England 'does a Montauk'

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Last year the blogosphere and global media went nuts over the 'Montauk monster'. A small mammal corpse that washed up on the beach at Long Island, New York, it was not an alien, government experiment, or sea-monster, as widely claimed by idiots worldwide, but - without doubt - a dead, rotten raccoon. This month a vaguely similar sort of thing is happening, though this time there is less hype. And, for me, the corpse is closer to home, having been discovered on Croyde Beach in Devon, southern England [its skull is shown at left]. The Croyde carcass made several national newspapers, including The Daily Mail and that most reliable of sources, The Sun.

Here we come to an example of journalism at its best (read: worst). Croyde Beach is in north Devon and not too far from Exmoor. The corpse belonged to an animal that was dark in colour and had big pointed teeth (see photos). Add two and two, make five, and you have journalists claiming that the carcass might be 'the beast of Exmoor'. Yes, the 'beast of Exmoor', a label more usually associated with the big, often black cats that people see in and around the Exmoor region. Big, non-native felids definitely do prowl around the English countryside*, but what the hell does this carcass have to do with them? Nothing: it is clearly not a cat carcass. To be fair, however, the claim that it might be a big cat carcass had been made by people that had been on the scene, mostly notably a police sergeant who noted that the carcass 'certainly looks quite beast-like'. Yeah, good work there sparky.

* Those lamenting the conspicuous absence of British big cat data from the peer-reviewed literature might be interested in seeing Coard (2007). Jonathan McGowan and I have been working slowly on putting together technical articles that discuss scat, trackway, feeding sign, hair and DNA evidence. Unfortunately we just haven't yet had time to complete these: I am, after all, so very lazy.

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By now you should have guessed from the photos and circumstances of discovery (viz, a BEACH) what the corpse really was. For starters, the presence of flippers and rather homodont, pointed tooth cusps demonstrate that this is a pinniped. Two pinniped species occur around the British coasts: the Harbour or Common seal Phoca vitulina and the Grey seal Halichoerus grypus. On occasion, we also get stray walruses Odobenus rosmarus, Hooded seals Cystophora cristata, Bearded seals Erignathus barbatus, Harp seals P. groenlandica, and Ringed seals P. hispida. By looking at photos of the Croyde Beach animal's skull, most people had concluded by the end of last week that the carcass belonged to one of these species, and specifically to a Grey seal. This was, admittedly, mentioned in both the Daily Mail and Sun articles, and was also mooted as the most likely identification by Loren Coleman at Cryptomundo [Sun article shown here. Note the little section at centre-bottom: they suggest that the carcass might either be (1) a dead pinniped, (2) a big cat, (3) a mermaid, or (4) a xenomorph].

However, a rather more interesting possibility was also mentioned here and there: namely, that the carcass was not from a phocid, but an otariid. Otariids, the fur seals and sea lions, don't occur in the North Atlantic (nor in the seas attached to it), and so far as we know they never have* (Ray 1976, Wynen et al. 2001, Deméré et al. 2003). But... escaped or released otariids have, on occasion, been present in the area. Gunter (1968) reported that feral Californian sea lions Zalophus californianus were present off the Gulf Coast of Texas (these animals might explain some sightings of the almost certainly extinct Caribbean monk seal Monachus tropicalis). In 2005, several Californian sea lions lived in the wild off the coast of Mississippi following the destruction of the Marine Life Oceanarium at Gulfport by Hurricane Katrina. The shores of Dominica were briefly visited by another escapee following the passage of Hurricane Omar in October 2008, and escaped sea lions have also been reported from the Mediterranean on occasion. Most bizarrely, a Steller's sea lion Eumetopias jubatus lived off the Brisons (a group of small islands of the coast of Cornwall) during the 1980s. It was presumably released (the species is native to the North Pacific), but no-one knows by whom (nor what happened to it).

* The Southern sea lion Otaria byronia, South American fur seal Arctocephalus australis, Subantarctic fur seal A. tropicalis and South African fur seal A. pusillus all occur in the South Atlantic.

