Sunday, October 31, 2010

Cryptozoological Case File #0003 - The Solimões River... Thing

Thanks to the number of comments for the prior Cryptozoological Case File, I've expanded a briefly mentioned - and exceptionally bizarre - cryptid encounter into a full-out post. Unlike the prior Case File sightings, this one is highly disreputable and admittedly just for fun. 'Tis the season, I suppose.

The account was originally published in the late New York Herald (a tabloid), but due to the lack of availability, I'll have to rely on a reprint from StrangeArk itself taken from an Indiana newspaper's reprint. The article's length is substantial - almost 5000 words - so I'll skip to the relevant parts knowing the full version is securely and freely available.

Conversions are my own.

Anonymous and Schmidt, Franz Herrmann. Prehistoric Monsters in Jungles of the Amazon, New York Herald (N.Y., N.Y.) January 29, 1911. Section 5, Columns 1-5:
The Forests and the Snakes. 
There were hours when we would not hear the cry of a bird or the flutter of its wing or see a snake sliding away to hide. Again, on shelving ground particularly, or around waterfalls, animal and bird life would be abundant. It was at such a spot we saw our largest snake. The day had been oppressively hot, and just as the sun was getting down into the west we came to a fine waterfall about ten feet wide [3 m], with a fifty foot [15 m] pool below it emptying into a brook across which an active man could leap. 
Just where the brook left the pool a great brown log had fallen, making a natural bridge. One of the Indians was about to cross it, seeking some light wood for the night's fire, when he gave a queer cry and came bounding back. I saw Pfleng pick up his rifle and I did likewise. The Indian led us back to the point where he had stood and showed us what a mistake he had made. The log was a great sleeping boa constrictor. The terrible, creature had caught some sort of an animal by the pool, and having eaten it, as a lump one-third of the way down the body showed, grew sleepy and remained where it was in the sunshine, stretched across the brook. 
At first we thought the creature was dead, and came near enough to see that its sides were working either through respiratory or intestinal action. I was for having a shot or two into the parts of the body we could see, but Pfleng argued against it. The snake could be of no use to us, and if we wounded it its thrashing about would kill some of us unless we climbed the trees or got out of the vicinity. It was nearly impossible to kill it outright, so why discommode ourselves for the fun of putting a few holes in his snakeship's tough body? 
At least we had a fine opportunity for studying him. For fully a half hour he lay there until the shadows struck him, and then he began to draw forward slowly, and in ten minutes was gone into the jungle. I measured with my eye the thickness of the body as compared with a certain stone by which it lay. The two were the same. The thickness of the stone was twenty-two inches [0.56 m], yet the snake's body was thicker further up. From the spot where the head lay to where the plated tail had marked the ground when the snake started to crawl was forty-four feet [13.4 m], and there being two or three loops of the body in between we estimated his full length at sixty-five or seventy feet [20-21 m].

