|Illustration of a juvenile Lake Champlain mystery animal, by Thomas Finley|
The great caveat of cryptozoological research has long been, in many cases, the absence of type specimens for the mystery animals being sought after. This shortcoming has led to much criticism of this study of 'hidden' animals, and has even spurred heated debate among researchers of the field as to the ethics of deliberately killing an unknown animal to verify its existence. The discoveries or photographs of supposed 'cryptid' remains are few and far between, yet there are several eyewitness accounts detailing alleged finds. Although it has received little attention from cryptozoological researchers as a whole, one such case is that of the alleged juvenile Lake Champlain mystery animal caught by the father of Dennis Hall. Dennis Hall's research at this American lake first caught my attention when I watched a documentary featuring him several years ago. He illustrated his views regarding the appearance of alleged Lake Champlain mystery animals using a model of Tanystropheus longobardicus which I also possessed at that time. This hypothesis is certainly one which is now unsatisfactory in my mind, but I will leave discussion of this matter for future articles. While I retain respect for Hall due to his work in collecting eyewitness reports and the like, his unsubstantiated spectacular claims and several "Champ" videos (which appear to be nothing more than mundane objects distorted by heat waves) have since made me look at his work in a dubious light. Regardless, the discovery of a living, juvenile specimen belonging to an unknown species of animal living in an American lake would surely prove to be one of the greatest zoological finds of all time. Unfortunately, there are several issues with this allegation. In the article reproduced here, diligent researcher Scott Mardis takes a critical look at the "baby Champ" claims and develops the hypothesis that the animal in question was a misidentified mudpuppy salamander. As bizarre as the idea of someone mistaking a mudpuppy for a relict reptile from 245 million year ago sounds, I encourage you to read on. This is a case of excellent and rigorous investigative work on Scott's behalf, and it should be taken as an example for other researchers to follow.This is a guest post by Scott Mardis. Scott has been an active field investigator of the Lake Champlain “Monster” since 1992. He is a former sustaining member of the defunct International Society of Cryptozoology and a former volunteer worker in the Vertebrate Paleontology Dept. of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences (1990-1992). He co-authored a scientific abstract about the Lake Champlain hydrophone sounds for the Acoustical Society of America in 2010. He currently lives in Bradenton, Florida.
here). The figure of Mioproteus vertebrae below appears in the following scientific paper: Rocek, Z. 2005. "Late Miocene Amphibia from Rudabanya". Palaeontographia Italica 90:11–29.
The mudpuppies are part of a complex of freshwater animals (including the lake sturgeons, gars, bowfins, catfish and snapping turtles) that invaded the northeast from a Pleistocene glacial refugium in the vicinity of the Mississippi River Delta. They would have entered Lake Champlain post-glacially (after the Champlain Sea period) through the Great Lakes and the Mohawk River in New York. (See the following book: Langdon, R. W. et al. 2006. "Fishes of Vermont". Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, Waterbury, Vt.). It’s entirely possible that mudpuppies or their close relatives were in the Champlain Valley before the glacial period, as Miocene plant fossils from Brandon, Vermont indicate that Miocene period temperatures in Vermont were like the modern-day Gulf coast of the U.S. (see here).
In his 1853 book, "The Natural History of Vermont", then-Vermont State Naturalist Zadock Thompson related the story of the mudpuppy’s discovery.
The mudpuppy is also known by a confusion of slang names, as well. In a scientific paper from 1906 (Albert C. Eycleshymer, "The Habits of Necturus maculosus", The American Naturalist, Vol. 40, No. 470, Feb., 1906, pp. 123-136), the author states the following: "Necturus although widely distributed throughout eastern and middle North America, is found most abundantly in the rivers tributary to the Great Lakes and in the inland streams and small lakes of the adjoining States. Upon the study of the lake species (Necturus maculosus Rafinesque) the following notes are based." "The many names under which Necturus has been described lead to such confusion that some of those most frequently met are here given: Necturus maculatus, Necturus maculosus, Vecturus lateralis, Menobranchus lateralis, Menobranchus tetradactylus, Menobranchus sayi, Menobranchus lacepedii, Menobranchus hyemalis, Phanerobranchus tetradactylus, Phanerobranchus lacepedii, Triton lateralis, Proteus maculatus, Siredon hyemalis, Siren lacertina. It is known by fishermen and others unacquainted with scientific nomenclature by various names such as: Proteus of the Lakes, Proteus of the Alleghany River, Siren of Barton, mud-puppy, water-dog, water-lizard, fish-lizard, etc.".
