Mokele-Mbembe: The Congo's Apatosaur?

by John Dempsey

Mokele-mbembe is a cryptid animal (meaning that it is not scientifically verified to exist), described as an apatosaur-like creature, as large as or larger than an elephant, living in the Likouala Region of the Republic of Congo in southeast central Africa. While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, gathered over more than 200 years by missionaries and exploratory expeditions, there has never been, to date, a recorded specimen captured or remains examined to verify that it exists.

Mokele-mbembe is cited often by young earth creationists as evidence against the theory of evolution. Evidence for its existence consists of written accounts by outsiders of visual sightings and written accounts of footprints with claws (unlike elephant or hippo prints) that were 3 feet across. There are also reports from large numbers of natives of a large-bodied, long-necked, large-tailed herbivore that drives off or kills hippos, as well as stories that make the animal look more like a rhino or elephant. Others insist that Mokele-mbembe is a spirit creature.

Some accounts report a lower hippo population than normal for the Likouala region, which would make sense if Mokele-mbembe competes for food and space with them. Hippos are very aggressive and territorial and would be considered a dangerous nuisance by the competition.

The Likouala Region is a swampy area larger than the State of Florida, about 55,000 square miles (142,450 square kilometers). It is bordered by the Congo River, the deepest in the world, with the second largest flow volume after the Amazon River. According to Congo governmental reports, it is about 80% unexplored.

There is not only numerous reports from natives, but also a history of reports from foreign explorers and missionaries that appear honest in their report of seeing something extraordinary. The oldest recorded account was from Bonaventure, a French missionary to Africa, in his 1776 book, of claw marks that were 3 feet in circumference. Now that's big clawed feet! Claws are significant, in that sauropods, including apatosaurs and brachiosaurs, unlike elephants and hippos, have clawed feet, like lizards.

Note by Paul Pavao, webmaster: Lievain Bonaventure authored several books. I don't know which one mentions the footprints. The many references to the Bonaventure on the internet don't cite the book. A 1993 book by Jerome Clark called Unexplained: 347 Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena appears to be the source for this claim.

Apatosaurus rendering by LeCire, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Apatosaurus LeCire

In 1909, Lt. Paul Gratz, after hearing a number of natives describe the creature and having been shown a hide that purportedly came from Mokele-mbembe, became the first to describe the alleged creature as resembling a sauropod (which means lizard foot). In the same year, renowned big game hunter Carl Hagenbeck said that a number of independent, reputable sources familiar with the region reported a large animal that resembled a sauropod, and, as a result, stories about the cryptid became a popular media topic for a while afterward.

In 1913, a German officer, Captain Freiherr von Stein zu Lausnitz (try to say that while eating crackers), a surveyor of the German colonies in what is now Cameroon wrote of reports of a creature the size of an elephant or hippo with smooth brown/grey skin and a muscular tail like an alligator. He was shown a path that was said to be a Mokele-mbembe made trail, but because of the multitude of large game (elephant, hippo, etc.) tracks, there was no real, clear evidence to be found.

In what was possibly the juiciest and most graphic monster tale about Mokele-mbembe, in 1919 & 1920 a train carrying a 32-man naturalist expedition for the Smithsonian Museum mysteriously derailed, killing several people, while moving through a region that the natives had recently reported seeing the creature. (Oooh, creepy!)

Over the next several decades, there were various recorded descriptions by natives, an eye-witness account by Cryptozoologist Ivan Sanderson (which sounds phony to me) and purported photographs of large, three-toed footprints (hippos have four toes).

Starting in 1979, interest in the creature has picked up significantly and is a very popular subject, but sad to say, although there have been more expeditions and more hearsay evidence, no one has produced a specimen or other scientific evidence of Mokele-mbembe yet. (Though we can still hope!)

In addition to Mokele-mbembe, there are other cryptids reportedly living in this large, swampy, unexplored area of the Congo. Emela-ntouka: a rhino-form, semi-aquatic, herbivorous elephant-killer the size of an elephant. It is thus larger than rhinos and reported as having significant anotomical differences. Mbielu-mbielu-mbielu, an aquatic herbivore whose form is reminiscent of a stegosaur. Nguma-monene, which resembles Mbielu-mbielu-mbielu, with much smaller ridge plates on its back. Mahamba: a fifty-foot (15-meter) crocodile. Ndendeki: a giant turtle. Ngoima: a giant eagle that eats monkeys. And on the Cameroon side outskirts, Ngoubou. Remember the triceratops dinosaur? Think same family. Pretty cool, huh! Wouldn't it be great if they found one or all of these?

Proof for a Young Earth?

Personally, I am open-minded as to whether or not the creature exists. (I'd travel and pay to see it!) For our purpose, it is not necessary to prove it one way or the other. For sake of argument, we will suppose that it is not an elephant crossing the river with its trunk in the air that was observed by persons with poor eyesight and that one day, upon further exploration, they will take clear, untampered pictures and find both carcasses and live animals in the Likouala Swamp.

The existence of Mokele-mbembe, in itself, does not conclusively prove either evolutionary theory or anti-evolutionary, young-earth creationism. Further examination, no doubt, will bring light to bear on the subject, but the mere existence of a living apatosaur-form animal or relative would not, as the young-earth folks try to convince people, prove or even strengthen their case.

The truth is that natural selection and evolutionary theory do not predict that ancient forms must be replaced and cease to exist; not if they are able to adapt in their original form. Numerous examples of ancient fossil form animals and plants exist today, including horseshoe crabs, coelacanths, cockroaches, and ginkgo trees, to name a few.

Note by Paul Pavao, webmaster: "Coelacanth" is a reference to an order, not a genus or species. What does that mean? Well, humans are part of the primate order. The modern Coelacanth is as closely related to the 200-million-year-old Coelecanth as we are related to, say, a lemur or spider monkey. These and other "living fossils" have changed quite a bit over the last 200 million years.

Extinction and the Case of the Coelacanth

In the case of the coelacanth, it was considered extinct until 1938, when a museum curator in East London, South Africa saw one on a fishing boat and took it back to her museum. She called in an expert to identify it. It later turned out to be part of a small localized population native to a group of islands off the west coast of Africa. In 1999, another local population was found in Indonesia.

The reason that they disappeared from the fossil record appears to be that they were once more diverse and widespread, but they had died out in most places. These local populations, which were deep sea dwellers, had not. Most fossils are found on dry land because there are not many deep sea fossil hunts, and even when there are, deep sea fossils tend to get buried and sucked deeper. These things, combined with the fact that coelacanths are very local, makes them unlikely to be found.

If a small population of  apatosaur-like creatures (as Mokele-mbembe is described) exists in a local, wet, unexplored region and has been wiped out pretty much everywhere else, that would explain why it is not found in the fossil record.

Extinction can be caused by a number of kinds of events: famine, disease, large scale catastrophic climate changes, too much competition, new predatory domination, etc. Isolated subspecies might be protected in many of these cases by specific adaptations that put them in a locality that escaped the event. They could have developed immunity or the niche area of their specific subgroup/subspecies could have been isolated geographically, etc. They could therefore have been well adapted to their local area, as we have seen in the case of many other animals.

Thus, whether Mokele-mbembe is myth or real has nothing to do with evidence for or against evolution.

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