Posted by: Craig Woolheater on February 19th, 2012
Cryptomundian champ_is_real pointed out the following article in a comment to the Updated: ABC Champ Video Conspiracy? post.
I felt like it was certainly worthy of its own post.
National Geographic explores local’s research on Vt. lake monster
Elizabeth von Muggenthuler grew up with the stories, hearing them from the time she began crawling the tales a monster that lurked in Lake Champlain.
Born and raised in Charlotte, Vt., von Muggenthuler was no stranger to the legend that something—something big with humps and unlike any fish anyone had ever seen—stalked the deep waters of the lake. But, with relentlessly logical parents, the younger von Muggenthuler had refused to let her imagination run away with her, and she never put much stock in such talk.
“My father was a consummate intellect, and I certainly did not believe that my friends and their parents or their grandparents had actually seen something,” she said. “I personally had never seen it before.”
Years later, however, after forging a pioneer career in bioacoustical science—or animal comm-unication and behavior—von Muggenthuler got the opportunity to return to her native soil and research the claims that continued to crop up by people of all walks of life. And this time, with scientific experience under her belt and a trail of sightings dating back hundreds of years, the researcher agreed.
“When asked to go research the lake as an adult, I said why not because so many people and so many of my friends growing up had actually seen something bizarre,” she said. “They’re thrilled because they never tell anyone except their closest buddies over a beer. When I came back to town after being away after 15, 20 years, they were like, ‘Lizzy, we have some stories.’ ”
Researching the mysterious monster of Lake Champlain since 2003, von Muggenthuler’s work has raised some eyebrows and attracted some attention—the particular attention of National Geographic, who sent a production team to the scientist’s Cedar Grove residence for a series called “Wild Case Files,” a string of 10 shows each featuring a mysterious animal.
“We made a series for them last year, which was a huge success,” said Martin Pailthorpe, a producer from Tigress—a production company contracted by National Geographic to shoot various pieces—in an email. “Everyone loves the unexplained, and although we try to answer all the questions we pose, occasionally, like in this story, there’s no definitive answer, so the mystery remains.”
Von Muggenthuler began her research by collecting stories from the locals, particularly fisherman with intimate knowledge of the lake. Most accounts described the creature as having several humps, spanning 15 to 20 feet in length and traveling at tremendous speeds.
“Quite possibly the only way to discover a creature like this, if indeed one exists, is by recording it,” von Muggenthuler said. “Creatures that need to find underwater any sort of food or to navigate in a deep, dark, murky, cold lake would have to use advanced biosonar or echolocation.”
Such communication is used by whales and dolphins to navigate. It’s a highly advanced form of navigation and communication, von Muggenthuler said, and one only used by a few freshwater species.
“When we detected echolocation in Lake Champlain—and Lake Champlain is so old and used to be an inland sea—we recognized that there was something unique,” von Muggenthuler said. “Take into consideration as well that at least 20 beluga whale skeletons from 14,000 years ago have been unearthed intact from the Lake Champlain basin from when it was a sea. Could there be a population of creatures in there? Absolutely.”
Before von Muggenthuler’s research, tales of this beast known as Champ spread throughout the lake area but remained simply that—stories whispered over pints of beer at the local pub. No one had managed to capture the creature on video or camera, and so there was no proof other than hearsay.
“It’s like the U.S. version of the world-famous Loch Ness Monster,” Pailthorpe said in an email. “Sightings go back several hundred years, but there is still no empirical scientific proof that anything out of the ordinary exists there.”
At least until von Muggenthuler came along with her team, bringing scientific equipment and recording the acoustical signals from beneath the waters. Von Muggenthuler said they picked up several creatures of the same description fishermen gave. Judging by the frequency and amplitude of the sounds, von Muggenthuler said the creature is likely related to beluga whales and there is more than one.
“Just like my voice is a different pitch than yours is, we know that we have recorded several different animals,” she said. “It is clearly echolocation. We know by cross-correlation analysis that the creature sounds a lot like beluga whale but is not exact, nor is it exactly killer whale nor exactly dolphin.”
Though von Muggenthuler has seen the creatures herself underwater—describing it as humpy and exhibiting herding behavior—she said her team didn’t manage to capture them on video the last time they were at Lake Champlain. Now, however, technology has caught up, and one of her partners traveled up in October to get video.
The team has already submitted two papers on the discovery, one focusing on the phenomenon as the first lake echolocation in the world and the other exploring the potential for a species to have evolved from a beluga whale into something else entirely after being trapped in a lake for hundreds of years.
“Apart from a couple of species of river dolphins—in Brazil and India—there are no species that live in fresh water, and none in fresh water lakes,” Pailthorpe said in an email about the discovery of an echolocating mammal in Lake Champlain. “We pose the question: Could this sound be being made by a species new to science?”
The nuts and bolts
Tigress Productions is a nature, wildlife and adventure documentary production company based in Britain. Martin Pailthorpe, a producer for the company, has worked for six months throughout the last three years filming marine biologists in widespread corners of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Projects include a special for the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week and an expedition to Mt. Everest.
National Geographic commissions the company to film a particular project, and then Tigress hires freelance workers to do the leg work. For this particular segment on the monster of Lake Champlain, Pailthorpe said he and his crew spoke with a number of people who had seen Champ as well as with a geologist who detailed the formation of the lake.
Elizabeth von Muggenthuler grew up an only child in rural Vermont with nothing but 26 animals to keep her company.
“We had cats, dogs, horses, cows—pretty much you name it,” she said. “I always wanted to know what they were thinking.”
At Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., in 1990, von Muggenthuler discovered that rhinoceros communicate through infrasound, or sounds below the human hearing. This concept has become the center of the scientist’s research as she delves into the various ways animals communicate.
“That [kind] of understanding animal communication was barely in its infancy when I was in college,” she said. “I felt that there was a tremendous need to fill the niche.”
Von Muggenthuler also works as an animal behavioralist, working to help folks with problems they have with their pets.
“I’m a sincere believer in harmony,” she said. “I am a sincere believer in the ability of house pets to help their owner navigate life. If I can stop a giraffe from trampling people, I can help your cat. It all boils down to empathy. Each animal, regardless of what type of animal, has a certain specific way of thinking.”
By Erin Wiltgen
News of Orange staff writer