Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, or spending all your time on Tet Zoo, you will almost certainly have heard about the ‘Montauk monster’, a mysterious carcass that (apparently) washed up on July 13th at Montauk, Long Island, New York. A good photo of the carcass, showing it in right lateral view and without any reference for scale, surfaced on July 30th and has been all over the internet. Given that I only recently devoted a week of posts to sea monsters, it’s only fitting that I cover this too. I’m pretty sure that I know what it is, and I’m pleased to see that many other people have come to the same conclusions, as demonstrated by the many informed comments that appeared at Cryptomundo and elsewhere last week. So, what is the Montauk monster?
What has caused widespread confusion and speculation is that, while the lower jaw appears to have had a jagged row of pointy teeth, the upper jaw sports a hooked bony beak. This structure has led to the carcass being termed a ‘rodent-like creature with a dinosaur beak’, as an ‘eagle-dog’, and to suggestions that it might be the carcass of a turtle that had lost its shell. Because these suggestions are all, to put it mildly, a tad unlikely, there have also been murmurings of a hoax or viral ad campaign. A ‘graphics expert’ at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted that, if it is a fake, it’s a very good Photoshop job, and the fact that the carcass became involved in a sort of marketing campaign for a soft drink hasn’t really helped in the credibility stakes (it is, however, pretty obvious that this was a case of opportunistic advertising). Rather more realistic (given the presence of fur and small, clawed hand digits) is the suggestion that it’s a dog.
The body is stocky and robust and the limbs are slender and gracile. The digits on the hands are slim, elongate and with small, relatively straight, pale-coloured claws. The slim tail is about equal in length to the head and neck combined. The face is short and it looks like the postorbital part of the skull is long and bulky. While no teeth at all are visible in the upper jaw, the lower jaw clearly contains a large pointed canine and four post-canines with tall, conical cusps. These teeth increase in size posteriorly.
Taphonomy in action
This is clearly a dead mammal, and its large canine and sharply cusped post-canine teeth show that it’s a carnivoran. The two details that make the carcass look odd – the lack of hair over most of the carcass and the supposed beak in the upper jaw – are clearly taphonomic artifacts. For years I kept watch on the dead things that washed up at a small stretch of tidal river bank in Southampton [shown in the adjacent image], and on several occasions I got to watch taphonomy in action as dead dogs, cats and foxes washed up and decomposed over the following weeks [the bottom image here shows a decomposing cat, partially buried in the beach sediment]. One of the first things that happens to bodies that roll around in the water is that their fur comes off, and they look grotesque, hair-less and bloated. The facial tissues then decompose, leaving a defleshed snout and eventually a totally defleshed skull. At the same time, the skin on the hands and feet is lost. Yet the body remains intact. Unfortunately I never took photos demonstrating this sequence of events (these observations were made while I was working on taphonomy for a book that never happened: for more on that particularly unfortunate episode go here).
The Montauk monster therefore owes its bizarre appearance to partial decomposition. The tendency for the soft tissues of the snout to be lost early on in decomposition immediately indicates that the ‘beak’ is just a defleshed snout region: we’re actually seeing the naked premaxillary bones. And this is confirmed by new photos which show without doubt that this is the case (oh well, so much for the eagle-dog hypothesis).
Is the carcass that of a dog? Dogs have an inflated frontal region that gives them a pronounced bony brow or forehead, and in contrast the Montauk monster’s head seems smoothly convex. As many people have now noticed, there is a much better match: Raccoon Procyon lotor. It was the digits of the hands that gave this away for me: the Montauk carcass has very strange, elongate, almost human-like fingers with short claws. Given that we’re clearly dealing with a North American carnivoran, raccoon is the obvious choice: raccoons are well known for having particularly dextrous fingers that lack the sort of interdigital webbing normally present in carnivorans (Lotze & Anderson 1979). As you can see from the composite image shown here, the match for a raccoon is perfect once we compare the dentition and proportions. The Montauk animal has lost its upper canines and incisors (you can even see the empty sockets), and if you’re surprised by the length of the Montauk animal’s limbs, note that – like a lot of mammals we ordinarily assume to be relatively short-legged – raccoons are actually surprisingly leggy (claims that the limb proportions of the Montauk carcass are unlike those of raccoons are not correct).
Like all of these sorts of mysteries, this one was fun while it lasted, but the photos that really clinched it for a lot of people weren’t (so far as I can tell) released on the same day as the initial, tantalizing mystery photo (the one shown at the very top). And I don’t mind this sort of thing too much: we get to see a lot of dumbass speculation, sure, but the immense interest that these stories generate show that people – even those not particularly interested in zoology or natural history – have a boundless appetite for mystery animals. If only there were some clever way of better utilizing this fascination.
Refs – –
Lotze, J.-H. & Anderson, S. 1979. Procyon lotor. Mammalian Species 119, 1-8.