Every now and again a carcass of a large marine animal washes up on a beach somewhere: local people and journalists identify it as a monster, and all hell breaks loose. Inevitably, the carcass turns out to be a decomposing whale or shark. Typically, it now becomes known that a person who arrived at the scene early on stated exactly this, but, because their conclusion was rather boring, it was ignored – or mentioned only in the very last paragraph of a newspaper article. We’ve looked at this sort of thing before, many times, on Tet Zoo: see the links below.
Last year cryptozoological investigator Richard Freeman told me that his Ukrainian colleague Grigory Panchenko owned new data on a particularly interesting marine mammal carcass from Russia. According to Panchenko, this carcass was that of an extremely unusual cetacean: it not only represented a new species, it was also, apparently, a modern-day archaeocete. ‘Archaeocete’ is the term conventionally used for the stem-whales of the Eocene: a motley assortment of amphibious and aquatic cetaceans that lacked the specialisations of Neoceti (the odontocete + mysticete clade). They varied considerably in body shape and lifestyle. The best known ‘archaeocetes’ are the basilosaurids and the (probably paraphyletic) dorudontids of the Late Eocene, all of which were obligatorily aquatic and with fusiform bodies, strongly reduced hindlimbs, and tail flukes. Uhen (2008) coined the name Pelagiceti for the Basilosauridae + Neoceti clade.
For complex and erroneous reasons, cryptozoologists have long favoured the idea that various stem-whale lineages did not become extinct in the Eocene, but in fact survived to the present. Here we find putative identities behind various modern sea-serpents and so on. This is not taken seriously by palaeontologists (actually, few palaeontologists even know about it) and, whether sea-serpents exist or not, the ‘surviving archaeocete hypothesis’ is, as I said, based on erroneous ideas and lacks supporting evidence [image of the best known ‘archaeocete’, Basilosaurus, shown below. From Naish (2004)].
Anyway, Richard and I were both very interested in this hitherto undiscussed carcass and looked forward to receiving more information. Thanks to Richard, I’ve recently learnt that a written report was produced by Panchenko and Sergei Litvinyuk. Titled ‘Description and tentative identification of a sea animal carcass discovered on Sakhalin Island’, it was published in Russian but, in 1989, was translated into English by Dmitri Bayanov. Richard was good enough to pass on a copy, and here are my thoughts.
The carcass concerned washed ashore at Sakhalin Island, Russia, in 1986. During September of that year it was examined and photographed by Litvinyuk: at the time he was on a geological expedition to the region. The carcass had washed ashore near Gornozavodsk on the coast of the Strait of Tartary, and Litvinyuk concluded that it was that of a beaked whale. Because he identified it as a member of a known species (though the species concerned is not mentioned in the report), he didn’t collect a sample. It was about 8 m long with a smooth, dark integument. Damage to the tail meant that flukes were absent and naked vertebrae were visible. The long, flattened jaws (over one metre long) were beak-like, and were reported to contain teeth. However, the report is somewhat ambiguous on the nature of the teeth. They are described as ‘forming one row’, and said to be straight, conical, rounded in cross-section, and about 10 cm long. It is also stated in the report that ‘one or two pairs’ of closely spaced teeth were present at the very tips of the jaws, and that they ‘resembl[ed] incisors of hoofed mammals’. This is, I think, a pretty big clue to the real identity of the carcass, as we’ll see in a moment.
So what was the Sakhalin Island carcass? For starters, it was, without doubt, that of a cetacean. Panchenko and Litvinyuk argued that such groups as kogiids and delphinids could be excluded from comparison, and I agree. But what about Litvinyuk’s original identification of the carcass as that of a ziphiid, or beaked whale? Based on the apparent presence of a number of teeth in the upper jaws, and of an upper jaw that overhung the lower, the authors concluded that a ziphiid identity could be excluded. They also thought that the presence of a ‘crop’ in the neck excluded a ziphiid identity. By ‘crop’ they were referring to a large convexity in the throat: their use of the term ‘crop’ is rather confusing given that (among tetrapods) crops are unique to birds, and there is no structure in a cetacean, or indeed in any mammal, that can be referred to by this term. Finally, because the large incisor-like teeth were at the tips of the upper jaws, this cetacean must (so the authors argued) have had a premaxillary dentition, and they also noted that this was inconsistent with a ziphiid identification.
The presence of an elongate upper jaw that overhung the lower, of a ‘crop’, and of a premaxillary dentition led the authors to come to a startling conclusion: that the carcass was not that of any known whale species, nor that of a whale belonging to any known ‘family’. It was, they proposed, perhaps a living archaeocete. While they admitted that this conclusion was preliminary, it’s an incredible claim.
Unfortunately, it’s clearly completely wrong. As is obvious from the photos that were taken at the time, the carcass is that of a ziphiid. Furthermore, the distinctive shape of the long, superficially duck-billed jaws shows that it’s clearly a fourtooth whale (Berardius), almost certainly Baird’s beaked whale B. bairdii [see adjacent photo of a Baird’s beaked whale, taken from the Smithsonian’s Beaked Whale Identification Guide, but flipped horizontally for easier comparison]. Here we find the explanation for those ‘incisor-like’ teeth at the front of the jaws. Berardius has four teeth in the lower (not upper!) jaws, two of which are located right at the jaw tips and do look superficially incisor-like. Berardius really is highly distinctive and I’m absolutely certain that the carcass belonged to this animal, and note that this is not, in fact, the first time that a fourtooth whale carcass has been identified as some sort of hitherto unknown, late-surviving prehistoric creature.
What about the discrepancies that led Panchenko and Litvinyuk to come to the archaeocete conclusion? The sad fact is that they interpreted the creature upside down. They described it as lying on its left side which, if you look at the photos, would mean that the shorter jaw is the lower one (whereas it’s actually the upper one), and that the bulging forehead becomes a bulging throat. Oops. I regret to say that I cannot congratulate the authors on a good job. One problem remains however: the authors implied that there were more than the four teeth typically present in Berardius. Given that the only photos I’ve seen show the carcass in the water, given the great ambiguity in their text about the exact number and morphology of the teeth, and given the otherwise convincing evidence that this was a Berardius carcass, I must conclude that this was in error and can be ignored. So, alas, a modern-day stem-whale was definitely not discovered on a Russian beach in 1986 after all. Dammit. Like all crazy ideas, I still wish it were true ?
To be fair however, the authors did say that the archaeocete conclusion was preliminary, and they noted that, if their interpretation was incorrect, then a ziphiid identification was more likely. They noted that, if the carcass was that of a ziphiid, it belonged to a species ‘probably close to, but not identical with, Tasmacetus shepherdi‘, the Shepherd’s or Tasman beaked whale.
What happened to the carcass? After enquiries, Panchenko and Litvinyuk learnt that it had been broken up and used to feed pigs and poultry, and that what remained had been washed away by a storm. That last clause sounds poetic, so I’ll repeat it as I don’t otherwise know how to end this article…. what remained had been washed away by a storm.
UPDATE: here’s a quick sketch I just knocked up for fun.
For other Tet Zoo articles on sea monster carcasses see…
- Santa Cruz’s duck-billed elephant monster
- It had wool, and armour plates, a massive beak, horns, and it smelled veeeeery bad: whatever happened to the Tecolutla monster?
- Where are all the dead sea monsters?
- Skull of the Moore’s Beach monster revealed!
- England ‘does a Montauk’
Refs – –
Naish, D. 2004. Fossils explained 46. Ancient toothed whales. Geology Today 20 (2), 72-77.
Uhen, M. D. 2008. New protocetid whales from Alabama and Mississippi, and a new cetacean clade, Pelagiceti. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 28, 589-593.