Tetrapod Zoology

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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’.

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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.

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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?

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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)].

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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 GuimarĂ£es 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.

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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…

And for Tet Zoo posts on mustelids see…

Ref – -

Harris, C. J. 1968. Otters: A Study of the Recent Lutrinae. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.

Comments

  1. #1 Hubert J. Wickeraad M.D.
    May 27, 2010

    I think it might actually be a small, aquatic gorgonopsid.

  2. #2 Cameron
    May 27, 2010

    compared to a total length of 30 cm

    Mink total length can reach 74 cm – link

    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

    I recall a pre-Montauk carcass that washed up in Rhode Island (only a few miles from Montauk…) in an identical state to the Ataka carcass – and nobody thought twice about the Humpback Whale ID. I wonder what would happen today.

  3. #3 unamused
    May 27, 2010

    First glance I assumed it was an otter, but your breakdown of the features is pretty conclusive. Nice detective work, sir.

    One other reason that these partially denuded carcasses are getting such nationwide coverage is simply that most people from first world, developed nations never see any animal at all in the wild, let alone after it’s been dead and worked on by natural processes for a week or two.

    Apart from domestic animals and the few critters that have made a home near cities, most people have no idea at all beyond Disney cartoons what wildlife looks like, and being presented with a slightly odd photo like the one above (which is no Montauk Monster in terms of weird looks) their first conclusion is that it’s got to be something unnatural. We’ll be seeing more of this (like the mangy fox carcasses being put forth as ‘chupacabras’) as people continue to become disconnected from the natural world.

  4. #4 ewe-man
    May 28, 2010

    Yeah, I am in a field where I handle a lot of recently (and not-so-recently) deceased carnivores, and I was like ‘oh, underwater mink/otter/giant weasel or something similar.’ (I am particularly, and unfortunately, familiar with the way furry mammals tend to become a bit denuded when submerged.)

    I agree with the comment that many people today don’t have a concrete understanding of what happens to a creature’s remains after death.

  5. #5 Dartian
    May 28, 2010

    The fingers appear long, slim and unwebbed.

    Indeed, and overall the forelimb seems rather too delicate to belong to an otter. And what’s left of the fur of ‘Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug’ also looks very mink-like.

    Incidentally, for the sake of comparison, here you can get a glimpse of what a dead otter (a Eurasian otter Lutra lutra from the UK, to be precise) might look like after having been submerged for some days.

  6. #6 Stu of the Peak
    May 28, 2010

    Looks like a juvenille Merhorse to me.

  7. #7 Andreas Johansson
    May 28, 2010

    There’s clearly something wrong with my online habits – I mostly encounter these “internet sensations” way late and in the form of reasoned commentary and explanation by killjoys ( ;) ) who point out that the emperor is a dead mink.

  8. #8 DK Fennell
    May 28, 2010

    I saw an article on this beast in the MSM which called it Neovison vison. I now see you call the American mink Mustela vison. So I had to look it up. Sure enough, my copy of Walker on Mammals (which is not the latest edition, it’s the 1983 edition, that’s how damned old I am) uses Mustela. So I noodled around the net a little bit to see where the MSM went off the deep end. I came across this page from a Bucknell University site:

    http://www.bucknell.edu/msw3/browse.asp?id=14001482

    It argues that vison does not belong to Mustela and that incuding it would make Mustela paraphyletic. I don’t have access to the papers cited without traveling a bit, but I thought I’d let you see it in case you wanted to comment.

  9. #9 David
    May 28, 2010

    Darren,

    I was almost starting to worry you weren’t going to cover cryptids (or so called cryptids) anymore when you skipped over the “Oriental Yeti”. Do they have to be watterlogged before you’ll cover them here on Tet Zoo?

    Thanks for the informative post. Now I can, once again, sleep at night with the lights off.

  10. #10 Cale
    May 28, 2010

    I for one find this kind of thing completely depressing. On Wikipedia, the article for ‘The Real World (Reality Show)’ is like, twice or three times as long (I can’t remember exactly) as their article on ‘The World’ (as in the Planet we frickin live on).

    We live in a world where people care more about trivial, imaginary, pop-culture bullshit than the actual living world around them.

    *gets off soapbox*

    BTW I too thought ‘Otter’ at first. probably cause it’s obviously a mustelid, and was found in the water. Nice forensic work.

  11. #11 Tamara Henson
    May 28, 2010

    My first thought upon seeing the first picture was “Oh for Heavens sake its just an otter”. Well I was wrong – its a mink but at least I realized it was just a dead mustilid and not the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot! Honestly what are the media smoking?

  12. #12 Allen Hazen
    May 28, 2010

    Very nice, very informative discussion, with the reasoning set out very clearly: I think this post could serve as a textbook example of how these things SHOULD be approached!

    The small (less than 300cm) size does suggest that it isn’t (even a juvenile of) Heuvelmans’s “Super Otter,” but then, heuvelmans’s description isn’t detailed enough when it comes to things like the position of the eye relative to the mystacial pad in the Super Otter. ;-)

  13. #13 Darren Naish
    May 29, 2010

    Thanks to all for comments, as usual. I was particularly interested in DK Fennell’s comment (# 8) on the phylogenetic position of the American mink and the use of the newish generic name Neovison Baryshnikov & Abramov, 1997 (this name doesn’t seem to be at all well known: I note that it’s missing from McKenna & Bell). The notion that vison represents a distinct lineage within Mustela sensu lato – and that it’s not at all close to the European mink M. lutreola – is not at all new: Youngman (1982) showed vison to be outside of a clade that included the ‘putorius group’, ‘lutreola group’ and ‘mustela group’ (note that the monophyly of these groups is debatable). Other studies have reported similar results (Bininda-Emonds et al. 1999).

