a German shepherd belonging to Newell Partridge of Salem, West Virginia, in 1967. It is unclear if they eat German shepherds exclusively or rather just the pets of Newell Partridge.

Sightings:

In the city, Mothfolk are spotted all over, though most often by bodies of water. Sightings collected via the Phantoms & Monsters website are compiled here and in this map. Standout witness statements are excerpted below:

Witness: Anonymous

Date: Aug. 21, 2017

Location: Northerly Island during solar eclipse

As reported to: Phantoms & Monsters website

“We were watching and observing as the moon begin its transit when we heard a very loud scream. This sounded like squeaky truck brakes that squeal when you’re pressing hard on them. At first we thought that’s what it was…maybe a CTA bus or big truck with brakes that needed changing or maintenance.

We heard it again, this time it lasted about 3 seconds, where as the previous sound was brief. I looked up to see a large object flying low over the docks that stick out in to Burnham Harbor from across the water… This object looked like a large black bat, but also had humanoid features such as pronounced arms and legs.”

Witness: Erin Drain

Date: August 2017

Location: West Town neighborhood, Chicago

As reported to: Curious City

“I was spending the afternoon on a rooftop, and I saw something in the sky fairly high up and fairly far away. It wasn’t being buffeted about by the wind. It was moving slowly but not randomly.”

Witness: “Jeff”

Date: Oct. 26, 2017

Location: Fulton Market Street near the corner of Morgan

As reported to: The Chicago Reader

“At first I thought it was a bird, but none I’d seen before, because it was just so huge and the way it was flapping its wings… The longer I watched it, it was like… what the hell is that thing? It was freaky.”

Witness statement Mothman updated
(Image courtesy Lon Strickler of Phantoms and Monsters)

The search continues, with your help

Have you seen Chicago Mothman? If you have a lead, a video, a sketch or a theory regarding what impending doom Mothman might be warning Chicagoans to avoid, please share it with us using #ChicagoMothman on Facebook or Twitter. We can only solve this mystery together.

More about our questioner

Questioner Sarah Becan
(Courtesy Sarah Becan)

Sarah Becan is a Chicago comics artist who draws mostly food and monsters (including many “Monsterffirmations,” as she calls them).

Mothman has been a favorite of hers for some time, and so when people began reporting sightings in Chicago, she says she became a little obsessed.

“When I first started reading about all of the different sightings, I was very excited about it. I definitely kept my eyes on the sky hoping to see something,” she says.

But she did more than just keep her eyes on the sky; she went searching.

“In the summer of 2017 … there was a partial solar eclipse that passed over Chicago, and I deliberately went down to the lakefront because I thought, ‘If I was the Chicago Mothman, I would make an appearance at the solar eclipse.’” she says. “And I believe he did, but it was down at Northerly Island … and I was up at Montrose Beach.”

When pressed about what she thinks people could be seeing, after all our detective work, she suggested a large bird, like a sandhill crane, or an owl — or even a prankster with a drone.

But that’s far less fun.

As part of her obsession with Chicago Mothman, Sarah created a series of comics of the creature visiting different iconic sites in our fair city and having a great time.

Sarah Becan Mothman illustrations

Inspired by all of the Mothman sightings in 2017, questioner and illustrator Sarah Becan imagined the types of activities Mothman might enjoy in Chicago. (Courtesy Sarah Becan)

Robbie Telfer is a performance poet, teacher and conservationist. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @RobbieQT.

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Cryptozoology

Watch Out, Dogman — Cougars Are On the Loose in Michigan

Two creatures the state of Michigan is known for are the wolverine (University of Michigan’s mascot) and the Dogman – a werewolf-like cryptid reportedly seen many times in the northern part of the state’s Lower Peninsula. Another may soon be joining their ranks and it may be far scarier than the foam-headed football game wolverine or the mythical Dogman. In 2019, there have been five cougar sightings in the state, with two occurring in the past few weeks and the year is far from being over. Should Michigan residents be worried? Should Dogman? (The Wolverines aren’t worried about anything right now except defeating Ohio State.)

“The Michigan Department of Natural Resources said two trail cameras, located approximately 14 miles apart, captured the cougars in northern Delta County on Sept. 18 and southern Marquette County on Oct. 6. With these new additions, the DNR has verified 43 cougar reports since 2008; five of which were confirmed this year. Nos. 39 and 40 were confirmed in August.”

On October 23rd, the Detroit Free Press reported the latest cougar (a.k.a. mountain lion, panther, puma) sightings in the central part of the Upper Peninsula. The large cats were once native to Michigan but are now an endangered species or extinct in every U.S. state where they were once abundant. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources tried to calm the population in the Upper Peninsula – only one cougar of the recent bunch has been seen in the Lower Peninsula across the Straits of Mackinac – by assuring them that the big cats were probably escaped or released pets. Really? Five escaped cougars in one year? Get another hobby, people! The terrain has supported a large cougar population before and not much has changed in the Upper Peninsula since the last of that group was killed in 1906, according the DNR. They could also have migrated from the Dakotas – about 900 miles – which has the nearest breeding population. So far, there is no conclusive evidence of a Michigan breeding population of mountain lions.

The DNR also points out that the closest known breeding population of cougars is in North and South Dakota – over 900 miles away. Really again? In 2011, the DNA of a cougar killed when hit by an SUV in Connecticut was traced to that Dakota breeding population — 1,800 miles away! What’s a few miles through the dense forests of the northern Midwest to a horny cougar?

On the other hand, perhaps the Michigan Dogman is keeping the cougars out of Michigan – or at least out of the Lower Peninsula. A seven-foot tall wolf on two legs should frighten a cougar, shouldn’t it? There was a Dogman report in 1967 in Cross Village, just across the straits from the Upper Peninsula. Does the howling keep the cougars from swimming across them? Yes, they’re excellent swimmers!

So, what have these cougar sightings taught us? Humans are not responsible cougar owners. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is possibly underestimating their threat. Dogmen may be our best defense.

Anything else?

Source: Mysterious Universe

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