Special Release: Mythical Monsters and their Real-life Inspirations (Part 1)

Mermaids & manatees. Credit: Olivia V. Ambrogio

We’ve all heard stories about fantastical creatures that people swear they’ve seen and have evidence of but can never be confirmed. Think Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. Mermaids or the Kraken. While there’s no evidence backing the existence of these creatures, either in present day or at any point in the past, there must be a reason why such legends were created in the first place. In most cases, the legend in grounded in fact.

Bigfoot & giant sloths. Credit: Olivia V. Ambrogio

During this Halloween season, we’re bringing you four stories from scientists who know a little something about the real-life animals that inspired these legendary creatures. In this first episode, we chatted with Cristina Brito, Director of CHAM – Center for the Humanities at University NOVA of Lisbon, about the connections between mermaids and manatees, as well as Ryan Haupt, Ph.D candidate, Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Wyoming and co-host of the podcast Science…sort of, about the connections between Bigfoot and prehistoric giant sloths.

This episode was produced and mixed by Shane M Hanlon.  


Shane Hanlon:              00:00                Hi Nancy.

Nancy Bompey:             00:01                Hey Shane.

Shane Hanlon:              00:03                So it is, well, I guess it’s mid-October right now. With this is will be coming out around Halloween. What are your feelings on Halloween? Some people love it. Some people are completely indifferent about it.

Nancy Bompey:             00:14                Yeah. I’m in the latter camp, I guess. I just, I’m not like a big fan of dressing up and things. I just like don’t care that much about it.

Shane Hanlon:              00:21                There are some times I wish that like people could see the video recording of what we’re doing and just like your face. You’re like, “Eh, not really.”

Nancy Bompey:             00:27                Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              00:28                You and I live pretty close to each other out here in Arlington. Do you get trick or treaters at your place?

Nancy Bompey:             00:35                Not many. I mean here and there but we didn’t get a ton just because like, we’re not on the main, we’re not on the street where like towards the woods and stuff, but did you get a lot? Do you get a lot?

Shane Hanlon:              00:45                Well, no one’s getting any this year, right? But-

Nancy Bompey:             00:49                We’ll see what happens. I mean I don’t know.

Shane Hanlon:              00:50                I guess that’s true. We usually get a decent amount. Yeah. We have a house on a main street, but I will say so okay, we don’t know actually what’s happening with trick or treating in our neighborhood, but my partner volunteered to essentially like bag candy for some charity drives. And so last night we were just hanging out, watching TV and she said, “Oh, by the way, there’s a big box of candy on the front porch. Can you grab it?” And I literally opened the door and there is a giant box of just like 10 bags of trick or treating candy. And I just bring it in and plop it down and say, “What is this?”

Shane Hanlon:              01:25                She said, “Oh yeah, I’m doing this thing.” I can’t have candy in the house. Like I have zero self-control. So I was like, “Can I eat any of this?” She’s like, “No, you can’t. That’s for charity.” And so I had to watch, and I couldn’t take part in that either, so I had to watch her do this because I have zero self control and like the moment I literally got my hands on candy, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself.

Nancy Bompey:             01:46                I do love candy. So I do love that part of Halloween. Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              01:50                There’s something everyone can love, right?

Nancy Bompey:             01:52                Exactly.

Shane Hanlon:              01:55                Welcome to the American Geophysical Union’s Podcast about the scientists and the methods behind the science. These are the stories you won’t read in the manuscript or hear in a lecture I’m Shane Hanlon.

Nancy Bompey:             02:04                And I’m Nancy Bompey.

Shane Hanlon:              02:06                And this is Third Pod from the Sun.

Shane Hanlon:              02:10                All right. So our episode, I guess, corresponds with Halloween, let’s say, but we’ve had this idea at the podcast for a while about talking to folks who study things that have roots in kind of myth and legend. Like these creatures that have inspired things like mermaids or Bigfoot and I feel like a lot of times these legends, they don’t just pop up out of nowhere, right? They have to have something that inspires them. And in many cases, there’s kind of these prehistoric reasons why folks thought of these things, why folks created these legend. And so we figured since it’s Halloween season, we put out a couple of episodes where we interviewed a handful of scientists to talk about these linkages between science and monsters.

