Where are all the dead sea monsters?

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Better late than never; I was at the office of a London-based publishing company yesterday, so didn't have time to get anything ready before today. I know you'll all forgive me. Anyway... so, how to finish sea monster week? With a predictable and familiar set of images that you've seen a hundred times before? Maybe. Or with a striking photo (or series of photos) that will blow you away in offering hitherto unappreciated, obvious evidence for the reality of giant marine cryptids? Well, I wish...

My original, rather boring plan, was to finish sea monster week (this article is part 5) with a set of photos that you might regard as among the most iconic sea monster images of them all - yet also among the least interesting, if only because they have been well explained on so many occasions. On 25th April 1977, the Japanese trawler Zuiyo-maru accidentally hauled up a 10-m-long vertebrate carcass while about 30 miles off the coast of Christchurch, New Zealand. They didn't want to retain the carcass for fear of contaminating their catch, but it was photographed and a few tissue samples were taken before it was discarded.

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This carcass is known without doubt to have been that of a shark: we can make such a bold proclamation because Kimura et al. (1978) demonstrated the presence of the collagen elastoidin within the carcass's horny fin fibres (called ceratotrichia), and showed that the elastoidin in the carcass was identical in its amino acid composition to that of basking sharks Cetorhinus maximus. The elastoidin in the carcass's fibres also exhibited a microstructure (observed under SEM) identical to that of basking shark elastoidin (Kimura et al. 1978). Case closed. Definitely basking shark. Even some (not all, but some) creationists accept this, urging their like-minded colleagues to STOP STOP STOP pretending that a rotting shark somehow supports the view that evolution doesn't happen. A very thorough account of the entire Zuiyo-maru incident was published by Glen Kuban (Kuban 1997): it's available as a website here and as a pdf here.

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Here we come to the great problem. There probably - in fact, there surely - are large marine vertebrates out there that we have yet to officially recognise, and at least some of them are, hopefully, tetrapods (empirical support for this assertion comes from studies of discovery rates over time: Paxton 1998, 2001, Raynal 2001, Solow & Smith 2005). It's just that we have no good evidence for them at the moment. Well, no evidence beyond the anecdotal anyway. When carcasses are photographed, retained or sampled, they invariably turn out to be rotting cetaceans, sharks, or oarfishes or whatever (yet another example is provided by 'Parkie', the 2002 carcass from Parker's Cove, Nova Scotia. Definitely a basking shark [confirmed by DNA and anatomy], but hypothesised by some to match Heuvelmans's long-necked pinniped, as shown here).

'Those that still seem to defy explanation'

But there are still quite a few reported carcasses that defy explanation: mostly this is because information is deficient, and it's just not possible to come to anything more than a speculative conclusion (Roesch 1997, 1998a, b, 1999). However, it's also because some carcasses really don't match anything we know, and - if real (read on) - almost certainly represent unknown species. Examples include Captain Hanna's bony fish (reported in 1880 from Pemaquid, Maine: this was, reportedly, a 7.6 m long, eel-like ray-finned fish with a large, anteriorly placed dorsal fin), the Vietnamese 'con rit' carcass of 1883 (18 m long, with a segmented carapace, apparently recalling an immense marine millipede), Owen Burnham's Bungalow Beach creature of 1983 (5 m long and recalling a small, short-necked, long-jawed plesiosaur), the Monongahela monster of 1852 (a 15 m long serpentine reptile with short flippers; it was supposedly killed by the whaling vessel Monongahela and preserved, but later lost), and the incredible Margate Beach creature of 1922 (14 m long, covered in snow white fur, and sporting a 1.5 m-long trunk. Reconstruction below, from here).

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Were these creatures real, or were they hoaxes or just very garbled descriptions? We don't know, but most of them are indeed very dodgy and unlikely to be accurate or faithful (Roesch 1997, 1998a, b, 1999), and of those cases where some data exists, that data is not exactly compelling. The two images shown at the very top of this article feature (at top) a weird fat-headed creature depicted on a pre-1914 postcard (discussed extensively at cryptomundo by Loren Coleman, starting here. I am confident that it is not a real animal), and the famous Naden Harbour Cadborosaurus carcass (which I previously discussed at length here on ver 1). These sorts of photos represent the best sort of evidence we have for 'those that still seem to defy explanation'. In other words, I can't say that we can come away from the carcass evidence (such as it is) feeling at all good about the reality of these creatures.

Do unknown large marine animals/vertebrates/tetrapods exist and await discovery? Very probably, yes. Have we got any evidence for them in the form of photographed carcasses, anecdotes or descriptions? Very probably not.

That's essentially where our journey ends, and I'm sorry there isn't some impressive dénouement to all of this. There's one last surprise though: I'll post it tomorrow.

Refs - -

Kimura, S., Fujii, K., Sato, H., Seta, S. & Kubota, M. 1978. The morphology and chemical composition of horny fiber from an unidentified creature captured off the coast of New Zealand. In Sasaki, T., Yasuda, F., Nasu, K. & Taki, Y. (eds) Collected Papers on the carcass of an uidentified animal tralwed off New Zealand by the Zuiyo-maru. La Société franco-japonaise d'océanographie (Tokyo), pp. 67-74.