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I became particularly interested at this point. Devon is home not only to Exmoor, big black cats, and assorted other sundry beasts, but also to the Centre for Fortean Zoology, a research group who investigate (and publish extensively on) mystery animals. They decided to investigate the Croyde Beach carcass and, having obtained permission from the land-owner, were allowed to remove the head and one flipper. Amusingly, The Sun and a few other sources now reported that parts of the carcass had - shock horror - been stolen. Anyway, thanks to Jon Downes at the CFZ I was able to obtain many excellent photos of the recovered skull and flipper, some of which you can see here [adjacent photo of skull, © CFZ].

Is it an otariid? Disappointingly, no. In otariids, the nasals only extend to the anterior margin of the orbit: in phocids, the nasals extend much further posteriorly (King 1983). Furthermore, otariids have bony lumps on the frontals (termed the supraorbital processes) that project over the orbits. Phocids lack these. The Croyde Beach skull has posteriorly extending nasals and no supraorbital processes. It is thus definitely a phocid (= earless seal).

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How much further can we go? The nasal bones are short in the specimen (compared to those of other phocids like the Harbour seal) and well retracted posteriorly, hardly overhanging the narial basin. The nasal opening itself has parallel margins, whereas these are laterally concave in Harbour seals and many other phocids. The nasal cavity of the Croyde Beach skull is very deep, giving the anterior margin of the snout a steep, sawn-off look, and the fronto-nasal region of the skull is very tall compared to that of most other phocids (only grey seals Halichoerus, hooded seals Cystophora and elephant seals Mirounga have a tall fronto-nasal region like this) [see adjacent photo, © CFZ].

This combination of characters - the short, retracted nasal bones, the tall, wide, parallel-side nasal cavity, and the tall fronto-nasal region - are all absolutely characteristic of the unique Halichoerus grypus, the Grey seal.

Case closed: the carcass is definitely that of a Grey seal.

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While I'm here: those of you that know a bit about mammals and about osteology will have noted that the above-listed features (short, retracted nasals and big, deep nasal cavity) are typically interpreted as evidence for a proboscis, or at least for some sort of inflatable nasal structure. In fact King (1972) noted how the osteology of Halichoerus 'suggests it "ought" to have a nasal sac' (p. 105). Yet Halichoerus has none of this [adjacent image from here]. Oh great, another cautionary tale for palaeontologists. As it happens, I want to talk about weird soft-tissue nasal structures some time soonish - - have been planning to do so since last July...

For other pinniped articles on Tet Zoo see Sea lions really are quite impressive, The Long-necked seal and (on ver 1) Swan-necked seals and The most inconvenient seal.

Refs - -

Coard, R. 2007. Ascertaining an agent: using tooth pit data to determine the carnivores responsible for predation in cases of suspected big cat kills. Journal of Archaeological Science 34, 1677-1684.

Deméré, T. A., Berta, A. & Adam, P. J. 2003. Pinnipedimorph evolutionary biogeography. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 279, 32-76.

Gunter, G. 1968. The status of seals in the Gulf of Mexico, with a record of feral otariid seals off the United States Gulf coast. Gulf Research Reports 2, 301-308.

King, J. E. 1972. Observations on phocid skulls. In Harrison, R. J. (ed) Functional Anatomy of Marine Mammals. Academic Press (London & NY), pp. 81-115.

- . 1983. Seals of the World. British Museum (Natural History), London.

Ray, C. E. 1976. Geography of phocid evolution. Systematic Zoology 25, 391-406.

Wynen, L. P., Goldsworthy, S. D., Insley, S. J., Adams, M., Bickham, J. W., Francis, J., Pablo Gallo, J., Rus Hoelzel, A., Majluf, P., White, R. W. G. & Slade, R. 2001. Phylogenetic relationships within the eared seals (Otariidae: Carnivora): implications for the historical biogeography of the family. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 21, 270-284.

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The Croyde carcass made several national newspapers, including The Daily Mail and that most reliable of sources, The Sun.

For those Tet Zoo readers not familiar with UK newspaper target demographics: 'The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country', while 'Sun readers don't care what species it is, as long as it's got big tits.' (Both quotes are from one of my favourite sitcoms; the latter quote is slightly paraphrased.)

