If you know anything about the literature on marine cryptids – or sea monsters, or sea serpents, or whatever – you will know of the Long-necked seal, a hypothetical mega-pinniped proposed by Bernard Heuvelmans (1968) as the explanation for sightings of giant long-necked sea (and lake) monsters. Based on a number of apparently reliable eyewitness reports, Heuvelmans suggested that this new species, which he dubbed Megalotaria longicollis, was a highly specialised otariid (Otariidae is the group that includes sea lions and fur seals). Giant compared to its relatives (4.5-19 m long), with an elongate, flexible neck and two erectile snorkels that are placed dorsally and in front of the small eyes, it is, he proposed, still capable of terrestrial locomotion but is otherwise the most pelagic of all pinnipeds, having essentially severed the ties that link other pinnipeds to land [adjacent reconstruction of Megalotaria longicollis, © Stefano Maugeri].
Heuvelmans wasn’t the first to propose the existence of a giant, long-necked pinniped. Oudemans (1892), in his classic The Great Sea-Serpent, identified ‘the’ sea-serpent (he recognised only a single type) as Megophias megophias, an immense long-necked, long-tailed pinniped belonging to an archaic group (the Longicaudata) that had diverged from all other pinnipeds (grouped together as the Brevicaudata) early on in pinniped evolution [Oudemans's reconstruction of Megophias shown below]. Heuvelmans (1968) was confident that Megophias megophias was a composite creature that combined the traits of several different, distinct giant marine animals (Heuvelmans argued for the presence of nine different types of sea-serpent), and therefore chose to ignore it. Of course, there is the whole debate about whether technical names mean anything at all when given to cryptids: I am of the opinion that they’re worthless given that type specimens are absent, but it remains debated as to whether type specimens are really needed when it comes to publishing official descriptions (Dubois & Nemésio 2007). Some people say they aren’t, but I don’t think this is useful: Heuvelmans’s creatures show why (for previous discussion of this issue see the kipunji article on Tet Zoo ver 1).
As is well known, and as just mentioned, the Long-necked seal was one of just nine types of sea-serpent recognised by Heuvelmans (1968). While, as I’ve said before, there are good reasons for thinking that new large marine vertebrates still await discovery (Paxton 1998, 2001, Raynal 2001, Solow & Smith 2005), Heuvelmans’s scheme has been heavily criticised: Magin (1996) argued that, rather than emerging from an objective, empirical sorting of the evidence, the nine categories that Heuvelmans ended up with were predetermined and subjective, and don’t work when applied to specific cases. I agree (Naish 2001). Some of the ideas that inspired Heuvelmans when he proposed his different sea-serpent identifications are also erroneous: he thought that the armour-plated Many-finned sea-serpent, for example, had inherited its armour from its basilosaurid ancestors, despite the fact that the ‘armour’ of basilosaurids had been discounted by Kellogg (1936). As for giant, long-necked ‘eupelagic’ pinnipeds, it would seem from what we know of pinnipeds that their terrestrial breeding and moulting may be a constraint that prevents them from adapting fully to pelagic life (this idea was hinted at by Trillmich & Trillmich (1984) but hasn’t been elaborated on so far as I know).
Despite these problems, or maybe because of them, the Long-necked seal has been discussed quite a lot in the cryptozoological literature (Costello 1974, Cornes 2001, Coleman & Huyghe 2003, Woodley 2008), although not in the mainstream literature on pinnipeds. Indeed one problem I’d like to see redressed (and, again, I’m repeating myself here) is the fact that discussions and evaluations of cryptids only ever remain in the cryptozoological literature, even when there is plenty of ‘real science’ that can be done as goes evaluating the data. Keeping discussions of cryptids in the ‘grey literature’ perpetuates the cycle in which these alleged creatures are never really objectively assessed. Michael Woodley and I are currently working on a paper about cryptic pinnipeds (intended for a mainstream, peer-reviewed venue). I’ll discuss it in full later on (in theory, when it gets published) but, as you’d expect, it means that I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the cryptozoology of pinnipeds.
And it occurred to me to be the ideal time to bring to attention the fact that a Long-necked seal was described in the literature long prior to the work of Heuvelmans or even Oudemans. Reporting the observations of a Dr Grew on the Long-necked seal observed ‘in diverse countries’, James Parsons (1751) included an illustration [shown above] and description of this pinniped. He described how it was ‘[M]uch slenderer than either of the former [two other pinnipeds were described earlier in the manuscript]; but that, wherein he principally differs, is the length of his neck; for from his nose-end to his fore-feet, and from thence to his tail, are the same measure; as also in that, instead of his fore-feet, he hath rather fins; not having any claws thereon, as have the other kinds. The head and neck of this species are exactly like those of an otter. One of those, which is also now in our musaeum [sic], taken notice of by the same author, has an head shaped like that of a tortoise; less in proportion than that of every other species, with a narrowness of stricture round the neck: the fore-feet of these are five-finger’d, with nails, like the common seal. Their size, as to the utmost growth of an adult, is also very different. That before described, was 7 feet and an half in length; and, being very young, had scarce any teeth at all’ (Parsons 1751, p. 111).