Here is where the mudpuppy transects with Lake Champlain "monster" lore: there are three documented cases where fishermen have caught probable mudpuppies in Lake Champlain and thought they had captured baby "lake monsters".
In his 2012 book THE UNTOLD STORY OF CHAMP: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF AMERICA’S LOCH NESS MONSTER, sociologist Robert Bartholomew relates the following information on pg. 51: "As the Adirondack Murray saga was dying down, another debate was brewing with claims of a baby sea monster being captured. On Saturday May 21, 1887, newspapers along the lake were abuzz with news of a strange find near Plattsburgh, where local soldiers claimed to have captured a baby sea serpent while fishing. It was described in the Plattsburgh Sentinel thusly: ‘The fish or reptile, which is the first ever seen here, is about 14 inches long, and has a broad, flat head, a trifle arrow-shaped, something after the style of the famous Lake Champlain sea serpent."
"It has four legs and the remainder of the body is like that of an eel in shape and color. The head is about two inches broad. Three feathery tufts like prolongations from the mucous membrane projects from the upper part of the throat, passing out thro’ openings in the side of the neck. It is a very queer looking reptile……’ The creature was later identified as a menobranchos or Great Water Lizard." Menobranchos is one of the former generic names used for the mudpuppy and "water lizard" is one of the slang names used for it, so I believe it is safe to say that the 1887 "baby monster" was generally regarded as a mudpuppy salamander.
Champ researcher Dennis Hall mentions the same incident in his 1999 book CHAMPQUEST: THE ULTIMATE SEARCH in a section entitled "Historical Champ Sightings: Part Two 1883-1887", on pg. 60: "On the 16th of May, 1887, the (Elmira, New York) Morning Telegram rejoined the issue with the story of a party of soldiers who were fishing off the garrison and caught a creature, half fish and half animal, about 14 inches long with a flat arrow-shaped head, four legs, tufted, and shaped like an eel. It was identified as the offspring of a great water lizard, and the paper hinted that a brood of these viper were hatched in Lake Champlain."
The Burlington Daily News newspaper of Tuesday, May 1, 1934 contained the following story.
Since the photocopy itself is hard to read in places, here is a transcript: "STRANGE LAKE CREATURE CAUGHT YESTERDAY- HAS REPTILE LEGS AND HEAD AND FISH BODY. ST. ALBANS (Vermont), MAY 1. (Special)- Veteran fishermen, sea-serpent authorities and amateur scientists were offering various solutions today to the identity of a nameless creature that was fished out of the waters of Lake Champlain yesterday."
"Joseph Briere of this city, while fishing in Lapan Bay, pulled out a hideous thing which appears to be a cross between a lizard and a tiny serpent. He brought it home, alive, and it is now thrashing about in a large bowl while friends and neighbors examine it in an attempt to find out just what the thing is."
"The reptile hit at Briere’s hook and apparently didn’t mind being pulled in by that method. It was very much alive today and presented an unusually mystifying sight to all who saw it."
"Local fishermen offered the opinion that the ban on seining in Lake Champlain had promoted the infestation of the lake with cull fish of hideous appearance and ruinous effect on game fish, but the likes of this creature has never been seen here before."
"The water reptile’s most astonishing features are legs and a growth on the top of the head and the fact that the body is like that of a fish."
"It is about 11 inches long and colored brown with black spots. Its round body, which is smooth instead of scaly, tapers back from an ugly flat head shaped not unlike that of an alligator with a large mouth and small eyes set far forward in the snout. It has four legs about an inch long with claws. The forward pair are directly behind the head, while the rear pair are far back- projecting from the sides of the trunk where it narrows down into a fish-like tail."
"Strangest of all in the creature’s appearance is the ‘millinery’ on the back of its head, six little sprouts that can best be described as celery plants with red fuzz for foliage. It has no gills, but even so is a very ‘fishy’ creature."
