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Features: Fortean Bureau of Investigation


Monsters of the Deep!

A scientific look at sea serpents

Monsters of the Deep

How basilosaurid whales became armour-plated 'cetacean centipedes', according to Heuvelmans.


Last November, the Centre For Inquiry (CFI) hosted Monsters of the Deep! at Conway Hall in London’s Red Lion Square. Meetings devoted to marine cryptozoology are few and far between, but then the same might be said about crypto­zoology meetings in general. Meetings about academic crypto­zoology are rarer than sightings of crypt­ids themselves. Organised by Stephen Law, the meeting featured talks by Dr Charles Paxton, a fisheries ecologist at the University of St Andrews, and yours truly, a vertebrate palæontologist who works on dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles at the University of Portsmouth and dabbles in academic cryptozoology. In addition to the talks, we held two workshops. As Charles stated early on in his talk, academic funding for cryptozoological research is essentially non-existent, so the audience could rest assured that their valuable tax pennies were not being frittered away on any of the research they were going to hear about.

Sea monsters inspire wonder, and that can’t be bad. But Charles explained that they also raise the very important question of how science deals with anomalous data. Forteans (indeed, Fort himself) have asserted that science ignores what it cannot explain. In fact, scientists have a tendency to ignore anomalous data only so long as they’re poorly recorded (in other words, are known only from anecdotes); irrefut­able records of such things as St Elmo’s fire, rogue waves and sprites – all origin­ally known entirely from anecdotes – show that science is ‘happy’ to accept the validity of low-frequency anomalies once the data are good enough. Furthermore, while there’s a widespread belief (particularly prevalent among scient­ists) that anecdotal data are worthless, anecdotes are important at several levels of the scientific process, including in hypothesis formation. Indeed, once a hypothesis (random example: that hippos might practise cannibalism) becomes accepted by a given research community, the chiming in from others in that community is often taken as verification, even though these addit­ional records are typically anecdotal (“I want to report that I’ve also seen hippos practising cannibalism”).

As was noted by both speakers, the possibility that unknown animals might really be at the bottom of sea monster reports should at least be considered as a possibility, and indeed it is already widely thought among biologists that large marine animals (large = more than 2m long) remain to be found. Animals of exactly this sort have been found in recent years and include several new cetaceans, an oarfish species and some deep-water rays. Furthermore, cumulative discovery curves for large marine animals suggest that – while discovery rates have slowed – there are almost certainly a few such species yet to find (between 10 and 50, depending on the study).

There’s no denying that many people (scientists included) have gotten involved in sea monster research because they really do like the idea that big, monstrous vertebrates might await discovery. But it’s evident that we should consider as many other options as possible before approaching this conclusion, and it can be argued that this hasn’t been the case so far. Hoaxing remains a problem. Sea turtles, leopard seals and other known species may account for some sea monster accounts, and Charles and colleagues achieved global notoriety in 2004 by proposing that the serpentine genitals of male whales might explain some sea-serpent accounts.

Whether sea monsters are real or not, the large number of catalogued sightings (over 1,000) means that a substantial amount of data is available for statistical analysis. Charles recently published the results of one such study in Journal of Zoology (a significant accomplishment) and some of the conclusions are surprising, especially to those who might assume that sea monster sightings all represent misid­entifications or hoaxes.
For one thing, most recorded monster sightings don’t normally occur at great distance, but at relatively close range. So the ideas that sea monsters (whatever they are) might be timid, or that people are seeing known species at great range and misidentifying them, are not supported by the reported data. A number of possibilities might explain the counter-intuitive closeness of the reported creatures. Maybe sea monsters are attracted to boats, maybe boats approach sea monsters in order to get a better look at them, maybe sightings are embellished in order to sound more impressive, and so on. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that the reporting of anomalous marine phenomena is biased, and that people only tend to report observations made at relatively close range. More distant objects, whether they’re anomalous or not, are less likely to be reported. This implies, suggested Charles, a strong reporting bias that might swamp any original biological signal.

Moreover, Charles discussed the results of experiments which show that people consistently underestimate the distances involved when viewing objects on the water. And while descriptions of an object are generally good, size estimates are not so hot, with women generally underestimating sizes while men generally overestimate them (insert hilarious wisecrack). One nice point Charles made is that what is reported is not the same as what is remembered; what is remembered is not the same as what is perceived; and what is perceived is not the same as what is seen.

The second talk of the day (my own ‘Sea monsters and the prehistoric survivor paradigm’) was more concerned with the various sea monster identities that have been proposed over the years, particularly those invoking the alleged survival to the present of large tetra­pods known only from the fossil record, specifically plesiosaurs, mosasaurs and basilosaurid whales (zeuglodonts). The idea that such creatures might have survived to the present day without leaving any fossil record really is untenable based on what we know, and the annoyingly persistent suggestion that cœlacanths demonstrate how a group of Mesozoic marine animals might persist without leaving any fossil record is a red herring. [1]

In any case, the prehist­oric survivor paradigm (or PSP) really isn’t the best explanation for the crypto­zoological data. Modern sea monster reports really don’t describe creatures that sound at all like the fossil animals they’re sometimes likened to. Long-necked sea monsters sound only very superficially like plesiosaurs; the modern creatures are reportedly hairy, have whiskers or external ears, can hold their heads and necks well out of the water in an erect pose, and are sometimes noted as lacking tails. If such creatures are real, it seems reasonable to interpret them as weird marine mammals (perhaps as large peculiar seals), not as strongly modified post-Cretaceous plesiosaurs.