    But given that vison is still part of Mustela sensu lato – or, at least, is the sister-taxon to a clade that includes all species conventionally included in Mustela, I’m not convinced that separation is warranted, nor is it clear that the inclusion of this species within Mustela sensu lato somehow makes Mustela paraphyletic. On the other hand, giving a name to the clade that includes all members of Mustela sensu lato excepting vison might be useful. Remember that ‘genera’ are just clades (or, they should be), so there’s no reason why we can’t have named clades within those clades typically regarded as ‘genera’.

    Refs – -

    Bininda-Emonds, O. R. P., Gittleman, J. L. & Purvis, A. 1999. Building large trees by combining phylogenetic information: a complete phylogeny of the extant Carnivora (Mammalia). Biological Reviews 74, 143-175.

    Youngman, P. M. 1982. Distribution and systematics of the European mink Mustela lutreola Linnaeus 1761. Acta Zoologica Fennica 166, 1-48.

  14. #14 Darren Naish
    May 29, 2010

    Allen (comment 12): entirely coincidentally, Heuvelmans (1969) did – at least once – use a very similar feature in his reasoning. One of the ‘best’ sea monster accounts of all time concerns the creature Maede-Waldo and Nichol reportedly saw off the Brazilian coast in 1905 (Maede-Waldo & Nichol 1906). In their sketch, they showed the mouth extending only as far posteriorly as the eye: Heuvelmans (1969) argued that this is a mammalian characteristic, and that the mouth always extends further back in reptiles. I’m not saying he was right… I’m just saying that this is what he said.

    Refs – -

    Heuvelmans, B. 1969. In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. Hill and Wang, New York.

    Maede-Waldo, E. G. B. & Nicoll, M. J. 1906. Description of an unknown animal seen at sea off the coast of Brazil. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 2 (1906), 719-721.

  15. #15 Laurie
    May 29, 2010

    Hi Darren,

    Thankyou for this. One point I’ve made in discussing this in favor of a mink identification, is the pink nose. A pink nose seems much more readily seen in minks.

    Laurie

  16. #16 Anthony Docimo
    May 30, 2010

    based purely on the topmost image, it looks like an otter doing its impression of a manatee.

  17. #17 cgauthier
    May 30, 2010

    “Hey, nice marmot…”

  18. #18 yogi-one
    May 31, 2010

    dang…it’s not proof of aliens!

  19. #19 John Scanlon FCD
    May 31, 2010

    Here’s a recent mammal thread, so this must be the place to drop off a link to a BBC story (with video) on Solenodon. I had no idea they were ‘rabbit-sized’.
    And I’m deeply ashamed that none of Australia’s mammals have a venomous bite (I haven’t forgotten the platypus, but they don’t even have teeth anymore). Maybe we should trial Solenodon for Cane Toad control?

  20. #20 Dartian
    June 1, 2010

    John:

    Maybe we should trial Solenodon for Cane Toad control?

    A nice idea, but the presence of Solenodon does not seem to have prevented the cane toad from establishing itself on the island of Hispaniola (the cane toad has been introduced there too).

  21. #21 Boesse
    June 2, 2010

    @cgauthier: awesome.

    Sorry, but the words “trout” and “monster” in the same sentence conjure images of one eyed trouser trout, and my dad’s personal favorite term, ‘sewer trout’.

  22. #22 Helen Krummenacker
    June 4, 2010

    I didn’t guess badly for an amateur. My first thought on seeing it was “It’s an otter.” I’ve never seen a mink or river otter up close, but there are a lot of sea otters around here and the proportions were close enough to make think of it. The size was off, but I didn’t know what a juvenile would look like.

  23. #23 David N. Brown
    June 4, 2010

    Some “cryptids” reportedly seen alive are relatively small and resemble otters, like bunyip and “Stellar’s Sea Ape”. So, saying it’s a dead mustelid doesn’t remove a carcass as an object of interest to serious cryptozoologists.

  24. #24 Tamara Henson
    June 9, 2010

    Yes there are some otter-like cryptids but they are not from Ontario USA – home of the river otter, the fisher and the mink – all of which make more sense than a long lost Australian bunyip(which by the way has long been identified as a leopard seal). As for Steller’s sea ape it may have actually have BEEN an otter considering that the sea otter is still found throughout the western coast of North America from California to Alaska! Personally I think it was a bearded seal, as they have very small flippers, whiskers like a “chinaman” and according to National Geographic’s field guide to marine mammals they occasionally have prominent bumps over the ears.

  25. #25 Abbey Elliott
    January 31, 2011

    Um I live in Wausau, WI and that looks like a Muskrat to me…. I’ve seen them a bunch of times even hooked one once when I was ice fishing… What ever it is nothing new.

  26. #26 Dartian
    February 1, 2011

    Abbey:

    that looks like a Muskrat to me

    Look again. It can’t be a muskrat; muskrats are rodents, and rodents have gnawing teeth. That animal has teeth like a carnivore. As Darren has explained in the main post, it’s a mink.

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