Kuban, G. J. 1997. Sea-monster or shark? An analysis of a supposed plesiosaur carcass netted in 1977. Reports of the National Center for Science Education 17 (3), 16-28.

Paxton, C. G. M. 1998. A cumulative species description curve for large open water marine animals. Journal of the Marine Biologists Association, U.K. 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. 75-90.

Roesch, B. S. 1997. A review of alleged sea serpent carcasses worldwide (part one - 1648-1880). The Cryptozoology Review 2 (2), 6-27.

- . 1998a. A review of alleged sea serpent carcasses worldwide (part two - 1881-1896). The Cryptozoology Review 2 (3), 25-35.

- . 1998b. A review of alleged sea serpent carcasses worldwide (part three - 1897-1906). The Cryptozoology Review 3 (1), 27-31.

- . 1999. A review of alleged sea serpent carcasses worldwide (part four - 1907-1924). The Cryptozoology Review 3 (3), 15-22.

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.

More like this

This series reminded me of Lyell's 1st volume of A Second Visit to North America. He goes on at some length about "sea serpents," and the purported sightings off New England during the time helped fuel the popularity of Koch's "Hydrarchos." You can see the relevant part of Lyell's book here.

I've been loving this monster series! I'm watching MonsterQuest right now, and it was cool seeing you on the show.

Elastoidin is unique to chondrichthyans: nothing else in nature possesses it.

Access to articles is unusually difficult for me, but there are papers on elastoidin in teleosts and coelacanths. Apparently the protein evolved in cephalochordates and was lost in tetrapods when they gave up having fin rays.

Examples include Captain Hanna's bony fish (reported in 1880 from Pemaquid, Maine: this was, reportedly, a 7.6 m long, eel-like ray-finned fish with a large, anteriorly placed dorsal fin)

The illustration has a profile rather similar to an oarfish...I guess the teeth are problematic though.

Have you seen Wikipedia's version of "trunko"? It really shocks me that people can take the description of a carcass at face value - how the hell does one get elephant feet and feathers from a beaked whale?

Have we got any evidence for them in the form of photographed carcasses, anecdotes or descriptions? Very probably not.

That may be a little on the pessimistic side. There is that statement by personnel at the Smithsonian that the film they reviewed that allegedly portrayed "Chessie", the sea serpent alleged to frequent the Chesapeake Bay, did portray an animal unknown to science. I think there are some interesting items of evidence from pretty good sources scattered here and there...

By sinuous_tanyst… (not verified) on 11 Jul 2008 #permalink

Ohh, is this going to be one of those five (well, six)-day weeks? *Snaps fingers* Maybe I shouldn't have been waiting with such baited breath for today's to go up (make it last, you know)!

Well, regardless, I've really been enjoying this series! I have a terrible soft spot for sea monsters (I'm not sure whether to blame my dinosaur fangirlishness, or the Serendipity books that got presented to me at an adorably-impressionable age, or both). I found out a couple of years ago that we apparently have a local water-beast, the 'Altamahaha'. Never heard of the thing until it showed up in one of Sci-Fi's paranormal programs, but these days I glance to the river every time we go over it. Just in case, you know. Because if I was a sea monster, the well-travelled bridge by the paper mill is exactly where I'd hang out. (Then again, if I was a sea monster, I'd probably get a kick out of screwing with people's heads.)

What happened to all the dead sea monsters?

We process them into Purina Kraken Chow. Kraken are huge beasts (your typical giant squid is dinky in comparison), and it takes a few tons of Purina Kraken Chow to keep them happy. It's also why scientists keep insisting sea monsters don't exist. People knew where to find them the poor things would be hunting to extinction, then you'd have starving kraken roaming up and down coastlines reaching inland a couple thousand feet for brunch. Wouldn't want that to happen.

Especially if they learned about pizza. Something about kraken and pizza. Can't resist the stuff. A shame really, because the combination of dairy products, pork products, and tomato products found in most pepperoni pizza has a gestalt effect on kraken physiology. Kills 'em. It's bad enough the species would go extinct, but we're really not equiped to handle corpses massing petagrams.

So that's what happens to dead sea monsters.

Thanks (I think) to all for comments, much appreciated. I'm glad so many people seem to have gotten a kick out of sea monster week - I'd make it a regular feature if only there were enough images to go round.

Chris: thanks to you, I learnt that the relevant episode of MonsterQuest was screened last week in the US (I've now watched it, thanks to youtube). I'm disappointed they didn't cover more of the evidence I was filmed discussing (particularly the Cupar roe deer carcass), but I'm pleased to see that I come across ok (in contrast to many TV things I've done... cringe).

Cameron: thanks for the news on elastoidin, I've altered the text accordingly. I've read that elastoidin is unique to chondricthyans, but I see now that this isn't correct. Capt Hanna's fish: Roesch (1997: cited above) noted that it most seems to resemble crestfishes (lophotids), which are lampriforms like the oarfishes, but it still differs from known species quite a bit. We're never going to know, but an actinopterygian identify is far more likely than the 'eel-like shark' hypothesis favoured by Heuvelmans and others.