Quite how a pinniped said at first to have a very long neck is then said to have a head and neck ‘exactly like those of an otter’ I’m not sure, and of course it’s not possible to determine whether this ‘long-necked seal’ has anything to do with Heuvelmans’s hypothetical animal of the same name. It’s tempting to assume that it was a confused description of a sea lion but, given that Parsons described a specimen 2.3 m long as a juvenile, it still sounds like an interesting animal that we’d like to know more about. To confuse things further, Parsons also mentioned a specimen which ‘is but 3 feet long, is very thick in proportion, and has a well-grown set of teeth’ (Parsons 1751, p. 112) [adjacent image shows the creature reportedly seen by J. Mackintosh Bell in the Orkneys, in 1919. It is often regarded as one of the best long-necked seal sightings].
The tantalising possibility remains that the larger specimen would have been significant in zoological terms, but given that we lack data on the provenance and fate of the specimens that were described by Parsons, any further comments would be entirely speculative. James Parsons, 1705-1770, was a British physician who studied medicine in Paris and later worked under James Douglas in London. As yet I haven’t done any research on the specimens he studied or wrote about, but this obviously should be done. What happened to his long-necked seal, and what was it?
While I suspect that Parsons’s long-necked seal will be news to many people, I’ve known about it for years and have mentioned it in talks, even including a slide of the illustration that Parsons produced. I first heard of the article from Ben Speers-Roesch back when we were on the editorial board of the now defunct The Cryptozoology Review, and Ben in turn had heard about it from Scott Mardis. He’d encountered the article on microfiche at the University of Vermont. Scott published a popular article in a newspaper but, so far as I know, that’s it in terms of wider attention [adjacent image shows Peter Costello's version of the Long-necked seal (Costello 1974)].
Whatever the answer is on this case, it’s a pretty interesting little mystery.
PS – it’s my birthday tomorrow. Would anyone like to pay for me to go to SVP?
Refs – –
Coleman, L. & Huyghe, P. 2003. The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents, and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep. Tarcher/Penguin, New York.
Cornes, R. 2001. The case for the surreal seal. In Heinselman, C. (ed) Dracontology Special Number 1: Being an Examination of Unknown Aquatic Animals. Craig Heinselman (Francestown, New Hampshire), pp. 39-45.
Costello, P. 1974. In Search of Lake Monsters. Garnstone Press, London.
Dubois, A. & Nemésio, A. 2007. Does nomenclatural availability of nomina of new species or subspecies require the deposition of vouchers in collections? Zootaxa 1409, 1-22.
Heuvelmans, B. 1968. In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. Hill and Wang, New York.
Kellogg, R. 1936. A review of the Archaeoceti. Carnegie Institute of Washington Publication 482, 1-366.
Magin, U. 1996. St George without a dragon: Bernard Heuvelmans and the sea serpent. In Moore, S. (ed) Fortean Studies Volume 3. John Brown Publishing (London), pp. 223-234.
Naish, D. 2001. Sea serpents, seals and coelacanths: an attempt at a holistic approach to the identity of large aquatic cryptids. In Simmons, I. & Quin, M. (eds) Fortean Studies Volume 7. John Brown Publishing (London), pp. 75-94.
Oudemans, C. A. 1892. The Great Sea-Serpent: An Historical and Critical Treatise. Brill, Leiden.
Parsons, J. 1751. A dissertation upon the Class of the Phocae Marinae. Philosophical Transactions 47, 109-122.
Paxton, C. G. M. 1998. A cumulative species description curve for large open water marine animals. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 78, 1389-1391.
– . 2001. Predicting pelagic peculiarities: some thoughts on future discoveries in the open seas. In Heinselman, C. (ed) Dracontology Special Number 1: Being an Examination of Unknown Aquatic Animals. Craig Heinselman (Francestown, New Hampshire), pp. 60-65.
Raynal, M. 2001. Cryptocetology and mathematics: how many cetaceans remain to be discovered? In Heinselman, C. (ed) Dracontology Special Number 1: Being an Examination of Unknown Aquatic Animals. Craig Heinselman (Francestown, New Hampshire), pp. 93-112.
Solow, A. R. & Smith, W. K. 2005. On estimating the number of species from the discovery record. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 272, 285-287.
Trillmich, F. & Trillmich, K. G. K. 1984. The mating systems of pinnipeds and marine iguanas: convergent evolution of polygony. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 21, 209-216.
Woodley, M. A. 2008. In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans. CFZ Press, Bideford.