World's fabled creatures remain elusive as ever

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Science is having little success this year in satisfying the public's wish to know whether mythical animals like the Beast of Bodmin, the Loch Ness monster, the Himalayan Yeti and its "cousin", the North American Bigfoot, exist, writes Charles Arthur.

Yesterday London Zoo admitted that a big cat's skull found in Cornwall came from an Indian leopard that died in the tropics. A few days earlier, 30 Chinese scientists returned from a two-month expedition in northern China trying to prove, or disprove, the existence of the Yeti. They found nothing definite. And since April 1994 a mini-submarine has been taking parties of tourists to depths of 500ft in Loch Ness several times a day. None has yet spotted any dinosaurs.

But this is partly because of the way science works, says Dr Iain Bishop, associate keeper of zoology at the Natural History Museum in London. "You can always prove the existence of something if you have a piece of it," he says. "But you can't prove that it definitely doesn't exist. A colleague says the only way to find Nessie would be to pull the plug out of the loch. Science needs evidence, rather than hope."

Scientists have been embarrassed in the past by being overly keen to accept "fossil" items as real. The most famous error was Piltdown Man, discovered in a gravel pit in Sussex in 1912. It would have been the "missing link" between early man and the present day. But it was exposed as a crude fake in 1953.

Since then researchers into mythical animals have been more careful to make a full examination before committing themselves. Fakes are an occupational hazard. "They don't affect the likelihood of the real thing existing," says Dr Bishop. "They're just an irritation."

However, the excitement about such animals can have its benefits. In seeking funding for a study of nematode worms, Dr Bishop found that it was advantageous to mention that the investigation site would be Loch Ness. "The monster helped us raise some of the money," he explained.