Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Case of the Silver Coelacanth

Dear Constant Readers,

Hinted at previously in this post, I was quite surprised to see an article published in a journal use a piece of art as evidence. Nutty creationists took superficial glances at misinterpreted pieces to make broad proclamations, surely a journal could do better! And in fact they do much better. But before we get into that, we should probably discuss the coelacanth a bit.

Not everybody is probably familiar with the story but hopefully they at least know the fish a bit. Coelacanths are lobe-finned fishes known as Sarcopterygians a group including lungfish, extinct rhipidistians and tetrapods such as us. Coelacanths were assumed to be extinct but a monumental 1938 discovery proved that they were still swimming about near to Comoros Islands. They weren't our direct ancestors or as drastic a survivor as Monoplacophorans or even vampire squids although I suppose it was still pretty exciting for ichthyologists. And Cryptozoologists too, they can't stop using this as support of cryptids...despite it never going through a cryptid (only known through anecdotal/inconclusive evidence). Coelacanths continued to surprise scientists with additional populations found off Africa quite recently but what is really impressive is the Indonesian coelacanth. There was a bit of deja vu in Indonesia in 1997 where a mysterious brown (not blue) fish was caught and was surprisingly identified as another species of coelacanth. Aside from the coloration to morphology between the species is quite similar despite them splitting off 30-40 million years ago (Inoue et al 2005). While those species appear to have split due to the collision of the Indian subcontinent into Asia from a more widespread ancestral population, might there be coelacanths elsewhere?

Cryptozoologist Michel Raynal suggests just that in an online article. He discussed the history of the coelacanth from not-so-out-of-place specimens from South Africa*, Madagascar, and Kenya and then goes on to speculate on more exotic habitats. There were very vague reports of the fish from Bermuda and Korea mentioned in a letter to Prof. Smith (the describer of the fish) which were in all likelihood cranky. Interestingly he mentioned earlier reports of the Indonesian coelacanth (from 1995) that could have made this a genuine ex-cryptid had anybody actually payed attention to the reports and looked for the fish. Australian, Spanish, Jamaican, Californian, and Floridian coelacanths have all be claimed as well but the cases are vague enough that they may be anglerfish or (quite improbably) stray lungfish. Unidentified scales were also mentioned from those locations but the most famous artifacts are the silver coelacanths.

*This is obviously not a problem, the first specimen was found there after all. He mentioned a remarkable painting of the fish allegedly 13 years before the discovery which is interesting but proves nothing of course (this isn't a cryptid!).

At last, proof in some form that coelacanths have been known for a while somewhere outside of the Indian Ocean! Right? While Cryptozoologists speculated on Spanish coelacanths or possibly coelacanths from the Gulf of Mexico using these artifacts (and vague reports of captures and a goblet and painting), the tangible artifacts were examined by unbiased scientists. One of the silver artifacts (1964) bore several features unique to the famous holotype of the coelacanth including features such as unnaturally bent back "legs" and damage to the caudal fin. The similarities are so suspicious that the authors suggest that a photograph of the holotype was used as a model. A much larger model "found" in 1965 was examined by the world authority on Spanish art who pointed out that while it was old looking it showed many characteristics of much more modern Spanish art (naturalistic depiction, lack of fantasy engravings, sharp edges not smoothed by handling) and was bought for a suspiciously low amount, even for a piece of modern art. Areas not available in photograph such as the unique gular ("throat") bones were depicted in a speculative manner. Raynal writes this off as variation in a new species. It should also be noted that analysis of the fish was done via photograph and not handling until 2000 with the paper's study. These pieces were not done in 16th-17th century Mexico, but between 1954 and 1965 in Spain.

There will always be some Cryptozoologists pulling at straws and denying this strong evidence, but they have to accept that these pieces are not evidence. I wonder with more research if it would be possible to track down exactly who made these pieces somewhere in Spain. They certainly are quite pretty and I'm surprised nobody is selling replicas of them. If I ever win the lottery or use knowledge or Organic chem to sell drugs (I didn't say what kind) I wouldn't mind buying one. The authors are very careful and wise in saying these artifacts are not proof of anything and they don't discount new populations of coelacanths. If there is any truth to these vague rumors, perhaps a new population or two could be discovered. As with the rumors of Indonesian coelacanths prior to their discovery any vague prior indication will likely be forgotten or totally overlooked. A population in the gulf of Mexico would be quite out of place and would require a near-cosmopolitan distribution to the genus or an even more distant relative. Given how this species almost flew entirely under the radar on several occasions before it is a possibility. However, it is a possibility without any hard or convincing proof.

I myself am still here pining for some choristoderes or albanerpetontids or some other overlooked potential relict myself.

Wow, two posts in a day.