At this point I want to say that I know nothing of natural science or anything of the names of the animals and I do not believe that Pfleng did either, though he pretended to. We simply made up our minds that we would bag one if we could and have a good look at it; perhaps it was some now kind of gigantic alligator or some huge variety of water snake. At least it would be good sport. We had three guides from the waterside who remained with us sixteen days of travel quite as difficult as that which I have described. 
The valley was like any other of many we had crossed, and we should merely have detoured the swamp if Pfleng, surveying it with his glasses, had not noticed in two or three spots on the shores of the lakes some huge swathes or crushed tracks such as the Indians had mentioned. We could not inspect these from solid ground. 
The only way we could get at them was from the water so we cut a tree, made a rude dugout, shaped up some puddles and the second day set it afloat, in the open water at the head of the lake. Ono thing we noticed at once. There was not an alligator, iguana, or even a large water snake to be seen anywhere. This in itself was queer. The swamps were full of floating islands where a tree or a big branch had fallen in, gathered a lot of water plants around it and gradually formed a structure on which even small trees grew. 
We had to steer in and out among these, often cutting a path for the dugout through masses of entwining plants on the top of the water. One of the Indians leaning over the bow would keep the machete swinging as we drove the dugout slowly forward with the paddles. At last, we got into a pool of open water from which one of the swaths led shoreward, and we put the boat, right up into it. 
There was no question but what it had been made by some enormous body being dragged from the water through the plants and mud until solid ground was reached, when a great circular wallow in a sunny spot was made. On the plants nearby were marks of waves two feet above mean level on the average and great, flaglike stocks as thick as my log were broken off short in the track and the tops mashed into the mud, while the movement of the body had carried quantities of the soft ooze from below the water and spread it like plaster on the crushed plants. 
A very large elephant or hippopotamus could have made a similar track. In making the return journey to the water practically another course had been chosen, the point of entrance being some hundred foot [30 m] to the east, and a little shelving bank there having been crushed in with the small trees that grew on it, in a way that showed that many tons of weight must have rested on it. The creature that had been able to make marks like these in the course of a peaceful progress must be a terrible thing if aroused to anger. 
The Indians in the dugout grew more and more frightened, and I confess that I began to watch the water and listen for movements along the shore or among the islands with feelings slightly more tinged with anxiety than I had felt before I saw these evidences. 
Leaving this spot, we proceeded slowly along and soon came to an island which was evidently a favorite sunning spot, as the plants were crushed down all over it and it was plastered with mud dragged up from the bottom. It took much time to get ahead any and it was very late in the day before we crossed one bayou about a half mile wide to examine some similar spots on the further shore. Here we found three spots where some amphibious animal had left the water and returned to it. One was very large and the other two only about half the size. 
Plainly there was more than one such creature in the lake. Another thing which we had not observed previously was that vast quantities of fronds, tender green leaves and broad stretches of flag growth had been ripped off. I have seen spots in which a herd of elephants has fed, and those looked very similar. One tree had a smear of mud on it fully fourteen feet [4.3 m] from the ground.
Encounter with Bullet Proof Monster. 
Now we hastened back, following the same track we had cut, and twice we stopped paddling to listen as both Pfleng and I were sure that we heard heavy splashing behind the islands to the east. The Indians were for leaving at once, and in their talks among themselves that evening it was easy to see that they were discussing the matter of remaining longer in such a dangerous region. They were badly frightened. We mounted a guard that night for the first time in weeks, Pfleng and I taking turns with an Indian each. I believe that our men would have deserted us if we had both slept. 
After breakfast, we set out again in the dugout, taking our heavy calibre Remingtons with us and a good supply of ammunition. Taking the southern shore we traversed the stretch that seemed to be most affected by the waters from the hot springs, and shortly before noon began to find more wallows as the ground along shore grew firmer. At last we came to one large one which had been used for leaving and entering the water, or else the animal was still on shore. We approached very carefully and a thrill shot through me as I saw that the mud on the weeds and water plants was still dripping. We were close to our quarry. 
With every precaution, the paddles making no noise at all, we advanced to the water line. To have left the boat would have meant going in the mud to our waists, perhaps, and yet we could see nothing but green stuff from where we were. We argued the question in a whisper and Pfleng had just announced his determination to follow the track inland if it was the very last act of his life, when a troop of monkeys was heard approaching, gathering some great blue-black berries from small trees that grew in the mud. We had just made them out when there was a sudden outcry among them, a large dark something half hidden among the branches shot up among them and there was a great commotion. 
One of the excited Indians began to paddle the boat away from the shore, and before we could stop him we were one hundred feet from the waterline. Now we could see nothing and the Indians absolutely refused to put in again, while neither Pfleng nor myself cared to lay down our rifles to paddle. There was a great waving of plants and a sound like heavy slaps of a great paddle, mingled with the cries of some of the monkeys moving rapidly away from the lake. One or two that were hurt or held fast wore shrieking close at hand, then their cries ceased. For a full ten minutes there was silence, then the green growth began to stir again, and coming back to the lake we beheld the frightful monster that I shall now describe. 
The head appeared over bushes ten feet tall. It was about the size of a beer keg and was shaped like that of a tapir, as if the snout was used for pulling things or taking hold of them. The eyes were small and dull and set in like those of an alligator. Despite the half dried mud we could see that the neck, which was very snakelike, only thicker in proportion, as rough knotted like an alligator's sides rather than his back. 
Evidently the animal saw nothing odd in us, if he noticed us, and advanced till he was not more than one hundred and fifty feet away. We could see part of the body, which I should judge to have been eight or nine feet thick at the shoulders, if that word may be used, since there were no fore legs, only some great, heavy clawed flippers. The surface was like that of the neck. For a wonder the Indians did not bolt, but they seemed fascinated. 
As far as I was concerned, I would have waited a little longer, but Pfleng threw up his rifle and let drive at the head. I am sure that he struck between the eyes and that the bullet must have struck something bony, horny or very tough, for it cut twigs from a tree higher up and further on after it glanced. I shot as Pfleng shot again and aimed for the base of the neck. 
The animal had remained perfectly still till now. It dropped its nose to the spot at which I had aimed and seemed to bite at it, but there was no blood or any sign of real hurt. As quickly as we could fire we pumped seven shots into it, and I believe all struck. They seemed to annoy the creature but not to work any injury. Suddenly it plunged forward in a silly, clumsy fashion. The Indians nearly upset the dugout getting away, and both Pfleng and I missed the sight as it entered the water. I was very anxious to see its hind legs, if it had any. I looked again only in time to see the last of it leave the land—a heavy blunt tail with rough horny lumps. The head was visible still, though the body was hidden by the splash. From this instant's opportunity I should say that the creature was thirty-five feet long, with at least twelve of this devoted to head and neck.