Nancy Bompey:             02:55                So we have two interviews for this episode, right? And the first comes from a researcher who knows a little something about mermaids.

Shane Hanlon:              03:03                How do you pronounce your name?

Cristina Brito:                03:05                Cristina.

Shane Hanlon:              03:06                And your last name?

Cristina Brito:                03:07                Brito.

Shane Hanlon:              03:09                Brito. Okay. I didn’t know if it was Brito or Brito.

Cristina Brito:                03:14                Listen to the rs as I do in Portuguese. It’s Cristina Brito.

Shane Hanlon:              03:15                Okay. Yeah. Thank you. I am very American with my speech, so I just want to make sure I get the vowel sounds right.

Cristina Brito:                03:22                Don’t worry. No worries. Okay. So I’m a researcher on mostly early modern marine environmentalist history. Currently, I’m the director of CHAM, which is the Center for the Humanities of Nova University in Lisbon but my background in marine biology. So earlier in my career, I was working on field with ecology behavior conservation of [inaudible 00:03:54] and then I flipped into history. So history of marine environment, as well as the history of marine animals and the history of relationships with people with the ocean and the animals.

Shane Hanlon:              04:09                What inspired your shift from doing more of the hard science field work type stuff into more of like what you said from the looking at things from the more historical aspect of things?

Cristina Brito:                04:22                There was a shifting moment. I was doing field work in Sao Tome which is an archipelago in the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa and we were doing field work, going out to the sea to spot while record sounds. That is a breeding ground for humpback whales and I do get terribly sea sick. So one of the days I stayed home and I went to [inaudible 00:04:56] and pick up some books and start reading them and they were full of animals. Descriptions of large whales, large animals that people thought they were strange. They were different, they were scared and so that was it. And then I changed completely from biology into history.

Shane Hanlon:              05:17                And it’s probably helpful now that you don’t have to go out on ships because that’s not necessarily a great thing when you get seasick pretty easily.

Nancy Bompey:             05:23                So I know we’re going to talk about the linkage between mermaids and manatees. So how did she get interested in this question?

Cristina Brito:                05:31                The first thing was data. When I start doing early modern history of natural history and coming back from reading classical antiquity and many best theories or natural history treaties in medieval times in Europe, mermaids or other beings, either beings from the water or from the aquatic bodies are present a lot, many times. They are described as these creatures that come out of the water and people do have a reaction to them, either positive or negative. And then I thought, well, most of our myths that are related to nature, they come from a sighting of something in nature and observation. And when we are dealing with marine animals that are harder to spot and to see and to comprehend in the marine environment in comparison with, for instance, birds or terrestrial mammals, people do tend to add to their own observations features that they have in their minds, in their own perception of the world, in their world views.

Cristina Brito:                06:39                And so I sought well, so people thought there that there were mermaids because they weren’t sure of what they were seeing. And from the moment on, they realized that there are these animals that may look like a mermaid, that a shift would occur into the perception of what the mermaid is from a mythological being into a real animal. So this was my starting question and the fact is that that’s not the case. So yeah. So mermaids are always side by side, either with seals, sea lions, manatees, sometimes whales, and sometimes they are presented as real animals at the same time as you described for instance manatees.

Shane Hanlon:              07:21                That’s interesting. So it’s actually the reverse for a lot of creatures out there. So manatees were actually, at least the name and comparison we’re influenced by the mythological creatures of mermaids.

Cristina Brito:                07:36                Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              07:36                Oh, that’s fascinating. So how far back, so for mermaids, how far back are we talking? Like when is the first kind of mention or mentions of mermaid sirens, whatever it might be in history?

Cristina Brito:                07:47                Way back to the beginning of human history. Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              07:50                Really?