Fricke, Hans and Plante, Raphael. 2001. Silver Coelacanths from Spain are not proofs of a pre-scientific discovery. Environmental Biology of Fishes: 61, 461-463. Available: Here

Inoue, Jun G. et al. 2005. The mitochondrial genome of Indonesian coelacanth Laterima menadoensis (Sarcopterygii: Coelacanthiformes) and divergence time estimation between the two coelacanths. Gene: 349, 227-235. Available: Here

Monday, September 17, 2007

The New Whale that Wasn't (but sorta was)

Dear Constant Readers,

After one irregular post I think it is time to get back to my blogging roots. Wait a second, have I ever written in a consistent style? Oh well. For those of you that don't know, my life has gotten rather busy and "interesting" of late, severely restricting my output. How other blogs like Laelaps keep on pumping out those sorts of posts is beyond me. Since I can't predict those fleeting pockets of spare time and inexplicable inspirations the future is still irregular for this blog...

As mentioned here, beaked whales are among my favorite animals. I'm not very good at playing favoritism with animal groups although weirdness and obscurity are essential characteristics. As it turns out, few groups of mammals are as weird and obscure as the ziphiids*. For those of you unfamiliar with the beaked whales they can be described as somewhat deep-diving dolphin-shaped whales** reaching small to moderate sizes (4.5-13m/14-40 feet). Male of the genus Mesoplodon typically have only two large teeth in the mandible which appear to be used in intraspecific combat. The teeth are the easiest way to differentiate the species in the field and as such females and juveniles are quite hard to identify in the field. It is remarked upon by Stewart et al 2002 that there are several species which have yet to be identified in the field. Also remarkable is the rate of mesoplodont discovery; new species have been described as recently as 2001 for M. perrini, 1991 for M. peruvianus, and 1995 for M. bahamondi.

*I may have lost your comment my anonymous commenter but your grammar policing did not go unnoticed.

**They're not related though. The bizarre Australodelphis is a true fossil dolphin noteworthy for converging upon ziphiids.

Alright, I lied, there is no Bahamondi's beaked whale, at least not anymore. Instead of being known for a decade it has actually been around for over 130 years under several different names. This is among the older mesoplodonts being the 6th out of 14+ species to be discovered, but is poorly known even for this cryptic group. In fact if I were writing the McCormick Book of Animal Facts and Feats I'd give this species the record for most poorly known mammalian megafauna species. With only three remains, none being post-cranial, this is the most obscure living mammal I'm aware of...but I'm sure a more erudite person reading this can best this. Still, it's amazing that a mammal probably weighing around a ton has never been seen in the flesh.

So, what is known about this species? Van Heleden et al 2003 in a free article describe the complete history of this species, really saving me a lot of trouble. The lawyer Henry Hammersley Travers sent a mandible and teeth from Pitt Island, Chatham Islands, New Zealand to James Hector in 1872. The following year, Hector, the namesake of Hector's beaked whale, described the specimen as belonging to "Dolichodon" layardii, better known as the bizarre strap-toothed whale. Gray disagreed and classified the specimen as the unique species "Dolichodon" traversii. Hector and McCann subsequently stuck it in M. layardii where it stayed for over a century. In 1986 off Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile a damaged portion of a cranium was discovered, found to be distinct from all other species, and was placed in the species M. bahamondi in 1995. Another damaged skull was found in White Island, New Zealand in the 50's and was classified as the obscure Ginkgo-toothed whale until DNA testing demonstrated that it did not belong to any known species. It was subsequently classified as M. bahamondi until the van Helden et al paper demonstrated that all three specimens were from the same species. Thanks to priority the old "synonym" of M. traversii was resurrected and we sorta got a new species of whale.

Despite the surprisingly tangled classification of only three specimens, the morphology of this species is quite distinctive. The teeth found in the original specimen are quite large at 23cm/9" and shaped like a spade (whaling flense). They are shorter and wider than the strap-toothed whales' teeth and do not appear to arch over the rostrum. While there have been sightings of unknown cetaceans in the past, I've heard no reference to a Mesoplodon sp. with abnormally large teeth. In addition to the teeth this species also has a rostrum wider than any other mesoplodont, and the distance of two premaxillary foramina is smaller than any other mesoplodont. The van Helden et al paper was multi-disciplinary and included DNA examination which revealed it to be a fairly distant relative of the strap-toothed whale. A field guide by Stewart et al published while the paper was in press mentioned that it may be closely related to and similar in appearance to Andrews' beaked whale, but the phylogenetic tree in van Helden et al suggested otherwise.