Otariids, the fur seals and sea lions, don't occur in the North Atlantic (nor in the seas attached to it), and so far as we know they never have

The absence of otariids from the North Atlantic really is puzzling, isn't it? But whatever the reason for this absence, could it perhaps explain a certain aspect of grey seal reproductive biology?

The grey seal, a North Atlantic endemic, differs behaviourally from its closest phocid relatives (Phoca sensu lato) in having a harem system, like the otariids. Is this only a coincidence or does the absence of eared seals from the North Atlantic have anything to do with it? (Yes, I know that the phocid elephant seals Mirounga have a harem system too, but they are more distantly related to the grey seal and, besides, are also absent from the North Atlantic.)

One of these days I am going to get around to linking a good quality, infrared-sensitive camera to a small Linux-capable computer, and make the whole ensemble capable of running a motion-sensitive video recording system, and possibly stick a wifi stack into it as well so I don't need to go near the unit once it is set up.

That sort of system would give a reasonable chance of filming some of these elusive British big cats in the wild; actual, proper motion pictures complete with some casually-placed sticks of a known length scattered in front of the camera at varying distances so we can actually see how big the beastie is from reference to known-lengths, not just by guesswork.

By Dr Dan H. (not verified) on 12 Jan 2009 #permalink

Is there a "cradle of otariid evolution"? I've always assumed they originated in the pacific and simply never made it as far round as the north atlantic (an assumption which is almost certainly wrong) which by then would involve establishing themselves first in territories with a number of other pinnipeds already in occupation (not that this would necessarily stop them).

On the topic of sealions/caribbean monk seals we are slap bang in CMS territory and have recently had a band of escapee sealions hanging around. Don't be surprised if we get a few new CMS sightings coming in from this/last year.

Also given recent posts have discussed grey seals and gulls I hope it won't be considered too blogwhorish to point those interested in both to this old post of mine:
http://tai-haku.blogspot.com/2007/11/seashore-midwivery.html

Great photos, tai haku. But I suspect that that situation would have become more grim had the seal pup not had its mother nearby. Large gulls, particularly great black-backed Larus marinus (Redman et al. 2001) and glaucous gulls L. hyperboreus (Lydersen & Smith 1989), are perfectly capable of killing newborn seal pups. They kill them by picking their eyes out. (Gulls, together with ducks and pelicans, are among my favourite birds, but I must admit that they can be quite nasty predators on occasion.)

References:

Lydersen, C. & Smith, T.G. 1989. Avian predation on ringed seal Phoca hispida pups. Polar Biology 9, 489-490.

Redman, P., Pomeroy, P.P. & Twiss, S.D. 2001. Grey seal maternal attendance patterns are affected by water availability on North Rona, Scotland. Canadian Journal of Zoology 79, 1073-1079.

tai haku:

Is there a "cradle of otariid evolution"? I've always assumed they originated in the pacific and simply never made it as far round as the north atlantic

Forgot to comment on this... Yes, in all likelihood, otariids originated in the (North) Pacific. But the walruses originated there too, AFAIK, and they managed to find their way to the Atlantic. So whatever the reason(s) for the otariid absence in the North Atlantic, it's more likely ecological rather than geographical.

It is always sad to see how media can be sensationalist instead of looking for a more parsimonious or credulous answer.

In terms of recent sightings of Monachus tropicalis these can also be attributed to stranded hooded seals, Cystophora cristata (Mignucci-Giannoni & Odell, 2001).

No Montauk in Puerto Rico yet, our cryptids sightings and killings are mostly attributed to the chupacabras. Except for last month when a big fuzz about sightings of a big black cat was made by the media. This presumed panther was supposedly spotted somewhere near the capital and had eaten someone's pet sheep. The secretary of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources had traps and cameras set up in the area of the sightings with no success. After several weeks in the media and a party by some people who did not took this seriously, everything went quiet and the traps removed.