Cristina Brito:                07:51                Yeah. There are gods for ancient Mesopotamia for instance, that we can relate them to the figure for what would become the Greek or the Roman mermaid, for instance. And we can somehow follow the path of understanding of these gods of the water. So those that were hybrids of human or animal of the sea. So and mermaids are present across time and across societies. Every time there’s this connection of people with the water, this relationship, there’s not always mermaid per se as we could imagine them today. But if hybrid figure of a God, a semi God, mythological being that relates to the water and is represented partially by an animal. For instance, in the Renaissance, natural history, encyclopedia, naturalists might describe side-by-sides are real animals, real manatees, or dugongs and then have another entry for mermaids.

Cristina Brito:                08:59                And this could be one of two situations, either because they believed that they existed in a similar way. So they were equivalent to one another or it might be that even though they knew that sirens weren’t real, they wanted to keep it there so that the readers would be fascinated by these tropical exotic, different and strange animals/creatures out there. And just another example, for instance, in West Africa, where manatees, the West African Manatee, although being endangered, do occur. You see a kind of disconnection in between the understanding of the animal as a resource. It used to be hunted and used for their meat, for their bones or for defense hence the symbolic animal, so like a deity. That still exists today. Maame Water, which is an African origin deity of the waters and that’s still there. So in some cultures they are present at the same time, but they are different entities. I’m seeing is like a fish from the ocean that we can use as food and the other is our deity that we venerate for many different reasons.

Shane Hanlon:              10:23                I was wondering if there were folks out there who are trying to show mermaids exist in a scientific way, like the folks on, I don’t know, Discovery Channel or something like that. Are there people saying or there’s fossils out there or bones out there that might show that mermaids actually do exist now?

Cristina Brito:                10:42                Not so much these days. That was really a thing until at least middle 20th century. And there are several, at least European zoology or naturalists that were trying to prove that mermaids existed back then and across time and in different places, both in Europe, in Japan and other areas, people tend to put together these siren puppets. So it’s to prove that they were real. So they will take the hand of a monkey, the body of an aquatic animal, the legs, and they would just put them all together and create an animal that’s not real, but that would be there in exhibition for people to go and see. That is until kind of the late 19th century.

Cristina Brito:                11:33                But for instance, in the US, there was this, how do they call it mockumentary I think not the true documentary that is entitled the Body Found. And it’s something about mermaids, these aquatic humanoids. It has a couple of years. It was from 2016, something like that. It came out and Noah had to release a statement stating that mermaids are not real because the documentary, which is just putting together loose pieces of information in one place, made people believe once again that mermaids were a possibility, a true possibility.

Shane Hanlon:              12:21                Yeah, actually, so I just looked it up and looking at the art for it. I remember this, it was 2011.

Cristina Brito:                12:27                Yes.

Shane Hanlon:              12:27                And yeah, because it was on, it was on the Discovery Channel, which isn’t quite, yeah. It’s not people understand now that Discovery doesn’t really do science anymore but-

Cristina Brito:                12:37                Yeah and people saw it as a real thing, as a real documentary and that they were taking the lead on that.

Nancy Bompey:             12:43                I don’t recall this show. Sorry.

Shane Hanlon:              12:47                I actually, so like I said, I had to look it up while we were talking and I do kind of remember it, but the only kind of mermaids I can think of now is I was going to say Harry Potter, like, of course you, Nancy B you don’t really like Harry Potter, do you?

Nancy Bompey:             12:58                I just never read it, so sure, great Harry Potter.

Shane Hanlon:              13:02                Right. Well, so in addition to kind of the, let’s say mermaid truthers, I was fascinated by how maritime folks let’s say, saw mermaids as signs of maybe good omens or bad omens. Why are mermaids seen in some cases as a good luck charm and in some cases seen as a bad thing that would lure fishermen in and kill them or whatever.

