Five Wildlife-Centric Myths in the U.S.

April Fool’s Day is upon us! Even wildlife are taking some time to celebrate by participating in animal trickery, so let’s join them in celebration: let’s talk cryptozoology.
What is cryptozoology? It is the study of cryptids, which are animals that can’t definitively be proven to exist by science – things like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster or species that have been declared extinct but that some still report seeing, such as the thylacine (also known as the Tasmanian tiger). These creatures occupy our collective imagination and sightings of them are an intrinsic part of our culture. Even National Wildlife Federation got in on the action – in 1968 and again in 1970, National Wildlife Federation published several articles discussing the emergence of “new evidence” in the hunt for Bigfoot! In that spirit, here are 5 more North American cryptids:

The Jersey Devil

The myth: On the spookier end of the cryptozoological spectrum, we have the Jersey Devil. The result of an 18th century woman invoking the devil while giving birth to her 13th child, the Jersey Devil has the head and hooves of a horse, giant bat wings, and a forked tail. He has roamed the densely forested Pine Barrens of New Jersey, scaring innocent campers with his ferocious call which sounds like a truck horn. At one point during his 300-year reign of terror, the Jersey Devil scared a town so badly that schools were closed due to low attendance and the local mine was shut down because some odd footprints showed up one night. It’s not all bad publicity for the Jersey Devil now, though – he has a hockey team named after him!
The probable reality: Different sources have identified the Jersey Devil as a deformed deer or even a sandhill crane.


El Chupacabra

The myth: El Chupacabra is young compared to the long-term legacy of the Jersey Devil. Legend of El Chupacabra first arose in the early 1990s when goats and chickens in Puerto Rico were turning up dead and mysteriously drained of blood. The only mark left on the bodies? Puncture wounds, much like a vampire might leave! Thus, El Chupacabra was born. With a name that means “the goat-sucker” in Spanish, El Chupacabra has wandered in the decades since the first incident. Sightings have even been made in the mainland US, in the southern part of the country from Texas to Florida. El Chupacabra is alleged to be a fearsome sight, typically described as having lizard-like features, fangs, and sharp quills, though some have reported that El Chupacabra more closely resembles a coyote.

The probable reality: Many reported sightings of El Chupacabra are later debunked as coyotes or raccoons with severe mange, which alters their appearance and rids them of their characteristic fur.


El Chupacabra. Photo by Michael Snipes, Flickr Creative Commons
El Chupacabra. Photo by Michael Snipes, Flickr Creative Commons

Champ, the Lake Champlain Monster

The myth: A distant cousin of the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland, Champ (sometimes called Champy) is a lake-dwelling sea monster who calls Lake Champlain home. Champ has been swimming around the New York-Vermont border for hundreds of years, with the earliest sightings dating back to two Native American tribes who dwelled in the area. Champ, like the Loch Ness Monster, is reportedly a 25 to 35 foot long sea serpent with razor sharp teeth (are there any other kind in the sea monster community?). Champ is well-loved by the community, with resolutions passing on both sides of the lake to protect his sweet monster self.

The probable reality: Historians believe the original sighting of Champ was actually an alligator gar, a large fish related to lake sturgeons like the endangered pallid sturgeon. If you would like to support efforts to keep America’s waters clean for Champ and other water-dwelling animals, check out National Wildlife Federation’s work for water resources and wetlands!


Champ. Photo by Jennifer Morton, Flickr Creative Commons
Champ. Photo by Jennifer Morton, Flickr Creative Commons


The myth: As the name suggests, the jackalope is a cross between a jackrabbit and an antelope, resulting in a small cute bunny with horns. Contrary to their adorable outside, jackalopes are reportedly very aggressive, leading to the nickname of the “warrior rabbit”. When provoked, jackalopes can imitate human sounds and even speech, though their angry impulses can apparently be assuaged by the judicious application of whiskey. Jackalopes were first reported in Wyoming between 1829 and 1939 when a pair of brothers spotted a dead rabbit next to a pair of horns. Sightings still occur throughout the American West. Jackalopes are now the official mythological creature of Wyoming, and each year many festivals occur centering on the bunny with horns. They even had a starring role in a Pixar animated short!

The probable reality: While many swear that the jackalope is a real, if endangered or extinct, creature, most likely people are spotting rabbits with deformities that resemble horns.


Jackalope. Photo by Mark Freeman, Flickr Creative Commons
Jackalope. Photo by Mark Freeman, Flickr Creative Commons

The Mothman

The myth: Joining the ranks of the Jersey Devil in the annals of spooky American folklore, the Mothman first emerged in 1966 in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The Mothman was spotted outside an abandoned TNT plant and was described as being human-shaped, but bigger, and with giant bat-like wings and glowing red eyes. He then roamed the town of Point Pleasant for several months, terrifying the citizens and stalking them in their homes with his eerie, piercing shriek. The frightful tale came to a head in December 1966, when a local bridge connecting the town to a neighboring city in Ohio suddenly collapsed during rush hour. Some blamed the Mothman for this collapse, while others claimed he had come to warn the town of this impending disaster. Regardless, the Mothman vanished after this incident, never to be seen again – other than in effigy, as the town erected a bronze statue to the mysterious cryptid.

The probable reality: To this day, no one is quite sure exactly what was going on in Point Pleasant, despite numerous books and movies on the topic. Paranormal experts say the Mothman was real, though probably an alien, while skeptics claim it was a town-wide hoax perpetrated by a series of pranks (and, in several instances, owls in the wrong place at the wrong time).


Mothman statue. Photo by Matt, Flickr Creative Commons
Mothman statue. Photo by Matt, Flickr Creative Commons
Are there any local wildlife legends in your neck of the woods? Tell the tale in the comments! If you’re interested in learning more about how National Wildlife Federation protects wildlife habitat so these cryptids (and many other species) can continue to roam free, check out our habitat-oriented programs!

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