There we have it, a still fairly long post on an animal that is almost entirely unknown. It is amazing that an animal apparently reaching 5-5.5m/16-18 feet (according to a Stewart et al's field guide) could almost totally evade human detection. Behavior and natural history are of course unknown, but it can be assumed whatever surface behavior they have is inconspicuous and not diagnostic, despite the teeth. For those concerned about the degrading state of the oceans it must be frustrating that a creature larger than most great white sharks has slipped by with only three fragmented remains. Even for other ziphiids known from many more remains and even hunted, none of them seem to be particularly well known. This species hasn't been heard from in over 20 years, but that could be due to its (presumed) cryptic behaviors. Either that or we're losing species before we even know anything about them. And I can't help but wonder at what else could be lurking in museums...

I should note that on the topic of Cryptozoology there are two alleged unknown beaked whales known from sightings but I can't come across a more complete description to tell if it is a variation on a known species or not. I believe Bruce Champagne mentioned two more possible types that are apparently yet to be published. Cryptid cetaceans are interesting, but they'll have to wait until I can pick up better resources. Now that my sources are more limited at college (oddly), I'll have to pick my targets wisely. More on internet memes? Nah.



Stewart, Brent S. et al. National Audubon Society Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. Knopf, 2002.

van Heleden et al. 2003. Resurrection of Mesoplodon traversii (Gray, 1874), Senior Synonym of M. bahamondi Reyes, Van Waerebeek, Cardenas and Yanez, 1995 (Cetacea: Ziphiidae). Marine Mammal Science. v. 18, i. 3, 609-621. Available (for free): Here

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


Dear Constant Readers,

Wow, I can't believe that I haven't written a thing since the 20th of last month. I'm not sure if people are frantically waiting for something new to come out; but I certainly have a bad enough guilt complex making it necessary for me to at least write something. I've come back to school and already feel buried under everything sooooo it looks like I'm going to have to fulfill my prophesy of writing on much shorter subjects.

While researching this not-too-distant post I couldn't help but notice a hit on Google Scholar which seemed a bit...off. Browsing through it showed the 1977 Zuiyo Maru catch in various poses and apparently concluded that it was a marine tetrapod, and plumped for a plesiosaur of course. Despite appearing as a scientific journal article it was in fact from the reputable "Creation Research Society Quarterly Journal", hmm. Now I find the whole idea of looking at religion from a scientific perspective to be a bit "sticky", but I'm sure PZ Myers' Pharyngula will provide more than adequate commentary for those looking for it.

What I am interested in is bad information and how its sneakiness can fool people. To be perfectly blunt this website provides the final word on the identity of the Zuiyo Maru carcass as a basking shark. But for reasons that elude my logic, some (hopefully not many) religious people really want "dinosaurs" to be alive so they can...uh...rub it into the face of those evil-lutionist biologists? I still have no idea why they think this is supportive, but the point is the authors are willing to go to great lengths to "convince" people that this is something other than a (relatively) mundane carcass.

The paper, which is evidently not an objective ministries-style parody, is briefly mentioned and dismissed by Kuban excellent site, for good reason too. Here is an example of the reasoning in this pseudopaper: sharks have myocommata in between muscle segments as does the carcass - but, the authors note this Egyptian seal seems to depict a plesiosaur-like creature with that very structure! For those of you that clicked the link you might be as confused as I am I see a crocodilian complete with bulging head and tapering snout intersecting with a design pattern or possibly shadow. But that's the point, its highly interpretive and very poor resolution. Did they consult Egyptologists and their opinion? Of course not! This is just plain delusion. I have seen a very interesting paper (perhaps to be discussed later) that used art, but the analysis was in depth, high resolution, and actually believable. And this is only the start...

They claim that a pair of "symmetrical upper fins" disprove the basking shark idea since sharks evidently do not have not. It seems like they mean to say it has both a pair of pectoral and dorsal fins, but there are only three fin-like projections visible in the photograph (two pectoral and one dorsal). As evidence of their bizarre proposed anatomy they use this modern Australian artwork as evidence as well as a sighting of the Loch Ness Monster. I will admit that this paper is too strange to follow very well at all and it just gets worse. It proceeds to quote Bibles passages and throws out the convincing biochemical evidence on the basis that a plesiosaur may have had identical biochemistry to a basking shark. Do I even dare go on? Other creationists have accepted that this is a shark, and I really don't see how not complying with this idea is going to affect religious beliefs. It is amazing that they had the audacity to dress this up as a scientific-looking document and then proceed to write the usual pseudoscientific gibberish in a dry "authoritative" tone. A look at their webpage reveals that they "disprove" just about every aspect of science hinting at an age of the earth more than a few thousand of years old or that creatures evolve. Yeesh.

On a better note, I did happen to come across this paper by an actual journal that made some very interesting discoveries about a famous cryptid. There seem to be a lot of subtle (read: geeky) in-jokes here, and of course reading the fine print gives it away. Sigh, if only the Creation paper had fine print too...