The Flight.
In three seconds there was nothing to be seen except the waves of the muddy water, the movements of the waterside growth and a monkey with its hind parts useless hauling himself up a tree top. As the Indians paddled frantically away I put a bullet through the poor thing to let it out of its misery. We had not gone a hundred yards before Pfleng called to me and pointed to the right. 
Above the water an eighth of a mile [200 m] away appeared the head and neck of the monster. It must have dived and gone right under us. After a few seconds' gaze it began to swim toward us, and as our bullets seemed to have no effect we took to flight in earnest. Losing sight of it behind an island, we did not pick it up again and were just as well pleased. 
Since it was apparent that our Remingtons, heavy enough to drop a lion or an elephant in its tracks, were no defence at all against such animals as we had seen, and from the tracks we had reason to suppose there were larger ones in the region, the wisest thing for us to do was to be content, move on as soon as possible, and return with a rapid fire gun or something like that. Also it, would have been impossible to got the Indians into the dugout again even with a gun muzzle at their heads. 
When we struck the Madeira we encountered a bunch of the white men on the railway project. They were mostly young engineers and were Canadians who had not been out long. When we told what we had seen they were very polite about it, but it did not take us long to find out that they thought we were liars or had been crazy from fever or were trying to [trick] them. 
That was the first of the disagreeable experiences I have had, and when Pfleng and I separated at Para we agreed to forgot the whole thing and say no more about it. He has since died, succumbing to fever March 4, 1909, in Rosario. As I said on beginning this story, I tell it just as it happened, and anybody who reads it may think what he pleases about it. 
I should say that I have been asked to locate the region and so have worked the matter out as carefully as I can. It is about five degrees thirty minutes south and seventy degrees five minutes west, and can be most easily reached by ascending the Solimoes River.


Self-admitted poor naturalists spotting multiple cryptids with an account written in a novelistic style and published in a tabloid sends up more red flags than a Soviet military parade. Debus (2002) interpreted the account as being "sensational, yet most decidedly fictional". Coleman and Huyghe (2003) appear to concur ("[o]f course, the encounter with the creature itself may be little more than a fantasy"), although note that Roy Mackal thought it rang true because the description of the landscape and manner of expedition were apparently accurate. I unfortunately lack access to Mackal's book (the price is insane), but Smith and Mangiacopra (2004) mention that Mackal was unable to confirm the existence of Schmidt, and the authors speculate that it may have been a pen-name. Presently, internet searches for "Franz Hermann Schmidt" only turn up cryptozoology articles.

The account identifies the colossal snake as a Boa constrictor, a species with a maximum length of about 12 feet (3.65 m) (Hornaday 1904) or 4 meters (13 feet), for a southerly subspecies (Bertona and Chiaraviglio 2003). Perhaps the observers used 'boa constrictor' broadly and in fact referred to the green anaconda, a species that does get very large... but certainly nowhere close to 70 feet (21 m)! As I wrote in a prior post, estimating snake length can be very difficult, especially when the body is in 'loops', so it is perfectly plausible that the actual length of the individual could be a fraction of what was reported... that is, assuming there was a large snake at all.

Curiously, the Indiana reprint gives the location of the second sighting as five degrees thirty minutes south and seventy degrees five minutes west, that is, next to Rio Itaquai, a tributary of the Amazon/Solimões south of Tabatinga, Brazil; Coleman and Huyghe (2003), and thus presumably Mackal and the original N.Y. Herald article, give the coordinates as 5°30' S, 75°5' W, in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve of Peru and between Rio Marañón, Rio Ucayali, and the Amazon/Solimões flowing out from their convergence. Judging by the description (islands, hot springs), the Peruvian locale is the correct one. Herrmann strangely referred to the expedition as a "mission in Colombia" - which led some to assume it took place in that country - but this must be a reference to the starting point (Bogotá) and/or bulk of the trip; alternately, it could have been an archaic reference to the former Gran Colombia.

As for the actual sightings, it has the following bizarre reported traits:

* Head 10 feet (~3 m) off ground, size of beer keg, tapir-like (w/ trunk)
* Eyes small and dull, "set in like those of an alligator"
* Neck snake-like but thicker, rough in texture, covered in mud
* Head and neck ~ 12 feet long (~4 m)
* Body 8-9 feet (2.4-2.75 m) thick at shoulders rough in texture
* Heavy flippers with claws
* "heavy blunt tail with rough horny lumps"
* Total length 35 feet (10.5 m)
* Clumsy locomotion
* Unharmed by firearms
* Apparently attempted to eat monkeys, may have injured some
* Large tracks out of the water, one large and two smaller.
* Evidence of grazing.
* Mud on trees up to 14 feet (4.3 m) high.
* Took place at 5°30' S, 70°5' W

The extrapolation that many animals were present based on areas of crushed vegetation alone is silly. The blogger Cryptodraco suggested these 'tracks' may be due to hot spring activity. The observation of possible grazing of course does not necessarily correlate with whatever the gentleman saw, and it would seem very odd for a grazer to going around attacking monkey, presumably for food!

