All summer, io9 has been offering a $2000 bounty to the person who can send us a picture of an animal that's a genuine cryptid, or mystery animal. We hoped to find a new species, or at least a real version of a long-sought animal from myth. And by gum, we found one! Our panel of experts has debated — and even examined one specimen — and we've come to an agreement on which creature is most likely to be a genuine cryptid among our entries. Meet the white cheetah, a legend since the mid-17th century. Now for the first time since the 1920s, the creature has been spotted. And we have photographic evidence!
But before we tell you about the amazing adventure our bounty winner Guy Combs had chasing down the rare white cheetah, a little background on this bounty. Our panel of expert judges included Mark Siddall, a zoologist who specializes in leeches at the American Museum of Natural History in New York; Loren Coleman, a widely-recognized expert in cryptozoology and creator of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Maine; photoshop expert and designer Paul Hogan (also known as Garrison Dean, viral video creator extraordinaire); along with io9 editors Charlie Jane Anders and myself, Annalee Newitz.
When io9 announced the cryptid summer bounty, we specified that the creature must be real, the discoverer must send photographs, and that the specimen should not be dead. We didn't want any Montauk Monsters, nor did we want anybody to kill Bigfoot if they found him. In July and August, we posted the most promising cryptids photographs we'd gotten, and readers had a chance to vote on which you thought were the most promising. We took your votes into account in our deliberations.
A few weeks ago, our judges huddled together to discuss which of our five front-runner cryptid photos was most likely real. There was one surprise: Aaron Ambos, a biologist in Nevada had collected a sample of a leech that looked like it might be a new species. He sent that in to Siddall for examination, and we waited a tense couple of weeks to find out if we really had a new species on our hands. In fact, Ambos wasn't wrong to guess he might have the real deal. After examining it in his lab, Siddall said, "A year ago it would have been an exciting new species find. Alas it is Placobdella kwetlumye described by us in 2010." So close!
Another close contender was this piebald wallaby, discovered by Anne Bradman in Australia. Coleman thought it might be the best example of a cryptid, since Australia and New Zealand are places where the most cryptozoological finds are made. But both he and Siddall agreed that it might also just be a "melanin variant" — just a mutant in terms of color — of a regular wallaby.
So that left us with the magnificent white cheetah. Siddall warned that this might not be a genuine new species, as it could be another melanin variant like the wallaby — perhaps just an albino of the cheetah world. But he agreed that it was likely a real animal. Hogan was impressed with the fact that the photographs seemed genuine. He said:
I got in real close on this one. The fact that they have 3 good images that are all seemingly un-photoshopped helps. If it was just one, I'd be more suspect. But I got in close, checked for matching spots and markings where I could and it seems legitimate. EXIF data puts the pics around the right range as well, though that can be fudged. Basically if it's a fake, they did a decent job on more than one image. There is one area that has me slightly doubting the balls on one of the photos, but that is only because if it was a shop, a lioness would've been a good source animal for this.
Of course, it could just be that our white cheetah has really nice balls, as you can see in this image.
What finally pushed the white cheetah over into the winner category, however, was that it was a genuine mystery animal that had entered mythology in the same way creatures like Bigfoot and the Moa have. Coleman, who has spent his life collecting cryptozoology myths and facts, put it best:
Within cryptozoology, there has been some focus on the quest for the "King Cheetah," although it turned out to be a pattern mutation. White cheetahs have been found since at least 1608. But I could see some expeditions out to discover if this is a part-albino or a new subspecies of the known cheetah.
None of our experts are convinced that this white cheetah is a new species — though further study might reveal that to be true. But they are all fairly certain it is a real animal, and like the famous King Cheetah cryptid, this cheetah has rarely-seen markings.
And so Guy Combs' white cheetah wins the cryptid summer bounty. It is a real-life incarnation of a creature from legend. Combs is a wildlife artist whose lifelong dream was to find a cryptid like this. He told us via email:
As a wildlife artist I'm intrigued by peoples relationships with different animals and how this has inspired fear and worship throughout history. From a cryptozoology point of view, mermaids, werewolves and unicorns have all featured in a subconscious mechanism we have that inspires us to view these creatures symbolically, and this I believe is a very basic human instinct. I work in conservation so it's always my hope that my paintings will inspire people to take up the cause for animals that our threatened by our relentless human onslaught. So I leapt at the chance of searching a huge area with the potential of finding this cheetah, and featuring him in a major artwork. The search was not easy, but with a spotter plane and two vehicles we were eventually successful!
He says he's going to donate most of his bounty winnings to his local cheetah preservation project fund.
