An exploration of our Earth's ever-captivating fauna through musings on the bizarre side of Zoology, Cryptozoology, Paleontology, and Paleoanthropology

Friday, May 17, 2013

Comparisons Between "Sea Serpents" and Mammal Anatomy [Updated]

A painting by Thomas Finley, based off of a sighting of an alleged unknown animal in Loch Ness which appears to have exhibited rather mammalian features.
I have recently been working on creating comparative images between photographs or eyewitness drawings which are allegedly of the unknown aquatic animals known as "sea serpents" and anatomy of known animal species. While some people may feel that this is a waste of time or is subject to error, I think that making such comparisons may help us gain a better idea of what these animals are and thus may possibly allow us to eventually be able to predict where their likely habitats and behaviors would be. I had originally posted these comparative images to the Bizarre Zoology Facebook page, but I thought that it may be beneficial to viewers if I shared them here. The reports of long-necked unknown animals which suggest that these animals have body hair, whiskers, horn-like structures or pinnae (ears), dorsal humps, wide mouths, an undulating swimming motion, toleration of cold water, neck flexibility in the vertical plane, and toleration of changes in environmental salinity relating to fresh or salt water indicate to some researchers that these animals are mammals, and I have thus chosen to compare the photographs of these alleged unknown long-necked animals in this article to mammal anatomy. I specifically compared this data to anatomy of sea lions, as most subscribers to the mammal hypothesis feel that reports and evidence suggest that these animals are most likely long-necked pinnipeds which are of the family Otariidae. However, I have also included a comparison with a drawing depicting a short necked "sea serpent" and have found it to also be similar to the anatomy of a species of marine mammal (Basilosaurus cetoides).
The first comparison image in this article is a comparison between a drawing and photograph of the tail which belonged to the Naden Harbor "Cadborosaurus willsi" carcass and several pinniped hind flippers (as well as the skeleton of a sea lion's). The Naden Harbor carcass was a strange animal which was found in the stomach of a sperm whale in 1937. The carcass was truly bizarre with a cameloid head, a long and serpentine body with two fore-flippers, and a fan-like tail. Due to the oddity of the specimen, personnel at the British Columbian whaling station laid the creature out on a table and photographed it. To the disappointment of cryptozoological researchers, the carcass was written off as a fetal baleen whale by an examiner who was trained in taxidermy but not zoology (thus increasing the likelihood that this was a false conclusion). The reason that I compared an image of the tail which belonged to the carcass with the joint hind flippers of sea lions and seals is that the zoologist Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans had hypothesized that a species of elongate pinniped (named the Merhorse or Halshippus olai-magni by him) which had a head like a horse, large eyes, a longish neck, and a mane was behind reports of similar animals. Although it appears to be decomposed, it could be argued that the tail of the Naden Harbor carcass is composed of two fused hind-flippers much like a sea lion's.
Next is a comparison between images of the wet or slippery tan skin of sea lions and the Sandra Mansi Lake Champlain "creature" photograph. The Mansi photograph was taken in 1977 by Sandra Mansi when she allegedly noticed a long-necked animal surface about fifty yards away from her children who were playing in the water. While an analysis by Dr. Paul LeBlond indicated that the object in the photograph was between sixteen and fifty-six feet long, a recent analysis by Benjamin Radford has suggested that the object is smaller than original size estimates. In my opinion, the appearance of what would be the skin of the alleged animal in the Sandra Mansi photograph is quite similar to the appearance of sea lion skin (especially in the slippery-look and the way the sun reflects off of it). I also included a drawing of Heuvelmans' hypothesized "Super-Otter" sea serpent, as I think it greatly resembles the alleged animal in the Mansi photograph. Michael Woodley has suggested in his book In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans: An Introduction to the History and Future of Sea Serpent Classification that the Mansi photograph may be one of the strongest single pieces of evidence gathered so far for the existence of long necked pinnipeds (although he does also write that the identity of the object in the photograph is greatly controversial). The similarity of skin appearance may support this idea, although this comparison may certainly be faulty. Even if the Mansi photograph doesn't show an unknown animal, the reports of Lake Champlain "lake serpents" by the Native Americans which lived in the area do suggest an animal which may have a pinniped identity. As Michael Woodley pointed out, Native Americans in the area have said that the long necked lake animals had "horns", which would match with sea serpent reports that describe horn-like pinnae on the animals. Although there aren't noticeable protruberances on the head of the alleged animal in the Mansi photo, the comparison with images of sea lions serves the purpose of demonstrating that ears which are flattened against the head do not show up well in photographs of pinnipeds from a distance. Please note that I am not necessarily supporting the validity of the Mansi photograph as a real animal by including it in this article, and there is evidence which suggests that it may have been an honest misidentification of a large piece of wood.
My last comparison image is likely to be the most informative and beneficial, in my opinion. It is a comparison between Basilosaurus depictions and skeletal anatomy with a drawing of a sea serpent which was allegedly seen by two officers aboard a ship named the Sacramento. The crocodilian-like animal was allegedly encountered in the mid-Atlantic in 1877. As the comparative image below illustrates, there are anatomical similarities between the body and head of the "Sacramento sea serpent" and the skeleton, skull, and depictions of Basilosaurus cetoides. Basilosaurus cetoides were an elongate and primitive whale species which lived 34 to 40 million years ago. The animals had uniquely flexible bodies which could move in the vertical and horizontal plane, and also had heads which were similar to those of some of the long extinct marine reptiles. An interesting side note regarding this report is that the men witnessed the animal lying perfectly still in the water before eventually swimming away. Due to their weak axial musculature and thick bones in their limbs, it is generally thought that Basilosaurus were unable to swim constantly without resting. Is it possible that the men on the Sacramento had witnessed a relict Basilosaurus resting from a long period of swimming? One cautionary note is that the animal seen by the officer appears to have a neck which is slightly longer than that of a Basilosaurus. This could possibly be due to several factors which include Basilosaurus having evolved a slightly longer neck (as it did have between 34 to 40 million years to evolve) or possibly a mistake by the crewmen, but the overall anatomical similarity is undeniable.