It goes without saying that this encounter is fictionalized, but could it have some factual nucleus? Dale Drinnon and Cryptodraco speculated that the animal may have been an elephant seal, and I agree that it is the most parsimonious candidate.

Male Southern Elephant Seal (Mirounga leonina) from Flickr user man_with_nonname

Definite fits include the rough skin texture (like an alligator's sides), foreflippers, tapir-like snout, and clumsy terrestrial locomotion. Possible fits include the size and proportions (eyewitness estimates should not be considered set in stone), long and thin neck (the appearance of one could be suggested in a starving individual), and the 'tail' description which could be applicable to hind flippers. Details that don't fit include the small and dull eyes, not being harmed by large caliber firearms, attacking monkeys, and nearby grazing.

The location is interesting since Southern Elephant Seals are occasionally visitors to tropical South America - the last post discussed 2 Ecuadorian sightings and mentioned several dozen Brazilian ones - but this sightings reportedly took place thousands of kilometers into the Amazon drainage, which seems like an impossible marathon even for an elephant seal. The sighting is closer to the Pacific (i.e. only hundreds of kilometers), but the Andes would surely be an insurmountable barrier for a seal.

This leaves us with the possibilities that:

* The sighting is a total fabrication.
* An elephant seal was observed, but not in the reported location
* An extremely wayward elephant seal was observed in the reported location.
* The party saw something else.

As for the last option, the anonymous commentators variously suggested: Astrapotherium descendant, giant Matamata, and Carettochelyid. No offense to the commentator, but the astropothere suggestion was textbook phylogenetic roulette, as there is no reason to think they were aquatic, and if alive they would probably be interpreted as a weird tapir, not just an animal with a tapir-like head. The turtle suggestions were interesting, but it seems unlikely anyone would be unable to recognize a turtle (being some of the most distinctive vertebrates around), and it would require the usage of the prehistoric survivor paradigm. I'm going to say that invoking a prehistoric survivor is a huge strike against parsimony, and could only be plausible when there are absolutely no extant animals that come close to matching and a hoax is unlikely. I probably shouldn't even dignify the suggestions that the sighting was of a 'dinosaur' or 'plesiosaur' - it should be clear to everyone why they don't fit and why they were suggested.

The conclusions that can be drawn from Herrmann's story are limited. It obviously contains elements of both fact and fantasy - but to what degree has it been dramatized? The snake encounter isn't too dramatic and seems like a plausible story naïve explorers would tell. The latter one is either a poor attempt at telling a 'Lost World' story or one incredibly lost seal.

"Artist's" "Impression", or crime against humanity.


Bertona, M., and Chiaraviglio, M. (2003). Reproductive Biology, Mating Aggregations, and Sexual Dimorphism of the Argentine Boa Constrictor (Boa constrictor occidentalis). Journal of Herpetology 37(3), 510-516. Available.

Coleman, L., and Huyghe, P. (2003). The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents, and other mystery denizens of the deep. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin

Debus, A. and Debus, D. (2002). Dinosaur Memories: Dino-Trekking for Beasts of Thunder, Fantastic Saurians, 'Paleo-People,' 'Dinosaurbilia,' and other 'Prehistorica'. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, In.

Hornaday, W. (1904). The American natural history: a foundation of useful knowledge of the higher animals of North America. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Available.

Smith, D. and Mangiacopra, G. (2004). Rescued from the Past - #3 An 1900s Prehistoric Amazon Monster - An Explorer's Encounter, Crypto Fiction, or a Combination of Both? North American BioFortean Review #14 6(1), 19-27. Available.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Cryptozoological Case File #0002 - The Elephant Seals Of Ecuador

The following reports admittedly stretch what can be considered cryptozoological. There is no doubt the animals in question are of a known species, but the identification is uncertain, the location in which they were observed was unusual, and no physical evidence was collected. I hope the authors don't take offence to my categorization, it is merely to demonstrate that investigating unusual reports is not some joke, and even without 'hard' evidence the investigation can be worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

My thanks to Markus Bühler for directing me to this story. All references from Alava and Carvajal (2005) until otherwise noted:


In December 1998, communities along the Babahoyo River, (Ecuador) were alarmed to see an unusual animal in the water, which a local television station managed to tape. The animal appeared to be a pinniped, and with a large head, large eyes, and absence of external pinnae, the authors and a marine mammal specialist identified it as an elephant seal (Mirounga), probably an immature male 4 years of age. A subsequent 8 hour survey of the river failed to locate the animal.

