One of the cool things about science is that it allows us to solve mysteries. Much of what we know about nature and how it works is based on science. In earlier days, however, our relationship with nature was based more on folklore and stories passed down by elders. My grandmother, for example, fervently believed crop success in her garden depended on planting during the proper phase of the moon. Thanks to science, we understand the process better today. The character of Texas is largely chronicled in legend and allegory. Hell, we love stories! To this day tales spill forth from small town hardware stores, barber shops, pool halls and beauty parlors all over our state. Science usually discovers the truth, but not always. Even when it does, sometimes explanations are difficult to swallow, especially when our eyes say otherwise.
Texas Blue Dog
How about a canine-like blood-sucking animal with oversized fangs and a blue hide? Pretty unusual, wouldn’t you say? These are the general features of El chupacabra (“goat sucker” in Spanish), a freakish cur first reported in Puerto Rico in 1995 and thought to be responsible for draining the blood from goats, chickens and other livestock. That blood-sucking monster was a bipedal, spiky-backed alien-looking creature. Most people considered them mythical creatures; that is, until a rancher in Cuero, Texas named Phylis Canion discovered three of them on her property in 2007. Hers, however, looked nothing like the original chupacabra.
The story goes like this: Canion had lost 28 chickens over several years and suspected these strange mutants lurking around her ranch all along. Her bloodless corpses were unusual. “Each time we found a chicken dead, it was opened up … in its throat area,” she explained. Local sheriff deputies did record one of the creatures on dash cam running along the side of a road before it disappeared into the brush. Still, after weeks and months, the mysterious creature remained elusive. Finally, on July 14, 2007 a neighbor found a strange dog-like creature lying on the road near her ranch. It weighed 40 lbs. with steel blue eyes, a mouth full of exposed teeth and bluish skin like an elephant.
Dr. Michael Forstner of Texas State University-San Marcos did a DNA analysis of the “blue dog” and reported the animal was a coyote—at least genetically. A separate genetic test done by University of California at Davis confirmed the animal was a hybrid with a coyote mother and a Mexican Wolf father. Explanation of the discolored hairless skin fell to an advanced case of sarcopitic mange, believed to have also stretched the skin, exposing teeth in a more pronounced way. None of the victim chickens were professionally necropsied but it is known that blood will naturally begin to clot and coagulate after the animal dies, creating the appearance of missing blood. Case closed. You can read more at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/27/phylis-canion_n_3805887.html.
East Texas Blowdown
Science fiction came to life in 1998. Manifesting as a destructive wind with gusts up to 170 mph, it came out of nowhere to ravage East Texas. Fortunately, nobody was hurt because the damage happened in a heavily forested part of the state. It was a complete surprise. Nothing was forecast. When the blast was over, it had carved a straight-line path through no less than 3 national forests over a 100 mile swath! An estimated 4 million trees were blown down in the same direction—clearly not the work of a circulating tornado or hurricane!
Our best science postulated that a mysterious force of nature bent the jet stream down to earth. That’s right, the jet stream! To provide context, the jet stream normally hangs out at an altitude of 18-30,000 feet and roars along at speeds of 70-150 mph. But what kind of force could be strong enough pull the vortex this far out of its orbit? We don’t know. The best guess was possible changes in the earth’s magnetic field caused by solar magnetic storms. Really?
Turtle in Concrete
How would you feel after breaking up a piece of concrete to discover a live green turtle living inside? That’s exactly what happened in 1976 when a Fort Worth construction crew smashed a block of concrete they had poured a year earlier. Among the broken pieces was a green turtle—very much alive. It came from a turtle-shaped air pocket, as if the concrete had been cast around it. If it had somehow got in when the concrete was poured a year earlier, how did it survive over that time? Ironically, the poor turtle died a few days after its release. This is not the first time such a thing happened in nature.
There have been encased frogs, lizards and other assorted animals in other parts of the world. In every case, those who found the creatures nearly always state that there was no discernable way—no small hole, crack, or fissure—by which they could have gotten into these pockets inside the rock. What did they eat, drink and breathe to grow, in some cases, to full size? An enigma still.
Giant Texas Spider web
A strange natural phenomenon happened at Lake Tawakoni State Park east of Dallas in 2007. A huge spider web covering 200 yards of oak-elm woodlands was discovered over Labor Day weekend—and for a few days it became a national news item. For the record, spiders are cannibalistic and generally do not interconnect webs. All in all, specialists identified more than 240 specimens and 12 families of spiders in the sprawling web.
According to Texas Parks & Wildlife biologist Mike Quinn, the event was not unique—it’s happened before in Florida, California, Ohio and several overseas locations. The phenomenon is known as “sheet webbing” and it occurs during “mass dispersal events,” like heavy rains or floods. The wet conditions attract concentrations of small insects upon which the spiders feed. The spiders spin out silk filaments to ride air currents in a process known as ballooning, according to Quinn. The arachnoid feeding frenzy is so intense none of the spiders apparently care about the close living arrangements. Very odd behavior—unnatural even.
Who hasn’t heard about the notorious Marfa Lights? The eerie spook lights are named after the West Texas town of Marfa and have been “an item” since the 1800’s. They are so famous that the Texas Department of Transportation eventually built a viewing pavilion alongside Highway 90, complete with parking, seating and mounted binoculars. When the lights show themselves, they put on quite a show in the distance. They appear, disappear, pulsate, break apart, merge together and move across the horizon in a variety of colors—like some sort of ethereal kaleidoscope.
There have been no shortage of serious attempts to solve the mystery. Proposed theories include refracted light from temperature layers, chemical reaction from rising underground gases, piezoelectric charges and something known as ball lightening. In fact, it’s one of the most studied miracles in Texas—indeed in the world—as “spook lights” are common in other states and throughout the world. Like a tooth knocked out, however, a provable scientific explanation continues to be missing.
The Monster of Lake Worth
It was during the early hours of a steamy morning in the summer of 1969 that six terrified Fort Worth residents headed breathlessly for their local police station and told a remarkable tale. John Reichart, his wife, and two other couples had been parked at Lake Worth when a strange beast jumped out of the trees at them. Covered in both fur and scales, it slammed into Reichart’s vehicle and tried to “grab” the hysterical Mrs. Reichart, before disappearing into the darkness. Its only calling card was an 18-inch-long scratch along the side of the car. The legend of Lake Worth’s “Goat-Man” thus began.
Newspapers published a fuzzy “photograph” of the monster while other sightings were made. Local police investigated the claims, but found no evidence of the monster in the Lake Worth and Greer Island area. Sightings of a strange animal had been discussed among the locals and the neighborhood was on edge. Police kept a careful watch on the unfolding drama but reports of the monster died down once the school semester resumed. Four decades later, many, including Allen Plaster, who took the supposed photograph of the creature, suspected that it was a hoax. The case was closed as juvenile pranksters rampaging around in some type of costume. Let’s hope so!
The Universe is filled with suns and worlds by the millions, calling upon us to never stop wondering. It’s only natural we question our own planet, our own world. When stories come along that make chills dance on our backbones, we invoke science to help us understand. When it works, we have a better knowledge of the natural world. When it doesn’t work, we add to our store of folklore . . . and it gives us new wells of unease to plumb.