As I stated above, some people may feel that such comparative images are useless and fallible, but I continue to think that they may serve a benefit in research of such reports. Please know that although I have presented my hypotheses here, I encourage you to make up your own mind regarding the identity of these bizarre cryptozoological animals.

References:
  • Coleman, Loren, and Patrick Huyghe. The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2003. Print.
  • Woodley, Michael A., and Karl Shuker. In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans: An Introduction to the History and Future of Sea Serpent Classification. Myrtle Cottage, Woolsery, Bideford, North Devon: CFZ, 2008. Print.
Update:
Due to the abundance of views which this article has been receiving as of lately, I felt that it would be appropriate to add a sort of update to amend my thoughts expressed here. At his Frontiers of Zoology blog, Dale Drinnon wrote the following regarding the kinds of mammalian-sounding reports of "lake monsters" which entail distinctly horse-like heads and other apparently equine features. This was partly in response to the artwork by Thomas Finley which I have as the introductory image to this article. I felt that his comments would be beneficial to viewers in that they discuss a possible explanation for many "mammalian sea serpent" reports.


"This is a matter which we have fully covered on this blog many times before. This kind of "Sea-serpent or Lake Monster" is the one that is properly called the Water Horse. It is an animal which looks like a hose that goes in the water: it has a thick and not very long neck (Ordinarily only 3-4 feet long, but the head is also nearly that size and so the head and neck together can be spoken of as 6 feet long), has obvious ears (that can wiggle), a mane and often a beard (or bell) and a distinctively horsey or camel-like head. Thomas Finley also did a very good job of depicting one of its identifying characteristics: a blunt nose with large round nostrils at the end and a large overhanging upper lip. The basic animal is obvious enough: it is an elk or moose. The size and overall shape, but especially the shape of the snout, mane and beard or bell, rare reports of stubby horns but more importantly occasionally even moose horns (which have been specifically reported at Lake Champlain and at Flathead Lake) make the identification certain. At which point critics who say it cannot be a moose are in a bind because if we can have reports of runaway pet big cats the whole world over (but especially in Britain, where the reports draw attention), or even kangaroos and such, there is not any especially unusual problem with supposing some moose got loose. The King of Sweden even historically gave away gifts of moose (Elk) to friendly countries because they are much esteemed in Sweden. A [form of] seal would never have the head of a moose, nor yet anything approaching an ungulate shape. The specifics of the head shape are clear enough that we can say with some assurance that is what Lorenz Von Ferry saw way back in the 18th century and reported to Pontoppidian. Such reports are often attributed to "Caddy" in the Northwest Coast region and to "Ogopogo" inland in British Columbia. Such creatures are reported to have cloven hooves in folklore, and their tracks when reported in some areas (Including New England and at Lake Okanagon)  match moose tracks in their reported size and shape."


In regard to the Naden Harbor carcass and the Mansi photograph, Scott Mardis has authored some excellent articles on these matters here and here. The aforementioned pieces have changed my thoughts in regard to the two



22 comments:

  1. Very cool subject. I've liked these stories since a kid. Keep up the good work.

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  2. Regarding the 1977 photo; I've always seen the part sticking out of the water as a flipper rather than a neck and head. The base of the neck appears to be a shoulder girdle, with the actual head to the left, partly above water and partly submerged.

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    1. I have thought that also. There was a documentary which featured an examination of the photo which said it was a flipper, and the show also suggested that the Lake Champlain creatures are archaeocetes.