In February 2002, an elephant seal was observed in an estuarine area in Guayaquil city, first near a power plant and then in a shrimp farm. The individual was lying on the bottom of the shrimp pond (partially submerged), and was estimated to be 3 meters long by workers. The authors observed the animal while in a narrow creek near the farm and took photographs for future identification, where they once again reasoned that it was an elephant seal.


For those out there that didn't click on the maps, the first sighting occurred about 75 miles (120 km) upriver, while the second was about 50 miles (80 km) up but was over a mile (1.6 km) into a salt marsh.

How many animals were involved? The authors don't bring it up directly, but say "these two individuals" at one point. It would seem remarkable for two separate individuals to wind up in the same river system, although it is more parsimonious than assuming one individual survived the excursion and for some reason returned. As for the species...

Both events took place during the Southern Elephant Seal (Mirounga leonina) moulting season and La Niña events (Alava and Carvajal 2005), which was previously linked to the presence of Otaria flavescens in the region (Felix et al. 1994). Elephant seals are of course far from indolent beach blobs, and Alava and Carvajal (2005)'s review of the literature reveals both species can migrate thousands of kilometers, although the Southern species (M. leonina) appears to migrate more extensively and the Northern species (M. angustirostris) has not been observed to wander out of the North Pacific. Southern Elephant Seals have been observed off the coast of Sawqarah, Oman (Johnson 1990) and 46 (!) records are known from Brazilian coastal states, up to Pernambuco and the Fernando de Noronha archipelago (de Moura et al. 2010)), which demonstrates that the species can reach the equator. The authors cautiously suggest their records are the northernmost yet of juvenile southern elephant seals, but cannot reject the possibility of the southernmost record of the northern elephant seals (Alava and Carvajal 2005). It could be possible that both occurred, but in all likelihood the same species was drawn to the same region for some obscure reason.

As far as other instances of elephant seals in cryptozoology, Roy Mackal once hypothesized that the White River monster was a very wayward elephant seal - wayward in that the sightings were in Arkansas! One blogger hypothesized that a monster seen in the Solimões River was a wayward northern elephant seal (thanks to geographical confusion), but it could be possible for southern elephant seals to enter South American rivers - it still doesn't explain the reported small eyes, snake-like neck, and incorrectly reported country for the river.


Alava, J., and Carvajal, R. (2005). First records of elephant seals on the Guayaquil Gulf, Ecuador: On the occurrence of either a Mirounga leonina or M. angustirostrisThe Latin American journal of aquatic mammals 4(2): 195-198. Available.

de Moura, J., di Dario, B. Lima, L., and Siciliano, S. (2010). Southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) along the Brazilian coast: review and additional records. Marine Biodiversity Records 3, doi: 10.1017/S1755267209991138

Secondary References (cited by Alava and Carvajal 2005):

Felix, F., Haase, B., Samaniego, J., and Oechsle, J. (1994). New evidence of the presence of the South American sea lion Otaria flavescens (Carnivora Pinnipedia) in Ecuadorian waters. Estudios Oceanológicos 13, 85-88.

Johnson, D. (1990) A southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) in the Northern Hemisphere (Sultanate of Oman). Marine Mammal Science 12: 242-243.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Derichthys: The Neck Eel

From Wikipedia Commons.
Derichthys serpentinus* is yet another deep-sea fish with a strikingly odd appearance - it has what appears to be a neck! On the basis of maxilla and premaxilla morphology, early workers placed the fish in its own order, Carenchelyi (Jordan and Evermann 1896), or argued that it was a synbranchiform (Gill 1905). Relying on a couple characters is of course a terrible way to go about phylogenetics, and it was eventually realized that Derichthys was a true eel despite its neurocranial oddities (Castle 1970). Derichthys is now coupled with Nessorhamphus in the clade Derichthyidae, which itself has variably been placed as a relative of Heterocongrinae (Eagderi and Adriaens 2010) or sister clade of Serrivomeridae (Mehta et al. 2010), but either way is certainly nestled deep within Anguilliformes

* Derichthys roughly means 'fish with a neck', and serpentinus refers to its pronounced resemblance to snakes, even more so than other eels.