Mignucci-Giannoni, A. A. & D. K. Odell. 2001. Tropical and subtropical records of hooded seals (Cystophora cristata) dispel the myth of extant Caribbean monk seals (Monachus tropicalis). Bulletin of Marine Science 68(1):47-58. Free PDF

If the sun says it has razor-teeth, it must be *Nanocuris*;-)

A meeeeermaid! With those teeth!!! :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D Would be sooo cool if that were true. :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D

What is a xenomorph, and who invented that word?

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 12 Jan 2009 #permalink

What is a xenomorph

Huh. Ripley and Jones (the cat) would be spinning in their graves.

ps - not to be confused with xenopodinomorph :)

Ah, I wondered if you'd pick this one up.

A bit odd the two policemen (presumably locals) didn't think 'dead seal' straight off. I wondr if they were 'selectively quoted' by the media...?

After all, a seal _is_ a beast. At least they realised it was not a bird.

"No Montauk in Puerto Rico yet, our cryptids sightings and killings are mostly attributed to the chupacabras. Except for last month when a big fuzz about sightings of a big black cat was made by the media."

There was some hubub in 2005 about a chupacabra that was discovered in New Mexico. The local news even did a two part investigation where the discoverers showed the dried up carcass of a skate all terrified-like to news cameras. The next day they brought it to the state fish and game department, and it was declared a skate. The photos do look like a scary face, but also.... clearly a skate (or ray or shark).

http://www.unexplainedresearch.com/in_the_news/new_mexico_chupacabra.ht…

http://www.jimmyakin.org/2005/02/chupacabras_in_.html

By Pete Buchholz (not verified) on 12 Jan 2009 #permalink

It actually looks odd...like something that time forgot...like something from another world....something prehistoric. *gasp* Could it be?

No, it isn't. It probably goes to show you how little people do know of the fauna and flora in their own backyards. A lack of knowledge of mammalian anatomy can definitely cause freak outs like this.

As far as an Otariid cradle of evolution goes...

The oldest Otariid fossils are from the early late Miocene of California (Pithanotaria starri). None that old are yet known from Japan, and there's only one pre-pleistocene record of an otariid in the south pacific, and thats an odd fur seal called Hydrarctos lomasiensis, from the Pliocene of Peru.

However, it is important to note that this could simply be a matter of collecting bias. Pinnipeds are extremely rare fossils in most sediments, and primitive otariids are small fur seals with fairly small bones, likely sensitive to destructive taphonomic processes.

Conversely, it is important to also note that the most primitive of all otariids (Callorhinus and its fossil ancestors, Thalassoleon spp) are all in the North Pacific. Additionally, the most primitive sea lions are from the northern pacific as well (Eumetopias and Zalophus).

Otariid phylogeny and evolutionary biogeography is still fairly poorly known. I'm currently working on some Plio-Pleistocene Callorhinus material from California.

So there are walruses in the north Pacific and Atlantic: what does the DNA clock/fossil record tell us about last common ancestry/ dispersal/ gene-flow across the Arctic basin?

By John Scanlon FCD (not verified) on 12 Jan 2009 #permalink

Pete:
People in Puerto Rico used to come up with those dried up strangely-cut skates, claiming they were some sort of cryptid or devilish thing, they are called "garadiabolos". As a kid, back in the 1980's, I remember seeing it in the newspaper and tv and wondering what the hell was it! My answer came one day about three years ago when I was in a friends office at the University of Puerto Rico, it turned out that he actually owns one of those things and I was finally able to look at a "garadiabolo" up close and personal and figure out that it is just a mutilated skate! Apparently garadiabolos used to be more popular in the 1970's and early 1980's and they were even sold in villages near the beach. I think they were outcompeted by chupacabras.

It's an aquatic gorgonopsid!

Also, I sheepshly admit to being a fan of your country's infamous "Page 3 Girls." You just don't get that kind of blatant sexuality on this side of the pond. At least, not on the newstands.

The de-composition process can distort a carcass beyond recognition, and that, along with the human imagination, can quickly transform a perfectly familiar animal into a "monster". There are countless examples of this phenomenon, but the one I'm most familiar with is the basking shark caught by a Japanese fishing boat, and turned into a perfect facsimile of a plesiosaur as it's flesh rotted away. The only genuine "monster" that I know of was the mass that was washed ashore on the beaches of St. Augustine, Fla. in 1896. Chemical tests eventually showed that it was a helluva big octopus!