I know the crazy trunko picture on wikipedia well. It's by William Rebsamen (not 'Asmusen' as it currently says on wikipedia): he's a creationist and his illustrations (which are often very good) seem to be particularly literal depictions of the accounts he illustrates. A lot of creationists have gotten involved in cryptozoological research.. make of this what you will, but they are not doing the field any favours (something that other cryptozoologists seem not to be complaining about). Newton says of Rebsamen 'In 2002, Gibbons's website [= William Gibbons, young-earth creationist cryptozoologist, colleague of Kent Hovind] listed Rebsamen as vice president of Creation Generation, a religious organization that carries out cryptozoological expeditions while preaching the dangers of evolutionary theory' (p. 393). Oh, great.

It's by William Rebsamen (not 'Asmusen' as it currently says on wikipedia)

It is immoral to complain about Wikipedia. Go and fix it. :-) (If it's just one word...)

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 12 Jul 2008 #permalink

I do think that "trunko" is almost definately misidentified carcasses of basking sharks, it's just a carcasse in the water that is getting torn apart roughly, giving the appearance of "fighting". Right?

By Tim Morris (not verified) on 13 Jul 2008 #permalink

David: I've learned the hard way not to bother fixing Wikipedia. Anything you fix will be re-scribbled within a few months, particularly if anybody cares about the subject. The damage is as likely to come from a "competent" as from a vandal or one confused. A shame, really. It was an interesting experiment, but it's hard to say what can be learned from it. We already knew (didn't we?) not to trust organization design to someone with narcisstic disorder.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 14 Jul 2008 #permalink

"Narcissistic", that is.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 14 Jul 2008 #permalink

I gave up changing the Eotyrannus article because my additions were repeatedly ruined or removed. I am NOT bad-mouthing wikipedia however as - in principle - I think it's one of the best ideas ever.

Tim Morris.. i like what you wrote.. but for your answer i not sure how a carcass can seem like it's fighting...

I'm Very Open Minded. Especially when it comes to animals and cryptozoology.

I think this creature existed or still does. Have you seen the new remake of "Journey to the Center of the Earth"? Now, I don't know what is in the center or somewhat underneath our cities..etc. But i can assure you that we haven't explored deep in the oceans.. and since animals that live in seas. It's very possible that when we are exploring, they are moving else well. We can't stop creatures from swimming. When we move to another part of the sea, the creatures are either close by or far away swimming or hiding or so...

Lots of people are not familiar with sea creatures by name or by description.. i bet there's lots of people that see any land or water creatures that were thought to be extinct, rare or unknown creatures, that they didn't realize it. They must of thought it was a well known creature..

I have friends that don't even care bout this. In this case i doubt they'll take pictures or what ever they may do if they saw a crypto, dino,..etc. they'd probably stay quiet or not make a big deal about it..

so we may never know what people see (for those who don't care or don't know)

Trunko Does seem awesome, though...

i would love to see one in person or real picture...or caught on tape..

I still say Africa is the only place in my opinion that you can find hundreds of new animals whether their rare, supposedly extinct, or unknown..

i think China and Russia is the other place i say may have lots of findings... why... well i seem to think Africa is big enough and well still unknown and does in fact have lots of animals....I think theirs more animals in Africa then in the united states.. but i can be wrong... cause i think united states and uk as thousands of different birds...

as for China and Russia.. well china is just a weird place to be.. and i think it's still unknown.. and Prussia is big.. and may have unknown, supposedly extinct, rare creatures living their.

in conclusion.. i wouldn't call people Liers for telling their stories, since i wasn't even their to witness it, so i can't say their lying or telling the truth.. but came to a conclusion to believe what they said they saw.

"Even some (not all, but some) creationists accept this, urging their like-minded colleagues to STOP STOP STOP pretending that a rotting shark somehow supports the view that evolution doesn't happen."

I dont understand how Darren or anyone can say that creationist are using "supposed" sea creatures to support creationism???? Or am I just reading this incorrectly?

So, Cameron:
The link that you posted, all it does is argue that the "Zuiyo-Maru carcass" is not a carcass of a Basking Shark.
My question or remark was, how is arguing that the carcass is not that of a shark have anything to do with creationism?
Oh, I get it; you think that just because creationists try to prove that the carcass was something other than a shark a "cryptid" or some such that it will somehow prove of God's existence?
There is nothing on that url linking the disproving of that carcass as a shark to creationism, please show me where it is, because unless I'm blind, I didn?t see any.

A very belated correction to comment 7. Thanks to Karl Shuker, I've learnt that William Asmussen is not a corruption of William Rebsamen, but a wholly independent artist who also produces art depicting cryptozoological subjects. You live and learn. Thanks to Karl for this clarification.

Hi Darren, check out my two most recent blogs on ShukerNature at www.karlshuker.blogspot.com for three hitherto unpublished/unpublicised photographs of the beached Trunko carcase, whose appearance confirms my belief that it was a globsterised whale carcase and not a cryptid.