Gill (1884) claimed that Derichthys appeared to be the only fish with a "true neck", but is this really the case? The illustration at top unfortunately has forward-bending pectorals obfuscating the distance between the head and pectoral fin base, which is about 4/5th the head length (Jordan and Evermann 1896). The dorsal fin in this species is peculiar in that it begins midway between the snout and vent (Jordan and Evermann 1896), and coupled with the constricted appearance of the fish's anterior portion, makes Derichthys look even 'neckier'. Derichthys is not the only eel with pectoral fins set far back on their body, as members of Ophichthidae do as well, albeit with much thicker 'necks'. Both Derichthys and ophichthids demonstrate 'branchial displacement', a phenomenon where connections between the cranium and gill arches are lost (as well as interconnections of the gill arches), and the gill arches are pushed back, forming an extended branchial region* (Mehta et al. 2010). Derichthys has both considerable branchial displacement and a large gape, although it is no longer clear if the two are related to processing large food items (Mehta et al. 2010). Interestingly Derichthys avoids competition with its close relative Nessorhamphus - which it overlaps in distribution and habitat - by utilizing its large gape to feed on sergestid shrimp rather than the smaller euphausiids (Hoar et al. 1997).

* I really wish I could find a picture demonstrating this.

So Derichthys isn't a complete anomaly as Gill suggested, but it would still be interesting to learn why the anterior portion of the animal would be constricted if it feeds on large-ish organisms. After looking into ophichthids, I found some of them to be so monstrously bizarre they're my new blogging priority.


Castle, P. H. J. (1970). Distribution, Larval Growth, and Metamorphosis of the Eel Derichthys serpentinus Gill, 1884 (Pisces: Derichthyidae). Copeia 1970 (3), 444-452.

Eagderi, S. and Adriaens, D. (2010). Head morphology of the duck bill eel, Hoplunnis punctata (Regan, 1915; Nettastomatidae: Anguilliformes) in relation to jaw elongation. Zoology 113, 148-157. Available.

Gill, T. (1905). A New Introduction to the Study of Fishes. Science 21 (539), 653-661. Available.

Gill, T. (1884). Three New Families Of Fishes Added To The Deep-Sea Fauna In A Year. The American Naturalist 18, 433. Available.

Hoar, W. S., Randall, D. J., Conte, F. P. (1997). Fish Physiology Volume 16: Deep-Sea Fishes. Academic Press: San Diego, California. Partially Available.

Jordan, D. S., and Evermann, B. W. (1896). The Fishes of North and Middle America. Bulletin of the United States National Museum 47. Available.

Mehta, R. S., Ward, A. B., Alfaro, M. E., and Wainwright, P. C. (2010). Elongation of the Body in Eels. Integrative and Comparative Biologydoi:10.1093/icb/icq075

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cryptozoological Case File #0001 - The Valhalla Sea Serpent

This new featurette of The Lord Geekington will delve into the more compelling - and bizarre - eyewitness accounts of 'cryptids'. With the intent of having a great deal more to write about, I am going to broadly define cryptozoology as the 'study of unexpected animals'; that is, unusual forms of known animals (color, size, other morphology), occurrences in unexpected locations*, and of course potential undescribed species. In regards to the usage of anecdotal evidence, it is not so valueless that it should be dismissed out of hand, yet any sort of conclusions drawn from such information should be limited. 

The following sighting is remarkable for containing testimony from ornithologist E. G. B. Meade-Waldo and entomologist M. J. Nicoll during a scientific expedition on the vessel Valhalla. Despite the specializations of both men, Nicoll's book on the yacht's voyages suggests they were all-around competent naturalists with experience of viewing marine animals, making a report of an unidentifiable animal all the more fascinating.

Note: Conversions in brackets and hyperlinks are my own.

M. J. Nicoll in Nicoll (1908) (p. 21-26):
Before describing our doings at Bahia, I must refer in detail to an important incident which occurred on the high seas during our second voyage thither.
On the 7th December, 1905, when in latitude 7° 14' S., longitude 34° 25' W., and about fourteen miles [22 kilometers] from the coast of Brazil near Para, a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions was sighted by two of us. At the time we were under sail only, and were slowly making our way to Bahia. It was at about 10 o'clock in the morning, and I was leaning on the rail of the poop deck, when a large fin suddenly appeared close to the ship at a distance of about fifty yards [46 m]. This fin resembled that of no fish I had previously seen, and I pointed it out immediately to Mr. E. G. B. Meade-Waldo, who was on deck with me at the time, and we watched it together for several minutes. As we passed slowly by, a long eel-like neck surmounted by a head, shaped somewhat like that of a turtle, rose out of the water in front of the fin. This creature remained in sight for a few minutes, but we soon drew ahead of it, and it became lost to view, owing to the ripple of the water. Owing to the fact that we were under sail at the time, it was not possible to go about and make a closer inspection, and with great regret we had to be content with the view we had had of this remarkable monster.