In an article about the lake monster called "The Champlain Monster" by folklorist Marjorie Porter for Vermont Life magazine in the summer of 1970, this appeared: "In 1945 a news story from Burlington reported: ‘Baby Sea Serpent Taken in Vermont Waters-May Be Offspring of Lake Monster."
Longtime Champ researcher Dennis Jay Hall of Panton, Vermont had his first alleged encounter with one of the Lake Champlain animals in 1979. He worked briefly in 1984-1985 with Joe Zarzynski’s organization, the Lake Champlain Phenomena Investigation, before going off on his own. In 1992, he formed his own research organization, Champ Quest, with his partner Richard Deuel, which was active until 2008. Beginning in 1985, Hall has produced many videos and still photos of what he claims are the Champ animals and claims to have encountered them on numerous occasions. He has recently resurfaced, working in conjunction with another Champ investigator, Katy Elizabeth. For two contrasting views of Hall’s investigations and evidence, see his own book, CHAMP QUEST: THE ULTIMATE SEARCH (Essence of Vermont, 1999) and Robert Bartholomew’s 2012 book, THE UNTOLD STORY OF CHAMP: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF AMERICA’S LOCH NESS MONSTER, pages 130-139.
After an initial expedition to Lake Champlain in November 1992, I arrived as a permanent resident near Burlington, Vermont in April 1994 to begin further investigations. I stayed for almost 18 years (Dec. 2011) and returned for active field expeditions in the summers of 2013 and 2014. I reached out to Hall in the hopes that we could work together not long after I arrived in 1994, but there seemed to be some hesitation because of the fact that I would not whole-heartedly embrace his theories. Hall believes the Champ animals to be a survival of the Triassic period semi-aquatic reptile Tanystropheus sp., shown below, which existed from 245 to 228 million years ago.
It’s not a theory that I am particularly enamored with but, in the absence of definitive evidence, it may prove correct (if unlikely). Sagan’s dictum of "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" places the burden of proof on all of us who believe that there may be an unusual animal behind the Champ stories. Probably as a result of my hesitancy to embrace the Tanystropheus theory, Dennis did most of his work down in the Vergennes/ Panton area, while I did my investigations around the Burlington/ Shelburne region. Meanwhile, we did have sporadic contact over the years and even worked together in 2009 with Dr. Elizabeth Von Muggenthaler.
Regardless of what your opinions of Hall’s own theories may be, he did all of us a great service of cataloguing the sightings of others over the years. To his credit, he has never been evasive to any of the questions I have asked him, either. S
ometime in the late 1990’s, Hall began circulating the story that he believed his father had caught a probable baby "Champ" while fishing in a marsh (Orville’s Marsh?) near Otter Creek (a tributary of Lake Champlain near Panton, Vt.) in 1976. Below is a map showing the general area of Lake Champlain near Otter Creek where this incident presumably took place.
At his Champ Quest website in 1998 (see here), Hall had this to say: "In recent times, hundreds of people- boaters, picnickers, swimmers- claim they have seen one of these animals. Some took pictures of what they saw and others wrote books without seeing . But no one has ever caught a live Champ. Or have they? In 1954 a 14" long reptile was captured in Shelburne Bay. There is an early account of one being captured and tied up to a public dock in Burlington, Vt. It was described as being ‘a baby.’ In 1976 a lizard like animal was caught by a Vergennes man. It was twelve inches long, held itself up on four sturdy legs, omitted a hissing sound and had a forked tongue. I was lucky that the man who caught the baby was my father, William H. Hall, and that I was there. I have much more to say about this catch, and you will be able to read about it in ‘The Ultimate Search’."(I believe the reference to a 1954 account of a 14 inch reptile is in fact a distorted retelling of the 1945 incident mentioned by Marjorie Porter).
The segment from Hall’s 1999 book dealing with the incident (partly verbatim from above) says this (pg XIII): "But no one has ever caught a live Champ. Or have they? In 1954 a 14" long reptile was captured in Shelburne Bay. There is an early account of one being captured and tied up to a public dock in Burlington, Vt. It was described as being ‘a baby.’ In 1976 a lizard like animal was caught by a Vergennes man. It was twelve inches long, held itself up on four sturdy legs, omitted a hissing sound and had a forked tongue. I was lucky that the man who caught the baby was my father, William H. Hall, and that I was there."