Cristina Brito:                13:30                Yeah, that’s true. And they have … these both sides are always present, but I think they do represent much of what the open ocean represents to people, which is at the same time, a place of wonder and discovery and good fortune. Something can come out of it as good but at the same time, it’s a place of danger and often known and off the great depths and the darkness and so on. And so I think these double view, the double aspect of the ocean has to it in terms of attraction to people, how people see the ocean as good and as bad as light and dark is also reflected in the mermaid very well. So the mermaid does encompass all the ways that people can see and perceive the ocean and you can see at the same time.

Cristina Brito:                14:20                So you have mermaids that … So there are several mermaid sirens, selkies and so on, well across different cultures. And one of these creatures can be all good and represent all the goods. And then you can have another one that represents the bad, but then you ask them and there’s really no explanation or reason for that, that in the same reach and in the same meeting being the good and the bad is there. So if you do good things, if your behavior is good, you will get all the good parts of being in touch with the mermaids. But if you do something that’s not good, you can get the other part. So it just relates the beat with the [inaudible 00:15:09] of humanity, who we are and how humans see themselves reflected on the ocean.

Shane Hanlon:              15:14                I wanted to know, of course we were talking to her about mermaids and manatees. So I was personally interested, but do people out there and kind of popular culture still care about and are still fascinated by mermaids?

Cristina Brito:                15:27                People still are very interested in them and the fact is that both myself and other colleagues in my research group, we do a lot of research on animals, real animals, but also on sea monsters. And that’s what people will recall the most, the mermaids, the sea monsters and everything and they try to find an explanation for that. And our viewpoint is just going both to the the natural sciences, what biology and ecology and environmental knowledge tell us about the animal populations, where they were in the past, how abandoned were they, how were their behaviors similar to present-day alongside with the historical sources and we will find these in written letters, in natural treaties, in several documents. And there we have many, many accounts of mermaids and sea monsters in maps and drawings and representation in sculptures, in poetry. So they are everywhere.

Cristina Brito:                16:34                It does show us that people were very eager to know more of what this being was. And today we can have this double disintegrated view and kind of understanding both the cultural aspects-

Shane Hanlon:              16:50                Sure.

Cristina Brito:                16:51                … of a mermaid, which is a symbol which is a deity even today, so it’s present. It’s still in some cultures as a religious symbol in Africa, in Brazil, for instance, in other parts of the world. But the animal is the only thing that still remains. So there are no extant evidence whatsoever of a mermaid and what people would think a mermaid was. So we are relying on written accounts mostly, and that’s the source of our research. And then I think that’s still a topic that will come to be addressed in many different ways. The fact that the mermaids are hybrid or are dual in many aspects, does relate to many aspects of how today we are say society and some societal issues of groups of people that are somehow not understood and mermaids can be used as a framework of thinking all of these. Yeah. So I think there’s still a long way with mermaids ahead of us.

Shane Hanlon:              18:01                I have to say, when I first reached out to Cristina, I didn’t quite understand the direction of things, meaning that, what’s unique I think about mermaids is that the myth of mermaids has been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and was probably inspired by fish and sharks and different things. But when they got to the new world, they actually, like folks actually thought that manatees were mermaids. Usually it goes in the opposite direction I think when you have someone who knows something about, say, prehistoric creatures inspiring the myth or the legend.

Nancy Bompey:             18:36                Right. And I think you also talked to someone who can tell us a little bit about something along those lines.

Ryan Haupt:                  18:42                My name is Ryan Haupt. I’m a vertebrate paleontologist. I’m at the very tail end of my PhD at the University of Wyoming, depending on when this episode comes out, it might already be done, which would be awesome. And I’m spending the year as the science policy fellow for the Geological Society of America and that is also coming to an end. So I’m soon to be on the market as a vertebrate paleontologist. So I usually self-identify as a paleontologist. So I studied the, and I sometimes we’ll put paleo in parentheses because I actually kind of do modern ecology too and so I sort of studied the connection between modern ecosystems and past ecosystems. And the part that I focus on specifically is sloths.