A full account of it was given at a meeting of the Zoological Society of London, on 19th June, 1906, and I quote below from the report which was printed in the "Proceedings" of that Society (10th October, 1906, p. 721): -
"At about 10.15 a.m., on Thursday, 7th December, 1905, when in lat. 7° 14' S., long. 34° 25' W., in a depth of from 322 to 1,340 fathoms [589-2451 m], Meade-Waldo and I saw a most extraordinary creature about 100 yards [91 m] from the ship, and moving in the same direction, but very much slower than we were going. At first all that we could see was a dorsal fin, about four feet [1.2 m] long, sticking up about 2 feet [0.6 m] from the water; this fin was of a brownish-black colour, and much resembled a gigantic piece of ribbon-seaweed. Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature. Every now and then the fin entirely disappeared below the water. Suddenly an eel-like neck, about six feet [1.8 m] long and of the thickness of a man's thigh, having a head shaped like that of a turtle, appeared in front of the fin. This head and neck, which were of the same colour above as the fin, but of a silvery-white below, lashed up the water with a curious wriggling movement. After this it was so far astern of us that we could make out nothing else.
" During the next fourteen hours we went about twice, and at about 2 a.m. the following day (8th December, in lat 7° 19' S., long. 34° 04' W., the first and third mates, Mr. Simmonds and Mr. Harley, who were on the bridge at the time, saw a great commotion in the water. At first they thought it was a rock a-wash about 100 to 150 yards [91-137 m] away on the port side, just aft of the bridge, but they soon made out that it was something moving and going slightly faster than the ship, which at that time was doing about 8 1/2 knots [15.7 km/h]. Mr. Simmonds hailed the deck, and one of the crew, who was on the look-out, saw it too. Although there was a bright moon at the time, they could not make out anything of the creature itself, owing to the amount of wash it was making, but they say that the commotion in the water it looked as if a submarine was going along just below the surface. They both say most emphatically that it was not a whale, and that it was not blowing, nor have they ever seen anything like it before. After they had watched it for several minutes, it 'sounded' off the port bow, and they saw no more of it."
The creature was an example, I consider, of what has been so often reported, for want of a better name, as the "great sea-serpent." I feel sure, however, that it was not a reptile that we saw, but a mammal. It is, of course, impossible to be certain of this, but the general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this impression. It is often said that, if there were such a monster, remains of it would have been found long ago, but this is not necessarily so. Supposing the "sea-serpent" lives in deep holes, such as there were in the spot where we saw out "monster," then there would be little chance of remains being washed ashore, and the amount of deep-sea dredging that has yet been done is very small, so that it is not surprising that no parts of this creature have been obtained in that way.
That it is not more often reported is not to be wondered at, when one realized how often it is that a ship may sail for says together without sighting another ship, even in seas where there is considerable traffic. Also it must be remembered that such ridicule is generally bestowed on the reports of sea-monsters that many persons hesitate to describe what they have seen. I know myself of several instances of unknown sea-monsters have been seen by reliable witnesses, who, to avoid the inevitable "chaff," would not publicly state their experiences. 

E. G. B. Meade-Waldo in Meade-Waldo and Nicoll (1906), from Heuvelmans (1968):
On Dec. 7th, 1905, at 10:15 A.M., I was on the poop of the 'Valhalla' with Mr. Nicoll, when he drew my attention to an object in the sea about 100 yards [91.4 meters] from the yacht; he said: 'Is that the fin of a great fish?'
I looked and immediately saw a large fin or frill sticking out of the water, dark seaweed-brown in colour, somewhat crinkled at the edge. It was apparently about 6 feet [1.8 m] in length, and projected from 18 inches to 2 feet [0.46 to 0.6 m] from the water.
I got my field-glasses on to it (a powerful pair of Goerz Triëder), and almost as soon as I had them on the frill, a great head and neck rose out of the water in front of the frill; the neck did not touch the frill in the water, but came out of the water in front of it, at a distance of certainly not less than 18 inches [0.46 m], probably more. The neck appeared about the thickness of a slight man's body, and from 7 to 8 feet [2.1 to 2.4 m] was out of the water; head and neck were all about the same thickness.
 The head had a very turtle-like appearance, as had also the eye. I could see the line of the mouth, but we were sailing pretty fast, and quickly drew away from the object, which was going very slowly. It moved its head and neck from side to side in a peculiar manner: the colour of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below - almost white, I think.

Meade-Waldo, in a letter to R. T. Gould, from Heuvelmans (1968):
It made a wave as it went along, and under water behind the neck I could see a good-sized body. As we drew ahead we could see it swing its neck from side to side and it lashed the sea into foam.
The eye and the edge of the neck had a turtle-like appearance to us both. We were so astonished at the time that we could neither of us speak! We then visited (late) Lord Crawford, and he said he would stop the yacht if it was any use; but we decided as we were making about 14 knots it would not be much use.
The creature seen from H.M.S. Daedalus... and figured in the 'Illustrated London News'... might easily be the same...

So far as I can tell, the second Valhalla 'sighting' has yet to be brought up by any cryptozoologists. Unfortunately, there's no reason to think it is anything but a known animal, and that the men in question were over-excited from the prior day's event.