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  3. The two major problems I have with the pinniped idea are as follows:
    1. A longnecked pinniped would only have 7 vertebrae in the neck, so the neck would would likely not be able to form the stretched S shape observed in alleged sightings of longnecked sea serpents.
    2. There are depictions of "dragons" and "water monsters" from many ancient peoples and civilizations around the world that appear to show plesiosaur-like charactaristics such as euryapsid skull markings and plesiosaurian limb structure (and many of these depictions are found in areas where plesiosaur fossils have not been found, so it should not be suggested that they were based on fossils.

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    1. Hi Joe. I strongly disagree with your arguments. The whole argument on the seven vertebrae allegedly making the neck stiff is entirely false, and I will have an article devoted to this out soon. That argument totally ignores the fact that neck flexibility relies mostly upon cartilaginous capsules and discs, rather than number of neck vertebrae. Here's a recent paper on the subject: http://www.app.pan.pl/archive/published/app54/app54-213.pdf
      Giraffes and camels are two known mammals which have long necks with only seven elongated vertebrae, yet exhibit a stunning degree of neck flexibility. Here are some examples: http://www.buzzfeed.com/kmallikarjuna/no-one-is-better-at-sleeping-than-giraffes
      http://ix.cs.uoregon.edu/~kent/paleontology/sauropods/Diplodocus/index.html
      http://svpow.com/2010/09/28/the-oxford-camel-is-just-plain-cheating/

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    2. In regard to the argument of alleged relict plesiosaur depictions, I am an avid follower of Mr. Drinnon's work but I do respectfully disagree on this point also. I really see no reason to assume that the things which Dale claims are artistic representations of euryapsid skull markings are anything other than artistic stylizations. But that is just my opinion.

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  4. I refer you to these four articles at frontiers of zoology.com:

    Sea serpent reconstructions and the problem of the longneck's neck

    Classical plesiosaurian sea serpents

    Surviving plesiosaurs as Vs. longnecked seals as longnecked sea serpent candidates

    CFZ blog on plesiosaurian taniwhas REPOST


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  5. The argument about the seven vertebrae making the mammalian neck stiff can still be considered valid because there would only be one joint where the neck could bend vertically; the result would be an angle, not a smooth stretched "S" curve (this is the case with giraffes).

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    1. Actually, no it still is invalid. That is just not how vertebrae work, they are much more complex than "blocks on string" like you are basically suggesting. Vertebrae do not bend, they rotate on facet joints. Again, I will have an article on this published eventually.

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  6. Also, I cannot see how the said relict plesiosaur depictions are simply artistic stylizations because they very well describe the known anatomy of plesiosaurs.

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    1. Well, for example, Dale has claimed that many artifacts depict euryapsid skull openings, but these look like simple artistic spirals and such rather than actual attempts to depict accurate skull anatomy.

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  7. I have looked at the pictures of giraffes flexing their necks at buzzfeed.com and they all show horizontal flexibility in a giraffe's neck, not vertical flexibility.

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    1. The point of giraffe necks is that they are able to flex their necks in ways which animals with elongate vertebrae shouldn't be able to if we accept the hypothesis that long vertebrae restricts neck flexibility. Keep looking, you'll find ones with vertical flexing.

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  8. I have recently found out about an analysis of the 1977 mansi photo done by Clifford Paiva of "BMS Research Associates" (you can read about it at My Opera.com).

    It reveals features which are interpreted by Paiva as evidence that the object in the photo is not a log or the fin of a large marine mammal (or a giant salamander's tale or waterbird), but a large, longnecked marine reptile.

    What is your stance on this, Jay?

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    1. Thanks for letting me know about this, I'll check it out. Also, thanks for commenting, I'm glad that my blog is helping stimulate discussion and questions. I think that the Mansi photo most likely depicts a large piece of wood with a long neck-like branch which burst to the surface, and here's an article by Dr. Darren Naish on this view: http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2008/06/03/mansi-champ-photo/
      However, I remain open minded. If I am to go along with the animal hypothesis, I hold the same stance as Heuvelmans: that it cannot represent a plesiosaur because of the neck structure in the photograph and the anatomy of reptilian vertebrae. Therefore, if it is an animal, I opt for a mammal (most likely a long-necked otariid). Thanks again.

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    2. Btw, looking at the Paiva analysis, I think the "scales" and "thick, reptilian jaw" he is seeing are simply the result of artifacts from him zooming in and contrasting the image so much. He is basically seeing what he wants to see...but then again, aren't we all ;) haha.

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  9. It should also be noted that many plesiosaur fossils are found with their necks articulated into vertical curves.

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  10. Anyway Jay, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the Mansi photo and the Paiva analysis of such (I'm now rather skeptical of that also; Paiva is a young earth creationist who claims to be an expert on "post-deluvian" cryptozoological animals). Like you I remain open to both the log and animal hypothesises but even if it was a log it makes me afraid venture out on Lake Champlain; I have a bizarre fear of logs.

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