Ryan Haupt:                  19:21                I don’t only study sloths, but that’s sort of the main thing that I focus on and the aspect of their ecology that I’m the most interested in is diet. So I really try to figure out what the life of a sloth was like based on their diet. And I use a variety of techniques, principally stable isotope analysis, and dental microwave texture analysis, to sort of unlock the secrets of what sloths were eating today and in the past.

Shane Hanlon:              19:43                So I haven’t even ever actually asked you this. Did you do field work, like actually interacting with sloths?

Ryan Haupt:                  19:50                Yeah. I’ve done both field work at different fossil sites looking for fossils, and I’ve done field work with wild and captive sloths.

Shane Hanlon:              20:00                Interesting. And so you were saying kind of how you’re dating them. So the historic stuff, the prehistoric, I guess, are you, the isotope things, like that’s just your dating teeth, essentially? You are-

Ryan Haupt:                  20:14                So the stable isotope stuff, it’s actually the, getting dates you use the radioactive isotopes, stable isotopes just tell you about various aspects of their ecology and life histories. Actually the primary source of my stable isotope data for my dissertation, at least for the fossil component were coprolites.

Shane Hanlon:              20:33                Which are?

Ryan Haupt:                  20:34                Fossilized feaces.

Shane Hanlon:              20:36                Nice, of course. I do love the jargon phrase for a lot of these things.

Ryan Haupt:                  20:42                Yeah. So coprolite literally means poop rock.

Shane Hanlon:              20:46                So Nancy, did you know what coprolite was?

Nancy Bompey:             20:48                I mean, no. Who would know that?

Shane Hanlon:              20:51                Ryan knows it.

Nancy Bompey:             20:52                Like two people in the world.

Shane Hanlon:              20:56                Well, I found learning about coprolites fascinating, but I was really interested. So what do you picture now, when you think of sloths? Like, if I say picture of sloth, what are you picturing?

Nancy Bompey:             21:09                There was like, I feel like there’s sloths like people have them, like they’re a funny thing, right? Like my friend has one, like a big one that she puts like in the back of her van and it’s like waving at people. Do you know what I’m saying?

Shane Hanlon:              21:20                Yeah. Like the things that stick on the window?

Nancy Bompey:             21:22                Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I feel like people use them in a funny way now.

Shane Hanlon:              21:26                Yeah, sloths are really having kind of a moment, I feel like in pop culture. And I feel like at a zoo or something, if you see a slot, people will put up egg crates and they’ll like curl up into a small little thing. So sloths, they’re not huge, but the sloths that Ryan study and potentially where the inspiration for some of these legends were very, very different from that. When thinking about you and your work, I’m really fascinated by this idea that pre historic sloths, who for the record are much larger and much different than the sloths we have today. Correct?

Ryan Haupt:                  22:02                Yeah. So we’re living at a weird time for sloths is something I like to say, because sloths are as small and undiversified and geographically restricted, as they’ve basically ever been. The fossil history of sloths is one of great success. They evolved in South America and then spread all over that continent and then as soon as that continent, actually before that continent was even connected to North America via the Panamanian Isthmus, they had distributed over the shallow sea, into North America and all throughout the Caribbean and lived as far North as Alaska, the Yukon territory of Canada, up in the mountains of Colorado, like they were everywhere.

Shane Hanlon:              22:42                Oh, okay. So, all right. So much more diverse and in many cases, or at least in some cases larger-

Ryan Haupt:                  22:49                [crosstalk 00:22:50]. the ones today really are as small as they’ve ever been.

Shane Hanlon:              22:53                Oh, okay.

Ryan Haupt:                  22:55                And they got as big as a modern elephant, but walking around on two legs because we have fossil trackways.

Shane Hanlon:              23:02                Oh, wow. Okay. Well then that leads into kind of this next point. That there’s, well, you can explain this more, but potential that our modern, again mythology is not the right word, cryptobiology, cryptozoology, I guess. Things like Sasquatch and Yeti and all of the different names, we have Bigfoot, they may have been inspired in part by prehistoric sloths, right? Or maybe,

Ryan Haupt:                  23:33                Yeah. It gets a little complicated and part of it is cryptozoology has this really weird relationship with paleontology because there’s … So cryptozoologist are people who look for animals that according to “science”, sky quotes on science don’t exist. And sometimes the reason that they’re claimed to not exist is because other types of scientists, biologists, and paleontologists say that they’re extinct. So if you think about like mega megalodon shark, right? Most scientists say that’s extinct, cryptozoologist say, well, maybe it’s not, let’s go look for it.

Ryan Haupt:                  24:08                So those kinds of animals are referred to as cryptids. And there’s Bigfoot is a cryptid and Bigfoot is not necessarily based on an animal that we know existed and a lot of people will turn to giant apes that lived in Asia. Aegyptopithecus is the extinct genus of giant ape, similar to like a really large orangutan and Bigfoot doesn’t … that’s sort of the claim, but like there’s no fossil evidence of that. And so it doesn’t really hold a lot of water to me. And I’ll just go ahead and say, I don’t put a ton of stock in the modern conception of Bigfoot as this animal that is still existing out in the Pacific Northwest that’s being seen and heard and interacting with people-

Shane Hanlon:              24:53                Pictured in a fuzzy way?

Ryan Haupt:                  24:54                Right? Yeah. I love the Mitch Hedberg joke, like maybe Bigfoot is fuzzy. That’s the problem. There’s a large out of focus monster. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that the initial stories of this animal came from First Nations peoples and, and First Nations is the term that often gets used in Canada and since they kind of crossed the border, it’s just a catch all term that I use as well, just to be as respectful as possible and these people still exist. And so it isn’t really fair to say that it’s strictly a legendary claim because these people still exist in these beliefs may still exist, and I don’t want to denigrate that at all.

Ryan Haupt:                  25:30                And so when the white people in this region were first collecting these stories, it was offensive to the First Nations people to say that these stories were legendary of these forest people living out in the forest away from humanity. And so I think that’s fair enough. And different groups obviously had different names for the race of beings that they said lived out in the forest or up in the mountains. But the term Sasquatch was borrowed from the Halkomelem language, and I’m probably butchering the pronunciation of that, and that’s sort of become the default term when we first referred to more of the tribal First Nations concept of this animal.

Shane Hanlon:              26:05                Sure, all right.

Ryan Haupt:                  26:05                And so my sort of take on the whole thing is, and I’ve been a fan of cryptozoology since, before I was going to be a paleontologist. I think my love of like undiscovered animals came both from like, what’s out in the forest and what’s under the ground as a fossil. Like I kind of come at it from both directions. And so I have this deep fascination with all this stuff from when I was a kid and I don’t necessarily believe in it now, but I’m still fascinated by it. And so my view is, I don’t think there’s a Bigfoot out there today. I’ve not seen any good evidence of that being the case, but I do want to take the stories at face value and think about the reality of that and then work sort of from that perspective,

Shane Hanlon:              26:45                Nancy?

Nancy Bompey:             26:46                Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              26:47                Do you think that Bigfoot exists?

Nancy Bompey:             26:50                No.

Shane Hanlon:              26:53                That was very quick. And like, there’s just no possibility, not even an inkling?

Nancy Bompey:             26:57                Nope.

Shane Hanlon:              26:59                I appreciate your certainty in this. I have to say I’m probably on the no spectrum as well, but there’s been some actual scientific evidence to back up your assertion.

Ryan Haupt:                  27:12                So this paper came out a little while ago where these ecologists wanted to show that if you just look at like self-reported occurrence data where people say they saw an animal, you can create an ecological niche model for an animal that doesn’t exist. So they did that for Bigfoot. So like, cause there are databases out there where people will say like I was camping and I heard the call, right? And I saw the footprint.

