Finding phantoms in the forest


Jan 22, 2007
Southern NJ
Finding phantoms in the forest
Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Is there something new to the woods of the Garden State -- or has it always been this way? Horrific, guttural cries that sound like an elderly woman screaming in the middle of the night are being heard. Chickens and cats are being mysteriously killed. Since time immemorial, sightings of weird, unidentified creatures have persisted in New Jersey. For much of the past 200 years, this type of havoc would have certainly been associated with the legendary Jersey Devil.

Rumored to inhabit remote forest regions of the Pine Barrens, the Jersey Devil is said to resemble a gruesome cross between a bat, a horse and a kangaroo. Possibly the best description yet comes from Bruce Springsteen's epic song "A Night with the Jersey Devil": "Ram's head, forked tail, clove hoof, loves my trail," The Boss roars, dressed as an 18th-century preacher, in his recent video.

Local folklore recounts that a woman known only as Mrs. Leeds cursed her unwanted 13th child on a fateful night in 1735 near Burlington, giving rise to the Jersey Devil. In fact, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the most frantic burst of Jersey Devil sightings in recorded history, as reported by the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in January 1909.

Lately, the unusual reports have been attributed to the return of the carnivorous, nocturnal mammal known as the fisher. Fishers are a type of weasel with the ability to climb trees and even kill porcupines. Eliminated, along with wolves and cougars, from New Jersey by the late 1800s due to unregulated hunting and deforestation, fishers have been reported once again in the northwestern portion of the state.

Just as with the frenetic Jersey Devil sightings of 1909, a flurry of fisher sightings occurred in Hopewell Township in 2007. During this time, numerous townspeople connected ungodly cries in the night to fishers, but these sounds are most likely made by cats or birds of some sort.

I investigated the matter by setting up remote motion-sensitive cameras and conducting track surveys in various locations throughout the Sourland Mountains. The presence of deer, raccoons, house cats and coyotes was verified, but not a single fisher -- or Jersey Devil. However, the absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence.

So what, then, is the reality behind all of these strange sightings and sounds? Over the years, various explanations have been postulated for these reports, including: bobcats fighting, hoaxes unfolding, sandhill cranes mating, escaped cougars cavorting, mutant experimental animals rampaging or mass hallucinations occurring.

One of the most plausible explanations for the Jersey Devil sightings is the hammer-headed fruit bat. With a wingspan of up to three feet, this native central-African mammal -- scientific name Hypsignathus monstrosus -- may have been unwittingly transported to New Jersey during colonial times or later, just like many invasive species. The hammer-headed bat has even been documented feasting on the blood of live chickens. With a description as diabolical as this, there would be no need to invoke supernatural causes to resolve some Jersey Devil sightings.

But there may also be innate factors deep within the human psyche causing us to believe we're encountering terrifying creatures such as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. These uneasy thoughts may be related to subconscious instincts that once guided primitive humans before the formation of organized societies.

Fortunately, modern science and technology have assisted us in understanding these demons of the wild. Remote camera traps, GPS units and high-resolution digital cameras have enabled the general public to effectively search for rare wildlife. However, technology alone can never replace direct field experience such as wildlife tracking, observation and habitat assessment, essential to any naturalist's repertoire.

The possibility of discovering unknown or rare animals like fishers or cougars right in our own back yard has an inherent intrigue that reinforces our sense of wonder about the natural world and urges us to explore our environment. As a result, citizen scientists are now ready to undertake the near-mythical quest to discover the phantoms in the forest.

For example, citizen-scientist reports from areas of suitable habitat near Hampton, Montague and Frelinghuysen have yielded critical insight into the status of fishers.

Future research efforts among the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, conservation organizations and universities should enlist the help of citizen scientists to document endangered or hypothetical species. A new era has dawned in which the general public, equipped with modern technology, can assist in improving statewide conservation measures. Whether searching for mythical creatures or elusive carnivores, citizens from Cape May to High Point can now join forces with professionals to unravel the mysteries of the deep Jersey wilderness and, in the process, help protect what's left of it.

Charles Kontos is a wildlife biologist from Rutgers University, specializing in carnivore research and conservation. He can be contacted at