Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Meet the Sheepsquatch

It's not every day that a new cryptid comes to the attention of the media. Recently, though, a strange creature called the "sheepsquatch" has been sighted in West Virginia. The creature supposedly looks about like you would imagine from the name, half-bigfoot and half-sheep, which just goes to show that apparently bigfoot DNA can mix with something else besides possum. It's not precisely a horror, though - sheepsquatch is big and scary looking, but essentially timid. According to reports, its usual response to a human encounter is to simply run away.

Sheepsquatch, also known as "the white thing", is a woolly-haired cryptid reported across numerous counties in West Virginia, predominantly within the southwestern region of the state. Those counties with the most sightings are Boone, Kanawha, Putnam and Mason, with a surge in sightings taking place in Boone County during the mid-1990s. It is described as being a quadruped about the size of a bear, with entirely white wool-like fur. It has a long and pointed head, similar to a dog but with long, saber-like teeth and a single-pint set of horns not dissimilar from those found on a young goat. Its forelimbs end in paw-like hands, similar to those of a raccoon but larger, while its tail is long and hairless like that of an opossum. It is reputed to smell like sulfur, which has been attributed through folklore to the beast being born within the TNT area in Mason County, though this is not likely and instead may be a musk scent gland similar to those found in many species in the order Carnivora such as weasels and skunks.

So, more seriously, could this be a real animal? If so, it might constitute a legitimate discovery. Most witnesses describe the sheepsquatch as about the size and shape of a bear with a white coat, and it so happens that such an animal does exist - just not to our knowledge in West Virginia. That animal is the Kermode or spirit bear, a subspecies of American black bear native to British Columbia.

Here's a picture. The Kermode bear has recessive alleles which turn the coat white rather than black. As such, it seems to me that running into a full-sized adult out in the woods, which can stand up to six feet tall and weight 500 pounds or so, might prompt a witness to cry "sheepsquatch!" The white coat is sheeplike and the muzzle is more extended than what you would expect on an ape. Even the behavior is right - black bears aren't very agressive and usually run off rather than confront a human. I'm not sure where the horns come from, but it is possible that memories can be confabulated and of course it's also likely that many of the sightings are hoaxes.

A Kermode bear population in West Virginia would be a significant discovery precisely because the subspecies is so rare. There are maybe 400 of them left in British Columbia, and a new population could provide some additional genetic diversity. Or maybe the whole thing is just silly. That's the trouble with cryptozoology, it's hard to be sure.

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