Ryan Haupt:                  27:38                So all these databases of evidence, and you can use that to build a pretty convincing model of what’s the prime Bigfoot habitat and that’s what they did and then once they built it, they were like, “This looks familiar.” And they realized that they had just made a pretty convincing plot of where black bears live, which is not terribly surprising when you think about it, because like we’ve got a large fuzzy animal that can move around on two legs, however awkwardly. And I think you work with students and you do ecology. Like it takes a lot of time in the forest and a lot of expertise to be good at identifying things, especially things you only see briefly and that you’re not super familiar with.

Shane Hanlon:              28:18                Sure.

Ryan Haupt:                  28:19                So I think a lot of big foot sightings today are probably coming from people just not being as familiar with bears as, as they ought to be because I think bears are great. And I started thinking about like, how does that work 11,000 to 10,000 years ago when people were coming across the Bering Land Bridge into North America for the first time and I’m thinking, okay, they’re probably not going to be super surprised by a bear. Bears live in Asia, that’s an animal that they would have been familiar with.

Shane Hanlon:              28:45                Right.

Ryan Haupt:                  28:46                But we do have fossils showing that one particular type of ground sloth called Megalonyx, which means great claw, which was a very large animal easily maybe grizzly bear sized and it’s at its biggest about 10 feet, maybe a couple thousand pounds, 2000 pounds or so. That is an animal that is only found in the Americas, right? It’s only in North and South American. Megalonyx is an iconically North American sloth. It’s the one that’s found … it was the first one found in the caves of what is now West Virginia, what was then Western Virginia. We find them in the La Brea Tar Pits, we find them up on mountains in Colorado. The sloth just got everywhere.

Ryan Haupt:                  29:25                So that’s the sloth that’s up in Alaska and the Yukon territory and it probably could move around on two legs as well. It was probably pretty shaggy. Modern sloths are pretty shaggy and in those cave deposits where we have the coprolites, we also get fur fossils. And so we, that the ground sloths were also shaggy. And so to me, it makes at least it connects logically that this is an animal that they wouldn’t have been immediately familiar with coming over from Asia and shares some of the same characteristics that we think of as the Sasquatch.

Shane Hanlon:              30:00                Is there evidence of them coexisting?

Ryan Haupt:                  30:02                Oh, that’s a great question.

Shane Hanlon:              30:04                Early sloths and early human ancestors, essentially?

Ryan Haupt:                  30:08                There is surprisingly little evidence of that. We don’t see a ton of sloths in cave art, which is kind of interesting. There’s not a ton of convincing evidence of like butchery sites where bones are cut with tools that way we can then infer hunting occurred. There’s a very recently discovered fossil site in Arizona, New Mexico that is a footprint of a Nothrotheriops, which is the psychotic Southwestern American sloth. And then there’s a human footprint inside that footprint and footprint fossils have to occur pretty quickly together. It’s not a thing where like, it could have been a couple of days or even, would have been within hours. Right?

Shane Hanlon:              30:54                Okay.

Ryan Haupt:                  30:55                And so one possibility is that the humans were stalking this sloth, but that’s, again, it’s still a little bit circumstantial, but we do know that they overlapped. And there’s a lot of debate in the paleontological community about like, why did these animals go extinct? They went extinct at the same time, all these other giant American taxa, the Sabretooth cats and the mammoths all went extinct. And so the debate is, was it the end of the last Ice Age and this period of great climate change or was it hunting pressure from humans or was it a combination of both?

Ryan Haupt:                  31:27                It’s harder to figure that out on a continent scale, but in the Caribbean, there were also ground sloths that lived in the Caribbean and those sloths actually survived up until about four, four and a half thousand years ago. Pretty recently.

Shane Hanlon:              31:39                Okay.

Ryan Haupt:                  31:39                Like the Great Pyramids in Giza were finished and there were still ground sloths walking around.

Shane Hanlon:              31:44                That’s wild.

Ryan Haupt:                  31:45                And they go extinct almost exactly when humans first arrive on those islands. So like the case on the islands is pretty cut and dry, but islands work a little bit differently. But we do know that that humans and slots overlapped, interacted to some extent that the extent of those interactions is up for some debate.