"The animal at first defied description. It looked like a snapping turtle would without a shell. It held its body well off the ground as it walked out of the water. The gait was that of a turtle. The tongue of the animal was forked and darted in and out as it tested the air. The animal omitted a loud hissing noise. The head was a cross between a snake and a turtle and was attached to a short neck. The body was slender with a medium length tail. The feet had five webbed clawed toes."
Here is what Robert Bartholomew had to say about the incident in his 2012 book on pages 131-132 (bear in mind, Bartholomew’s opinions are not necessarily my views on the matter): "The Scientific Discovery of the Century- or Not!- Although Mr. Hall’s enthusiasm for Champ was undeniable and at times boundless, his claims were often so extreme and ludicrous that they would destroy any semblance of credibility that he may have had. Although a charitable interpretation could place him in the category of the ‘overly excitable type’, there were other claims that should have started alarm bells ringing for anyone with an inkling of common sense. For instance, he makes the preposterous claim that in 1976 he was standing next to his father when the elder Hall captured a baby Champ!"
"The strange-looking specimen was supposedly discovered in a marsh bordering the lake. He told members of the Champ Trackers blog: ‘It was twelve inches long, held itself up on four sturdy legs, omitted a hissing noise and had a forked tongue. I was lucky that the man who caught the baby was my father, William H. Hall, and that I was there. I have much more to say about this catch, and you will be able to read about it in The Ultimate Search.’ Presumably if one did not want to buy the book, they would miss out on the details of this extraordinary episode in world zoological history. However, it contains little additional information except for a description."
"Hall writes that it resembled ‘a snapping turtle without a shell. It held its body well off the ground as it walked out of the water. The gait was that of a turtle. The tongue of the animal was forked and darted in and out as it tested the air.’ He described the head as ‘a cross between a snake and a turtle and was attached to a short neck. The body was slender with a medium length tail. The feet had five webbed clawed toes.’"
"After reading the book, Ben Radford contacted Hall to find out what happened to the baby Champ. Hall said that scientists at the University of Vermont examined the critter, proclaiming that it resembled no known living reptile. Failing to identify it, the scientists sent it to Vergennes Union High School where it was kept in the science lab, where, years later, it was accidentally tossed out when the room was upgraded!"
"Later, while leafing through a book on dinosaurs, Hall said he saw a creature that looked nearly identical to the one he found: Tanystropheus, a long-necked aquatic reptile that fed on fish and is believed to have been extinct for millions of years. Think about it. You catch a what appears to be a living baby dinosaur and take it to a university where scientists proclaim it is like no other reptile they have ever seen. Is it not worthy of a press conference? When in 1938, fishermen off the coast of South Africa caught a coelacanth, a fish thought to have been extinct for 60 million years, it was dubbed the find of the century. Would this discovery be any less significant? Who are the scientists involved? Why are they not named? Surely such a find would be the crowning pinnacle of any scientific career and perhaps merit an honorary doctorate in zoology. Imagine-you catch what you believe to be a baby aquatic dinosaur-the zoological find of a lifetime, and there is not one single photo of it by you or the examining scientists! And what happens to this extraordinary find? It is mistakenly thrown out after languishing on the shelf of a high school science lab." "
There are more red flags in Hall’s story than you would expect to find at a communist convention! You may recall that in 1873, P.T. Barnum offered to pay $50,000 dollars to anyone who could produce the carcass of the Champlain sea serpent: an enormous sum for the time. Surely, finding the carcass of a Champ today-to say nothing about a live baby sea serpent-would be the equivalent of hitting the lottery and would catapult the finder to global fame. Papers would pay huge sums for an exclusive photo of the creature. One could picture the headlines: ‘Living Fossil Found by Vermont Man and His Son!’ or ‘Baby Dinosaur Found in Lake’ along with a captioned photo of the young Hall cradling the little serpentine critter. But alas, despite the enormity of the occasion-a landmark event in modern history-no one thought to snap a photo!"