In the first Valhalla encounter, it is curious that Nicoll gives conflicting distances from the object, so it would be more prudent to assume ornithologist Meade-Waldo was more on the mark. His reported distance of only 300 feet/91 meters still seems remarkably close,  but surprisingly, over half of the 'sea serpent' sightings with a given distance were reportedly less than 100 meter from the observer, and few were over 200 m (Paxton 2009). The type of field-glasses (binoculars) used was not specified, but may have been similar to this model marketed towards naturalists with 9x magnification. While the speed of the craft and shake undoubtedly hampered visibility, the implied effective viewing distance of ~10 meters suggests Meade-Waldo got a very close look at what he was describing. While few traits were given, it is noteworthy that Nicoll was even able to get an impression of the "fin's" texture.

What could these men have possibly seen? It would be unlikely, if not physically impossible, for any serpentine fish to stick out 1.8-2.4 meters of its body at a 45 degree angle. A giant cephalopod at an angle could cover the appearance of the 'dorsal fin', but it seems unlikely that tentacles could function out of the water like that; the contrasting coloration, lack of suckers, and presence of an eye and mouth-line is problematic. Seaturtles have short necks, as does Podocnemis expansa, a large pleurodire in the same region which apparently can get washed out to sea*. Softshell turtles can get freakishly big, have freakishly long necks, and at least some species can tolerate marine conditions for extended periods of time, but none live in the region (next nearest in Florida), and their head shape probably wouldn't be described as turtle-like. Some pinnipeds can give the impression of being long-necked**, although the only candidates would be very out-of-place otariids or leopard seals, and even then the turtle-shaped head, extreme length of the neck, and rubbery dorsal appendage are difficult to explain. Marine birds are the only animals that can approximate the neck length and shape (albeit not size), but it would be comical for an ornithologist to make such a mistake with binoculars.

* Marine wanderings of freshwater turtles will also be covered later.
** Pinniped necks are roughly the same as those of terrestrial carnivorans. 

In short, I can't think of any known animal as a candidate that wouldn't require a great deal of poor observation skills to turn into the Valhalla object. Matt Bille calls this 'The Definitive Sea Serpent' and also had classification difficulties. Heuvelmans (1968) classified this encounter as a 'Super-Eel' on the basis of no head-neck differentiation, apparent dorsal fin, and the mouth-line not extending past the eye in Nicoll's drawing. The drawing is quite vague in this regard, and since the witnesses don't have anything to say on the matter, it is not a valid identification-worthy trait. Coleman and Huyghe (2003) for some reason state that the witnesses specified this trait, and use it to classify it as a mammalian 'waterhorse'. Champagne classified it as a 'Type 4B', a "transitional animal with reptilian and mammalian characteristic" using my nemesis, the P/A index.

My take on Champagne's 'Type 4B'.

In conclusion, I'm confused. It comes down to a question of - is there an extremely bizarre giant marine vertebrate out there with no obvious relatives, or did two naturalists get over-excited and imagine something mundane to be a sea serpent? They did appear to have some knowledge of sea serpent reports, which could have influenced their testimony, but at the same time, the reported distance and presence of binoculars must have meant this was one seriously strong belief.

Welcome to the world of cryptozoology!


Coleman, L., Huyghe P. (2003). Lake monsters, sea serpents, and other mystery denizens of the deep. Tarcher/Penguin: New York

Heuvelmans, B. (1968). In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. Hill and Wang: New York.

Nicoll, M. J. (1908). Three voyages of a naturalist : being an account of many little-known islands in three oceans visited by the "Valhalla" R.Y.S. London: Witherby & Co. Available through Internet Archive.

Paxton, C. G. M. (2009). The plural of ‘anecdote’ can be ‘data’: statistical analysis of viewing distances in reports of unidentified large marine animals 1758–2000. Journal of Zoology 279, 381-387. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2009.00630.x

Friday, October 15, 2010

Selling Out, Or At Least Trying To

After a scary extended period of 404 errors, is finally online! A custom domain gives me more options to play around with, but my true intentions are to get more serious about blogging. A post a month isn't satisfying for me, and presumably others, so now I'll attempt to have some form of output every day - starting next week. As for the content, I won't be reviewing recent publications (enough people do that already), and will focus instead on more obscure studies, whatever nature I stumble upon, interesting cryptozoological reports, and who knows what else in addition to the customary infrequent mega-post.

In order to recuperate the $10 annual fee, I've bitten the bullet and enabled adds. I have madcap dreams of not only getting my money back, but having enough for blog-relevant books and perhaps a professional Flickr account. I'm just hoping I won't be out ten bucks and need to revert back to the status quo.

As for what I'm working on now: sewer-dwelling turtles and attempting to identify this apparently invasive plant species, which is not kudzu or mile-a-minute vine: