Yet again, a waterlogged, partially decomposed mammal carcass has become “an internet sensation” (to quote the popular media), and yet again people are saying it might be a new ‘Montauk monster’, or a Chupacabras, or a relative of Nessie, or Ogopogo, or a baby sasquatch, or some other sort of ungodly monster. The back-story is that the carcass was pulled from the water of Big Trout Lake near the community of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, Ontario, earlier in May this year. It’s a rather small (30 cm total length), dark-brown mammal carcass that’s lacking hair on its face and at least one of its hands.
As we’ve seen so many times before, mammal carcasses often become partially or entirely hairless when submerged in water for a while, and the face is often the first part to start decomposing (due to the orifices there and, I presume, the many active bacteria). Nevertheless, partially naked carcasses always look odd to people who don’t know any better, and local people immediately claimed that the carcass represents some sort of ethnoknown creature called the Omajinaakoos, or ‘The Ugly One’. The media have dubbed it the Kitchenuhmaykoosib monster (yeah, I didn’t read that properly either), the ‘Bald Beast of KI’ (KI = Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug), or just boring old ‘Big Trout Lake Monster’.
I’m all for respecting local, indigenous knowledge, and I’m not doubting the fact that people who make their livings from wild places and wild creatures typically have enormous experience and phenomenal knowledge. But people as a whole are often poorly informed or inexperienced when it comes to some aspects of the natural world, and in this case it’s obvious that… well, it’s obvious that this ain’t no mysterious, semi-legendary creature of the sort that might once have been mentioned by your grandfather.
At the risk of ruining the surprise, we can say at the outset that the carcass is of a mustelid (the weasel family). How do we know it’s a mustelid? The answer that comes to mind is… because it looks exactly like one, but if you need more specific answers: its combination of large, curving canine teeth, short, rather broad snout, bulging, heavily muscled cranium, small, pointed claws borne on thin digits and long, thickly furred tail is unique to this group. It’s definitely a mustelid. All this talk of the carcass being a muskrat or some other rodent is ill-informed nonsense.
But what sort of mustelid is it? If you find a dead, dark brown mustelid near a body of water in North America, it’s either going to be an otter (specifically, a North American river otter Lontra canadensis) or a mink (an American mink Mustela vison). Martens can be eliminated: of the two species that occur in the region, the American marten Martes america has enormous ears and a much slimmer, more pointed snout than the Big Trout Lake animal, while the Fisher M. pennanti is much larger (75 to 120 cm) than the carcass and has proportionally larger hands with stockier digits. So, otter or mink… those are the two contenders: the animal is either one or the other. So, which is it?
Distinguishing minks from otters is ordinarily pretty easy. Otters are often huge compared to mink (as in, a total length of 70-140 cm compared to a total length of c. 30-74 cm), they have longer fur and a glossier, smoother-looking pelt, they have much stubbier digits with obvious webbing, they have a deeper, blunter snout, much smaller ears, and they have an obviously heavier, more muscular, more cylindrical tail. Distinguishing carcasses is not so easy when all you have are photos to go on, however. The Big Trout Lake carcass was about 30 cm long, and because it doesn’t appear from its proportions to be a juvenile animal, mink is – based on this criterion alone – the most likely identification. The fingers appear long, slim and unwebbed. This is also consistent with a mink identification, but a difference from otters isn’t entirely clear-cut here, as the webbing present between otter digits is concealed when the digits are pressed together [manual webbing in Lutra lutra shown here; from Harris (1968)].
The mostly hairless head of the carcass reveals a broad snout. The ears look relatively large with slightly pointed tips (see image above [third down from top]: this definitely shows a large ear). This rules out otter (where the ears are much smaller and rounded) and supports mink. Another detail is particularly useful: the eye is located a short distance posterior to the mystacial pad (the area, richly supplied with nerves, from which the whiskers emerge). If you look at otters, you’ll see that they have particularly short snouts relative to other mustelids, such that the eye is (at its anterior-most corner) just about dorsal to the posterior-most extent of the mystacial pad. In the Big Trout Lake carcass, the eye is in the posterior position and is NOT positioned dorsal to the posterior part of the mystacial pad (rather, the eye is some distance posterior to it), so this piece of evidence also supports a mink identification. We can’t see too much of the teeth, but we can see a large, curved lower canine, a straighter upper canine, and a small, slim upper incisor. There’s nothing special here that might help in identification either way, but all three of these teeth do look less robust that is typical for an otter.
In conclusion, the small size of the specimen, the presence of a typical mustelid snout (and absence of a shortened, otter-style snout) and the presence of relatively large, slightly pointed ears show that the animal is definitely an American mink. As usual, well-informed people have already been saying this. Loren Coleman covered the animal at Cryptomundo on May 23rd, and included the thoughts of biologists Maria Guimarães and James L. Patton, both of whom said it was more likely to be a mink than an otter. If you’ve said mink too, then well done you.
As has also been said by many in both the biological and cryptozoological communities, it’s obvious that – ever since the Montauk Monster craze of 2008 – people now tend to assume that any slightly odd-looking carcass must be some sort of ‘monster’ or, at least, a mystery creature that defies explanation. The fact that these cases continue to capture so much attention shows that there’s still a lot of interest in the interpretation of weird-looking carcasses, but it’s also an interesting phenomenon of the digital age; where people increasingly have cameras, and can quickly share their news via the internet. The big question is: when will someone find, photograph and share images of a REAL monster carcass? For previous articles on ‘monster’ carcasses see…
- Mystery of the Erongo carcass
- Santa Cruz’s duck-billed elephant monster
- What was the Montauk monster?
- England ‘does a Montauk’
- A Russian sea monster carcass is claimed to be that of an ancient ‘archaeocete’ whale
- Identifying that ‘Jaws’ carcass
- The Panamanian Blue Hill Monster (or Cerro Azul Monster)
And for Tet Zoo posts on mustelids see…
Ref – –
Harris, C. J. 1968. Otters: A Study of the Recent Lutrinae. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.