Shane Hanlon:              32:02                What’s the most … do you know what the most recent fossil is like date-wise for any species of giant sloths?

Ryan Haupt:                  32:12                Well, so we have fossils from the Caribbean that are recent as recent as that four and half thousand year mark. Generally in paleontology, we have sort of a soft cutoff at around 10,000 years. So anything younger than 10,000 year, we might call a sub fossil. So it has to reach that 10,000 year mark to really be considered a part of the fossil record, truly. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but that’s sort of how we work.

Shane Hanlon:              32:36                When Ryan and I were talking, we very cognizant that much of what we were talking about are, is North American centric and coming at it from a strictly scientific point of view. But these myths and legends are global and rooted in a lot of cultures that are not ours.

Ryan Haupt:                  32:54                One other interesting part of this story, and again, it’s something that because of my own limitations as a researcher, I haven’t been able to dig into very much is there is a sort of South American component to this called the mapinguari and again, I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly, but it is a folkloric entity said to live in the Amazonian Rainforest that is sort of a large, hairy smelly and it’s weird that there always a smell associated with it. Like I’ve been around a lot of modern sloths. Modern sloths actually don’t smell. They smell better than a lot of other wild animals I’ve worked with just because not smelling like anything is another defense mechanism when you don’t want to be eaten. And a lot of times they got algae growing on them. So they got kind of like an algae smell, not like a weird, and they don’t have like an animalistic musk or funk like we think of with a lot of other mammals.

Ryan Haupt:                  33:43                So I think a lot of the information on the mapinguari is very limited in English. And maybe if I spoke Portuguese, like my Spanish is pretty good, but I don’t really speak Portuguese. And I obviously don’t speak any of the many languages that are spoken throughout the Amazon by the peoples who live there. But it is sort of said to be this large lumbering, hairy entity, and the thing that gets really wide with the mapinguari is it is said to have a stomach or a mouth on its stomach. So it just shovels food right into its stomach, which is kind of crazy. But there are people that say that it, that have noticed that it maybe shares some characteristics with ground sloths. The information in English just isn’t that out there for me to do much with that though.

Shane Hanlon:              34:23                Well, Nancy, have you enjoyed your time learning about mermaids and giant sloths?

Nancy Bompey:             34:29                Yes, very much.

Shane Hanlon:              34:32                It’s kind of a unique episode and we don’t necessarily talk about … we don’t get a lot of biology in I feel our episodes, which is fine.

Nancy Bompey:             34:40                We do from time to time.

Nancy Bompey:             34:42                But yeah,

Shane Hanlon:              34:42                I’m excited for this. And just a reminder, this is the first in a two-part series. So we’ll have another one of these coming out.

Nancy Bompey:             34:51                Excellent.

Shane Hanlon:              34:52                For now that is all from Third Pod from the Sun.

Nancy Bompey:             34:56                Thanks so much Shane for bringing us this story and of course, to Cristina and Ryan for sharing their work with us,

Shane Hanlon:              35:03                This podcast was produced and mixed by me.

Nancy Bompey:             35:06                We would love to hear your thoughts, please rate and review us. And you can find new episodes wherever you get your podcasts or at thirdpodfromthesun.com. And as Shane alluded to, be on lookout for part two of our Monsters and Myths series that’ll drop in a few days.

Shane Hanlon:              35:24                All right. Thanks all. And we’ll see you next time.

Ryan Haupt:                  35:29                Can I plug Science Sort Of?

Shane Hanlon:              35:31                Oh, sure. Yeah, go ahead.

Ryan Haupt:                  35:34                So people if want more of my sort of ramblings on topics like these, I do a podcast that is actually quite appropriate as a companion piece to this conversation called Science Sort Of where we talk about things that are science, things that are sort of science and things that wish they were science. We did actually cover this Bigfoot story of the black bear paper that came out, that is episode 205, chemical free Sasquatch.


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