Long-bodied sea monsters – apparently able to form hoops, loops and a series of waves along the body – cannot be basilosaurid whales, which were incapable of oscillating in this way and are absent from the fossil record for the last 30 million years at least. The fact that basilosaurids were conventionally (but very incorrectly) reconstructed as serpentine creatures capable of furious vertical wriggling has helped fuel the notion that they might have been the ancestors of modern sea serpents.

Bernard Heuvelmans regarded two of his nine sea monster kinds as basilosaurids. However, rather than regarding the long-bodied, serpentine types as modern representatives of this group, he proposed that the armour-plated ‘many-finned’ and bumpy-backed ‘many-humped’ were both basilosaur­ids. His logic was somewhat obtuse: absolutely integral to his identification of the ‘many-finned’ was his interpret­ation of the 1883 Vietnamese con rit account conveyed by Dr A Krempf in 1921. Yet this account described a gigantic segmented creature, covered in plate-like armour sheets that “rang like sheet metal” when struck. This fantastic description remains an enigma, but Heuvelmans’s conclusion that the creature was an armour-plated whale is peculiar and rests on the idea that basilosaurids were armoured, a proposal that had been disproved decades earlier.

While it might seem like an unfair criticism, a major theme that emerges from these considerations of the PSP is that those who have endorsed it are often behind the times as regards the state of palæontological knowledge, or have indulged in a remarkable amount of special pleading and speculation. Ideas about plesiosaur and basilosaurid survival seem to have been influenced by popular artwork more than by technical data. Sea monsters might be real, but we’re really not at the stage where we can say what they are. Interesting things can be done with the data we have (whether or not it represents sightings of unknown giant creatures), but the main problem afflicting the cryptozoological literature concerns interpretation. It’s evident that more intellectual rigour is often needed within the field.

In the first workshop session that followed the talks, Charles – working with a bold volunteer from the audience – used ‘fishes’ (marked straws) in a bucket to show how biologists can generate hypotheses about species divers­ity in the deep sea. With every handful, a different combination of ‘spec­ies’ is trawled up, and by counting the new ones Charles was able to generate a discovery curve. As is the case in the real world, the curve of the discovery graph rose to a plateau, but problems in distinguishing the new ‘species’ from those encountered earlier on in the experiment echoed a huge, genuine problem that plagues diversity studies.

In another workshop event, we used a computer program to show how extinct­ion dates can be estimated for extinct (or supposedly extinct) organisms. When good ‘proof of life’ data (that is, dates) are available, the computed extinction results look robust. However, a spotty or gappy pre-extinction record results in uncertainty over the extinction date – and here’s the fun part – because the creatures affected by such results are sometimes those hypothesised to have survived later than ‘officially’ thought. Cœlacanths, Steller’s sea cows, thylacines, megatooth sharks and many others were all subjected to the treatment. This technique has great promise and enables hypotheses about ‘prehistoric survivorship’ to be properly tested.

Overall, the meeting was a great success, and our interested audience made wholly positive noises about the event. Frankly, it was good to be at a crypto­zoology-themed event where scientific approaches were very much to the fore. Indeed, what might be the take-home message from the day was that crypto­zoological data and hypotheses are very much amenable to scientific testing. It goes without saying that there remains an enormous role for amateurs within the field of mystery animal research.

In a 2004 Nature article (yes, Nature: one of the most august scientific journals in the world), Henry Gee – inspired by the then-new discovery of the small, recently extinct hominids of Flores – wondered whether it really is time for crypto­zoology to “come in from the cold” and be recognised as a valid scientific endeavour. Some might say this already happened back in the 1980s when the International Society of Crypto­zoology published its technical journal Crypto­zoology, but such efforts seem all but forgotten nowadays and the death of the ISC arguably created the impression that crypto­zoology is a fringe discipline best avoided by anyone serious about doing science. The fact is, we seem to be at the start of what is (I hope) a modest renaissance in ‘scient­ific crypto­zoology’. Charles and I – and others – have published several crypto­zoological analyses within the pages of technical journals, such as the august Journal of Zoology and Historical Biology, and we have other technical studies in preparation. How far can we go with this, and can cryptozoology really ‘come in from the cold’?

1  Rather than thriving at high diversity up to the close of the Cretaceous, cœlacanths dwindled out gradually during the latter part of that geological era and in fact were long thought to have become extinct long before it ended. In strong contrast to the big, robust and distinctive bones of plesiosaurs, basilosaurids and such, cœlacanth bones are fragile, have low preservation potential, and are difficult to distinguish from those of other fossil vertebrates. In any case, post-Cretaceous cœlacanth fossils are now on record. In other words, cœlacanths are red herrings. See FT132:40–44.

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Monsters of the Deep - whale cock

Charles Paxton captivates the audience with some graphic whale porn.

Author Biography
Darren Naish is a vertebrate palæontologist at the University of Portsmouth, working on dinosaurs and other fossil reptiles. His latest book is The Great Dinosaur Discoveries (A & C Black, 2009).


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