Here's the gorgeous painting Combs made of the white cheetah. And now, here is Combs' story of finding the white cheetah:
Back in December I was told about this incredible ‘morph' phenomenon that has not been seen for over 90 years, and that there was a pressing need to monitor and protect it while raising awareness of the species as a whole. The last one recorded was shot in Tanzania in 1921. By ‘morph' this means a genetic colour variation, the most well known being the ‘King' cheetah, specimens of which have only occurred in South Africa and Zimbabwe. The Mughal Emperor of India recorded having a white cheetah presented to him in 1608, saying that the spots were of a blue colour and the whiteness of the body also inclined to blue-ishness. This suggests a chinchilla mutation which restricts the amount of pigment on the hair shaft. Red cheetahs have dark tawny spots on a golden background and some desert cheetahs are very pale to be more camouflaged in their environment. There are also reported cases of melanism or albinism, but the latter does not apply to this cheetah. The only reported cases of this morph which scientists believe is a recessive gene like the king cheetah, have been in East Africa from the subspecies, acynonix jubatus raineyii.
I was hooked from the first moment I heard about this, and needless to say I immediately wanted to get reference, but the prospect of finding it seemed incredibly remote. The only hope I had was that the cheetah, a male, was still with his mother and occupying the same area before he reached the age of independence. This time was fast approaching so the need was urgent to find him. Apparently he already showed small signs of conflict with other male cheetahs trying to get to his mother who had come into season again. Here is an account of my search:
Our first search was in a plane made by the Israeli army to train pilots and coincidentally called a Cheetah: a small frame of aluminium poles and nylon fabric with a propeller and wheels. I confess to having raised anxiety levels when on small aircraft due to a couple of infamous past experiences, so I wasn't thoroughly enthused when the pilot (despite being one of the finest in Kenya), explained that we would be doing an hour of mostly low level flying with tight turns. There were two big storms on either side and the air was being moved rapidly between them so we spent most of the flight going sideways. I gritted my teeth and tried to concentrate on searching the ground but it was pretty much a pointless excersise.
So back on the ground I set off in a landrover to search the area, most of which has no roads and at least managed to get some good background reference in the evening light. I figured that I could probably work this one with photographs someone had taken of him as a much younger cub and reference I had of adult male cheetahs. After all, he was just the same but with no spots, right? So I headed to town and met some friends for a few drinks. Then my phone rang:
- "We've just found him!!!"
- "did you get any pictures?"
- "no sorry didn't have a camera"
- "ok I will be up and out there at sparrows!".
Once again, eternally optimistic, my host set off in the plane with another hapless volunteer that had to take my place – I felt like such a lightweight. Turns out that I made 100% the best decision I could have. As we were thundering over the roadless plain in the landrover, I suddenly noticed that the plane had started to circle. My heart shifted into first gear. Our radio was out but the plane had unmistakably made several tight turns and was continuing to do so until we managed to get close to the circle it was making. Of course it happened to be an area covered in large rocks and low trees, so I was sitting forward in my seat, clinging to the dash with my face up against the windshield trying to keep my camera on my lap as we bounced ridiculously over huge boulders.
Then there he was. A white spot in a landscape painted gold by the morning sun. As we got closer we had to be very tactical about our speed and noise level which is pretty much impossible in a landrover, especially when you're driving over big rocks. Lots of "ok forwards…", "STOP" and "shhhhhhh!!!" in theatrical whisper. He let us get quite close before hunkering down and slinking off in the direction of even more vehicle-unfriendly rocks. But we managed to keep up and he didn't seem overly anxious about us. We barely noticed that his mother was following at a distance. We were with him like this for about 30 minutes that seemed like about 5 seconds. Then having punished the vehicle to the extent that I was amazed the wheels were still on, I noticed that he began to move away from us, walking at first, then trotting, then a good run. My heart sank and I thought my last view would be him running away in fear, but it became quickly apparent that he was focusing on something. The sun was in my eyes but I could make out a dark shape moving fast in a perpendicular direction to him. Binoculars out – it was a Serval Cat!!! Next thing we knew he was running at full tilt after this thing, zigzagging first then long stretches of blindingly fast speed. Alas, we were in the worst part of the boulder field and there was clearly no option of a pursuit. So after he disappeared and the dust settled we looked at each other and let out a looooong sigh. Amazing.
The painting itself, aside from being the most accurate portrayal I was capable of, includes certain elements that are important to the story. The area is one that accommodates one of the highest densities of cheetah populations in East Africa. This could be as a result of a distinct lack of other larger predators that would be a threat to their existence, a large prey base, and an area relatively protected from development. I wanted to include this latter factor and have faintly suggested a settlement complete with cell phone tower on the ridge in the middle distance. This, of course, is the greatest problem that cheetahs face in our ‘human' age. The locations is very significant here also, and the distant Ngong Hills together with the setting full moon make it very specific. The sun and moon are intentionally symbolic here too: the moon representing Artemis, the goddess of animals and forests and the sun representing Apollo, the god of arts, amongst other things. The title, "The Phantom", suggests an elusive, mythical entity that exists somewhere between night and day.