For a frame of reference, reproduced below is a reconstruction of a presumed juvenile Tanystropheus from the Middle Triassic of Guizhou, China (reference links can be found here and here).
The case for Dennis’s "baby monster" being another misidentified mudpuppy is entirely circumstantial but suggestive when looked at in the context of the information presented previously concerning the other cases of mistaken identity. I will present that evidence now.
I got wind of the "baby monster" story in 1997 from Dennis’s website and got in touch with Dennis asking for more information. According to him, a photograph of this animal had been taken and had appeared in a local newspaper, the Vergennes Enterprise and Vermonter. He gave me the name and telephone number of a local Vergennes man, Richard K. Adams, a friend of Dennis and his father who had been there when the thing was caught. Perhaps Mr. Adams could help me track down the photo. Below is a photo of Mr. Adams (now deceased).
According to Mr. Adams, the animal was 13 or 14 inches long with a 2 inch long neck, brown with spots and had external gills.
Mr. Adams also insisted that there was a photograph of this animal in the local newspaper at the time, most likely the Vergennes Enterprise and Vermonter. Bioacoustician Elizabeth Von Muggenthaler (who was born and raised in nearby Charlotte, Vermont) told me in 2009 that she recalled seeing a photograph of this animal somewhere when she was a little girl. On balance, I am inclined to believe that there probably really is a photograph of this animal buried in local Vergennes archives somewhere, though I have yet to find it. I also have no doubts that William H. Hall really did catch something unusual. It’s not unreasonable to assume that some of the descriptions of its appearance may have become distorted in the retelling over time, however.
Based on the information given to me by Dennis Hall and Richard Adams, I made two trips to the Bixby Memorial Library (Vergennes, Vt.) in 1997 to dig through the local newspaper archives, primarily the Vergennes Enterprise and Vermonter (which had been in publication from 1901 to 1982). Searching both actual papers and microfilms, I searched through all the papers between 1971 and 1981, five years either side of the alleged time period (1976). I found nothing at the time, but I was primarily looking for a photo and failed to notice something else of possible significance until I performed the same search 12 years later. Why I was looking for this photo rather than Dennis himself is a question only he can answer.
Now, we jump ahead 12 years in the future. Summer 2009, there is a Champ expedition at Button Bay, Lake Champlain. Dr. Elizabeth Von Muggenthaler has returned to attempt to record new hydrophone recordings of what she has interpreted to be possible high frequency "echolocation", possibly from the alleged Champ animals. Assisting her are myself, Dennis Hall, Ruby Anderson, Gary Anderson and Precious Anderson. New sounds are recorded but the data has yet to be made public. Summer passes into Fall and the subject of Dennis’s "baby monster" once again is raised and it is decided I will do a new archival newspaper search. Dennis tells Dr. Von Muggenthaler that the date WAS NOT 1976 but 1974, around the time of his High School graduation. Based on this new information, I make arrangements for the Enterprise and Vermonter microfilms to be shipped from the Bixby Library to the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, Vt. on interlibrary loan.
First, I find a notice and some photos of Dennis’s High School graduation, reproduced below with the date, June 13, 1974. He was the Class President.
Did I find a photograph in the Vergennes newspaper of a recently deceased relict Tanystropheus? No, I did not. I found no photograph of a recently deceased mudpuppy, either. But I did find this exceedingly curious article, dated June 6, 1974.
I have no idea who "The Forest and Field Club" are or whether Dennis was a member in 1974. In fact, his name is not mentioned anywhere at all in this article. There is not a direct connection between what is described in this article and the story of Dennis’s "baby monster", other than the fact that it is describing something very similar and it is in the newspaper in the general time frame that Dennis had instructed us (myself and Von Muggenthaler) to look. One feature of the "Protens" story that may be important relevant to Dennis’s "baby monster" is the detail about the jar being a commercial pickle jar provided by a local restaurant owner. This will be explained in due course.
A possible postscript to this "Protens" story appeared in the same Enterprise and Vermonter Newspaper, dated September 26, 1974. "A" Richard Adams (not necessarily "the" Richard Adams associated with Dennis and his father but I suspect it was the same) wrote
a rather obscure, allegorical essay or column entitled "Bye the Otter". Mention is made in one passage of a "great Proteus".