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 12 Jan 2009 #permalink

What is a xenomorph, and who invented that word?

Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the word 'xenomorph' is just a generic name used to describe the aliens in the film Aliens (duh!). It's not the official name of the creatures of the Alien franchise.

Here's how the word was originally used, during a briefing held for the Colonial Marines* (dialogue according to the IMDB):

(* Comment: Marines in outer space? Does not compute...)

Pvt. Hudson: Is this gonna be a standup fight, sir, or another bughunt?
Lt. Gorman: All we know is that there's still no contact with the colony, and that a xenomorph may be involved.
Pvt. Frost: Excuse me sir, a-a what?
Gorman: A xenomorph.
Cpl. Hicks: It's a bughunt.

Raymond Minton: sorry to disappoint you, but the St. Augustine 'giant octopus' of 1896 was just a decomposing mass of whale tissue. The same is true of the other mysterious stranded 'blobs' that have been recently subjected to detailed analysis. For the full story see;

Pierce, S.K. et al., 2004: Microscopic, biochemical and molecular characteristics of the Chilean blob and a comparison with the remains of other sea monsters: nothing but whales. Biological Bulletin 206: 125-133.

By Dave Hughes (not verified) on 12 Jan 2009 #permalink

John Scanlon:

So there are walruses in the north Pacific and Atlantic: what does the DNA clock/fossil record tell us about last common ancestry/ dispersal/ gene-flow across the Arctic basin?

As I understand it, the modern species of walrus, Odobenus rosmarus, probably originated in the North Atlantic and spread only relatively recently to the Pacific. (There were other, extinct, species of walrus living in both the Pacific and the Atlantic well into the Pleistocene). But there is some debate on that matter, and my sources may be outdated; Boesse can probably give you a better account of the evolutionary history of the modern walrus.

As for molecular data, it appears that some very limited gene flow still takes place between the disjunct Pacific and Atlantic walrus populations. Andersen et al. (1998) note, rather incidentally, that a suspected Pacific walrus individual was shot in East Greenland in 1991.

Reference:

Andersen, L.W., Born, E.W., Gjertz, I., Wiig, O., Holm, L.-E. & Bendixen, C. 1998. Population structure and gene flow of the Atlantic walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) in the eastern Atlantic Arctic based on mitochondrial DNA and microsatellite variation. Molecular Ecology 7, 1323-1336.

(* Comment: Marines in outer space? Does not compute...)

Dartian- Marines originated as a shipboard force,
so having them on a spaceship isn't all that odd-
not nearly as odd as the creature in the flick, anyway.
Since I remember Darren doing an entertaining piece of
frivolous nonsense about Godzilla, maybe he'll favor us
with a post on the biology of "The Alien" one day....

By Craig York (not verified) on 13 Jan 2009 #permalink

Godzilla is a tetrapod. The Alien is not.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 13 Jan 2009 #permalink

Unless you use tetrapod quite literally in a super-broad apomorphy-based sense and consider the alien an example of "extreme convergence" ... well, not the queen, one pair of legs too many ;)

I have no plans to cover xenomorphs at Tet Zoo, even though some neat speculative biology has been written about them (viz, the 'living battery' hypothesis discussed in the Dark Horse comics, and the host-driven polymorphism mentioned on occasion by Ridley Scott).

Darren

Good job. This is why I love scienceblogs. Thanks very much.

It really looks pre historic. A dinosuar. A new species they haven't discovered yet. After all there have been a lot of turbulence out there and eruptions. Things come up as time goes by. Either way it's too big and veroscious to be anything else. DINOSAUR.

CHRIS, you've never actually seen a drawing or photo of a dinosaur skull, have you? And you've obviously never actually read the fucking post.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 14 May 2009 #permalink

I was going to say that CHRIS wins the prize for "Didn't even read the frikkin' post", but I see David has already provided a smackdown.