Monster Hunter Roy Mackal Treks to Africa in Search of the Last of the Dinosaurs
updated 12/07/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 12/07/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST
Late in October Mackal, scientific colleagues and a team of 10 Pygmy porters disappeared into a 70-million-year-old swamp in the remotest part of the People's Republic of the Congo. What the expedition hopes to find is a reddish-brown reptile variously described as being the size of a hippopotamus, having a long neck and tail, claws, and a head with a rooster-styled comb or a unicornlike horn. The strange beast is known to local natives as "mokele-mbembe."
Why does Mackal think the mokele-mbembe exists? First, there are local legends reported by missionaries and early explorers, including Sir H.M. Stanley, the journalist who tracked Dr. Livingstone, and Alfred Aloysius "Trader Horn" Smith. Then last year Mackal spent a month among the Congo's Pygmy tribes. He showed flash-card pictures of animals, some familiar to them (hippo) and some not (American black bear). Finally, when he flashed a card depicting a prehistoric brontosaurus, according to Mackal they burst forth excitedly: "The mokele-mbembe! He lives near here."
"There are reports as fresh as two or three weeks ago," said Mackal just before he left. "And remember, nothing has changed there in millions of years. I mean, really nothing." Though the mokele-mbembe is reputed to be a vegetarian, there's no assurance that it will be friendly if disturbed. Mackal himself intends to be nonthreatening. "We'll just take pictures," he says, "and hopefully find a bone, some tissue." He relishes the African Queen atmosphere. "We'll be hot, filthy, sick and exhausted," he says. "But we'll have the time of our lives."
Born in Milwaukee and raised on a Wisconsin farm, Mackal says his rural upbringing taught him to be self-reliant. "When you decide to collect butterflies, no one tells you how," he says. His uncle, a doctor, hooked him on science. "When I was 8 he showed me bacteria and protozoa under the microscope," Mackal recalls. "It wiped out any fantasy I ever had about becoming a fireman."
As a Marine in World War II he studied at the University of Wisconsin and was assigned to the Naval Research Lab in Bellevue, Wash. He went on to the University of Chicago for his Ph.D. in biochemistry. Working there with biochemist E.A. Evans Jr., Mackal assisted in the research to grow the E. coli bacteria outside a living cell—a landmark experiment on which subsequent genetic engineering is based.
During a London vacation in 1965 Mackal became so intrigued with the Loch Ness monster that he ultimately abandoned the lab for zoology. He became on-site scientific director of the privately sponsored Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau. One calm evening in 1970, Mackal says, he finally had his reward. He saw, some 30 yards away, "the back of the animal, rising eight feet out of the water, rolling, twisting. If that's a fish, I thought, it's a mighty fish indeed! To this day, when someone asks me, 'Do you believe there is a monster in Loch Ness?' my stomach does a somersault. I know what I saw."
Mackal theorizes that "Nessie" and its cousins (similar creatures have been reported in many North American bays and lakes) might be a primitive form of the modern whale. In his meticulously documented books, including Searching for Hidden Animals published last year by Doubleday, Mackal cheerfully debunks a number of myths, such as that of man-eating trees. Yet he also points to a long list of animals thought to be extinct for millions of years that astonished everyone by reappearing. Among them are the cloven-hoofed, giraffelike okapi and the bony fish called coelacanth, which until this century was thought to have been extinct for 60 to 70 million years. Just last month an ornithologist discovered in New Guinea a bowerbird believed to exist but never before seen.
Mackal endures whatever ridicule accompanies his exotic pursuits. Yet he is taken seriously by scholars like George Zug of the Smithsonian Institution, who says, "He's solid, and he's following scientific methods. A lot of us have our fingers crossed that he'll find something this time."
Mackal is grateful to the U of Chicago, where he teaches a course in zoological mysteries, for its indulgent support. "The university is imbued with the idea that no area of human experience is taboo and beyond investigation by reasonable men," he notes. "If it's not immoral or illegal, get on with it, they told me, and if you find it, you're our boy."