Mew: The Cryptid

Cover of the pitch for Capsule Monsters
The cover of the pitch for Capsule Monsters.

In the original pitch for the Pokémon games (back when it was called Capsule Monsters), Satoshi Tajiri wanted the game to include "illusory monsters", which he defined as "creatures that you won’t necessarily encounter, creatures who will choose not to ally with you, and creatures who you’ll miss the chance to encounter entirely, and thus never be able to catch" which would fuel word-of-mouth hype and encourage use of the trading mechanic. As it turned out, Mew was added to the original game as such an illusory creature that was impossible to encounter during normal gameplay. It makes sense that such an inaccessible creature would be, not just rare, but an in-universe cryptid -- a mysterious creature of rumor that not even Pokémon scientists believe still exists.

So rare that it is still said to be a mirage by many experts. Only a few people have seen it worldwide.
Mew's PokéDex entries Japanese Blue, International Red/Blue, LeafGreen Versions
Mew appearing outside a boy's bedroom window
Nobody believes Hiro's anecdotal account of having seen a Mew fly by his bedroom window, from the literary classic Meet Mew.

A cryptid is a creature that is scientifically thought of as either complete fantasy or as being extinct, despite anecdotal sightings and questionable evidence to the contrary. In the Pokémon World, some people claim to have seen Mew - such as Hiro in Meet Mew and Ash at the end of Mewtwo Strikes Back - but there is not solid proof that would convince every Pokémon Professor. In Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution, Dr. Fuji emphasizes that recent reports of Mew sightings are unconfirmed since "nobody's ever gotten a single good photo of it". In fact, in Pokémon Snap, if Todd even manages to get the opportunity to take a photo of Mew, Mew will try to use its psychic powers to cause the images come out poorly - similar to how photos of bigfoot always seem to wind up being unclear and inconclusive.

Mew from Pokemon Snap
If only Mew would drop its psychic anti-paparazzi forcefield...

According to cryptozoologist George M. Eberhart's classification of the types of cryptids, Mew would be a lingerling, a species known from the fossil record, now thought to be extinct, but with claims of specimens surviving into modern times. Someone in the Pokémon World claiming to have seen a living Mew is like someone in our world claiming to have seen a woolly mammoth.

Mew peeking through a hole in a large leaf in the rainforest
Mew hiding in the rainforest

Hard-to-reach places that have not been fully explored by scientists give a potential plausibility to the existence of such mysterious creatures that just might not have been found yet. In the original Pokémon games, Mew is said to have been found in South America, in the real-world country of Guyana. Guyana has relatively untouched rainforests and unique natural habitats, giving it some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, and it is home to many species that live nowhere else - and many species that are yet to be discovered by science. A common and (somewhat selfish) argument for preserving such rich habitats goes: who knows what major scientific discoveries are being lost to short-sighted human activities that jeopardize their existence. As new species are discovered and studied, many have been found to produce chemicals with potentially important medicinal uses for humans. Perhaps something as scientifically important as the ancestor of all Pokémon, holding in its DNA the secrets of eternal life, could still flit undiscovered through the shadows of such pristine rainforests.

In the The Birth of Mewtwo Audio Drama, Team Rocket operative Miyamoto has sensitive microphones set up in the jungle and does data analysis on the resulting recordings to isolate a cry that she believes belongs to the phantom Pokémon Mew. This method of discovering new species in the Amazon is actually plausible - but unfortunately the results of her research are not available to the scientific community at large; Team Rocket keeps this information secret and uses it to further their own goals.

Professor Willow and Mew
Professor Willow's instruments are detecting the presence of Mew in the area!
Professor Oak surrounded by books.
In Pokémon Go, Professor Oak is said to have "spent a long time studying Mew".

If the Pokémon Professors are ever able to more universally acknowledge that Mew is no mirage, then it would no longer be considered a cryptid. In the real world, creatures that were once believed to be extinct, but are then discovered and confirmed to still be alive (extant), are termed in biology as Lazarus taxa, referencing the biblical story of Lazarus, who died but was brought back to life by Jesus.

The woolly flying squirrel
Look at how big this squirrel is!

A real-world example of a Lazarus taxon that reminds me of Mew is the woolly flying squirrel (Eupetaurus cinereus). This rodent is the largest known member of the squirrel family, with a body length of up to 60cm (about 2 feet), and if you include the tail, it is double that length -- meaning this real-life squirrel is actually bigger than Mew! And yes, despite its size, the woolly flying squirrel can still glide -- for more than 50 meters -- making it also the heaviest known gliding mammal. The woolly flying squirrel lives in frigid caves along the steep cliffs in the dry conifer forest zone of the Himalayas of Pakistan.

As of the 1990s, this squirrel was believed to have gone extinct. The last evidence of its existence, as accepted by the the scientific community, had been in 1924 -- and the evidence before then had been sparse at that, limited to just nine pelts and a few skulls! Yet, locals in the area of Pakistan where the squirrel lives have legends about it: the sound of its scream-like cry is believed to be a herald of death for a loved one, it is said to steal milk from cows, and its feces and crystallized urine are claimed to be the main ingredients of shilajit, a supposed aphrodisiac for sale in local bazaars.

The woolly flying squirrel
The woolly flying squirrel

Two researchers thought maybe the remoteness and relative inaccessibility of the area could simply be the reason scientists had such scant evidence of the woolly flying squirrel, so they took multiple expeditions to track down evidence that this species still existed. They tried setting traps, but, not knowing the preferred diet of the woolly flying squirrel, they had to guess in the dark for what might make tantalizing bait: they tried nuts, honey, grain, but nothing seemed to work. We've since discovered that the woolly flying squirrel eats almost exclusively pine needles, which explains why they didn't have any interest in those other treats. In the end, the researchers spent several months searching the mountains empty-handed before finally talking with locals, who, within six hours, caught them a live female squirrel in a bag. That includes the travel time in both directions. Yep.

Mew appears to Miyamoto
So much time spent searching the mountains...

I find this all strangely parallel to the story of The Birth of Mewtwo CD Drama, which describes how Miyamoto tracked Mew to South America based on the legends and myths of the locals in the area, and how she searched the Andes mountains for years and years in the vain hope of capturing a living Mew. Perhaps she should have taken a lesson from the rediscovery of the woolly flying squirrel and simply asked the locals for help. It probably would have saved a lot of time.

The Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat
The Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat

Another Lazarus taxon I feel I must include in a discussion about Mew is the Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat (Cuscomys oblativus). This cat-sized rodent was first discovered (in the form of two skulls) during a National Geographic expedition to the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in 1912. The expedition had found that the remains of several animals had been buried in graves alongside humans; these animals are thought to have either been the sacrificed pets or livestock for the Incans that they were buried with. The buried animals included dogs, llamas, guinea pigs, and this newly identified rodent species. At the time, the Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat was assumed to have long ago gone extinct since the days when the Inca were keeping them as cute pets (or maybe food).

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is believed to be protected by the mountain Wuayna Picchu, which, from some angles, is said to resemble a puma

However, an extant related rodent (Cuscomys ashaninka) was discovered in Peru in 1997 (the findings published in 1999), which called that assumption into question. After all, like Guyana, Machu Picchu leaves plenty of room for mysteries: it is in a hard-to-reach and rugged area of the Andes, with arid Puna (grassland plateaus) on the western side of the mountains, and dense yungas (high jungle) on the eastern side. This citadel was inaccessible enough that it was untouched by (and likely unknown to) the Spanish conquistadors, who otherwise would have relished the opportunity to plunder the site and deface its sacred rocks, as they had done elsewhere throughout the Incan empire. In fact, the abandoned, overgrown ruin of Machu Picchu was not well-known, except to locals, until 1911.

Because of its ecology and remoteness, the area around Machu Picchu is rich in diversity and not well explored. It is also notable that modern scientists seem to have a particularly tough time catching several animals that the Incans evidently knew how to hunt and capture much more readily, such as the dwarf brocket, the coro-coro, and the mountain paca (the remains of these animals were also found in the graves).

As it turns out, in 2014, the Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat was confirmed to still be alive and well, living in the shadow of the Incan ruins. Just because the scientists walked through the ruins and found the fossil, doesn't mean they were paying enough attention to see the living creature that may have been curiously following them.

Mew watching the explorers in the jungle
A live Mew following the researchers that discovered fossilized evidence of Mew's existence, from Mewtwo's Origin

On the next page, I'll discuss another creature that is like Mew that was erroneously believed to be extinct: the coelacanth. However, the coelacanth has even more similarities with Mew through the idea of being a "living fossil".