Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Amazing Blanket Octopus!

Dear Constant Readers,

I was going to write a blog on cryptic giant octopuses, but as it got increasingly bloated, I stumbled on something that I knew I had to cover. My time is rather limited between a block of testing and finals, so another one of those 10 hour time-killers is sorta out of the picture. Don't worry, who knows what monstrosities I'll cook up over summer, muhahaha. Cryptozoology and monsters will have to wait, but this animal is just as interesting, if not more so, because it is quite real.

Octopuses (not octopi or octopodes) are some of the most fascinating creatures on the planet, well, to me of course. They are highly derived cephalopod molluscs like the squids of my past posts; except having eight-arms, a fused head and mantle, and a very reduced or absent shell. Other stereotypical characteristics (benthic habitat, rapid color changes, lack of fins and cirri, et cetera) apply to the family Octopodidae which is by far the most familiar to the public. However, the group has a surprising amount of diversity including totally pelagic (free-swimming) forms, a blind form, jello-like forms, forms with fins, a form with a "shell", and so forth.

The taxa that I'm going to talk about belong Argonautoida superfamily which have specialized to be free-swimming. These of course include the bizarre "shelled" Argonauts, and possibly the world's largest species of octopus, both of which I'll have to talk about later. They are also united by the strange feature of having one of the male's arms detach during mating. But I think one can argue that there is one oddball in this already peculiar group.

Tremoctopus is a genus consisting of four species and resting in its own family. For octopuses they are quite large, getting up to 2 meters (6.5 feet) long and weighing around 10 kg (22 lbs). However, this is only for females as the males only reach 2.4 cm with a weight of 0.25 grams! This makes the females up to 40,000 times larger than their male counterparts, nearly two orders of magnitude. This is apparently the most extreme sexual dimorphism seen in an animal that could be considered "large", see this paper for more. The males appear to have large eyes for finding the females, and after their arm detached during mating it is believed to be fatal.

Also remarkable about these species is the defensive behavior of the males and immature females. They have been known to take the stinging tentacles from Portugeuse Man O' War siphonophores and use them as a defensive (and offensive?) weapons while protecting themselves with unknown mechanisms. A combination of this and the pelagic habitat may have caused the incredible sexual dimorphism, as other animals (sea slugs, hermit and boxer crabs) who use this bizarre defence do not exhibit the dimorophic trait. Another trait due to the pelagic habitat is the presence of a "swim bladder", a trait present only in a few other Argonautoids and a convergence upon fishes.

Odd thought these traits may be, what is really impressive (and the reason for this post) is the general appearance of this animal. The name is a reference to very heavy webbing between the four dorsal arms (the same used to hold tentacles earlier in life), which makes it look distinctive from all other octopuses. I hope I can use these images, because I'm definitely not going to be able to match this, especially as far as coloration is concerned. People seeing me work on this could not even identify the images as coming from an octopus. Enjoy:

There is an excellent picture at the Tree of Life webpage, that was taken by Arthur Silva and appeared in the April 2007 BBC Wildlife magazine, although this does unfortunately appear to be copyright violation. So I guess I'm morally obligated not to post it here or link to it. Sigh, it really was a very nice picture. Now with summer on the way I'll be sure to create lots of nice public domain images of an unfortunate lesser quality.

There were also nice photographs taken of Tremoctopus violaceus by Cassandra L. Cox off the coast of Florida in 2005. They can be found here since there seem to be difficulties uploading at the moment.

Finally, an actual image! Taken from this page which has other fantastic pictures. This specimen is identified as Tremoctopus gracilis and was taken by Marcello Conticelli off Ponza, Italy. Let's see how the copyright holds up on this one...

For the sake of posterity I am a bit worried about putting up a YouTube video. When other octopuses swim, they put their arms in a similar wing-like posture, but this is something else entirely...

I hope I can see you all sometime before the month is out. More cephalopods? Something different? Who knows.

Oh yes, and Happy Birthday Caitlin!


Tuesday, April 3, 2007

A Somewhat Confusing Skull

Dear Constant Readers,

Before I get too far into this post, I would thank my sister, Caitlin McCormick, for being such a trooper and taking all of the pictures that I requested. I did realize that skull identification was made much more difficult being half a region away from the specimen as well as not having any photographs. Without it, I would just be rambling to myself about stuff that I kinda remembered.

When Darren Naish blogged this fascinating post on Saturday, one of the mysterious cat skulls reminded me somewhat of a skull I had found some years back (couldn't have been too many years) in Rhode Island. Aside from the melanistic Kellas cat from Scotland and the even more mysterious Mastiff Cats, the Dufftown skull apparently represents yet another mysterious cat from Britain, the atrociously named "rabbit-headed cat". Just read all of the links for a fascinating tale, and and this post too while you're at it.

The cat skull that I found, just to give a bit of background, was found in the town of Barrington, Rhode Island, which is quite suburban. There's a cool little map function on my flickr that can let you pinpoint the nigh-exact location of the skull, for anybody curious. It was found within what could be described as a 20 acre swampy bramble patch; in fact it was found in a frozen vernal pool. The skull was mostly sticking out when I found it, but I couldn't help but wonder if it had somehow been deformed by freezing temperatures (without breaking?). However, it is quite symmetrical and has features not explainable by deformation. What are the odds that the skull I find happens to be a little on the odd side?

Barrington skull (left), Dufftown skull (center), Kellas cat (right). The Kellas cat is quite similar to normal domestic cats.

As you can see in the picture, I think there were some grounds for remembering the Barrington skull as being similar to the Dufftown cat, although it is hard since they are not at the same angle. The postorbital bar (the bony ring around the eye) appears closed or nearly closed on the Dufftown cat, and is closed for sure on the Barrington skull. The nasal region, level of canine development (look at the prominence of the roots) and skull shape appear somewhat similar. However, the Dufftown cat exhibited a lot of weird characteristics that my specimen didn't have. My argument was that perhaps it was within individual variation too. The external appearance of the Dufftown cat is known, and it certainly is quite weird. There are some ferals living out in the woods (I recall maybe 3-4 different individuals), but none of them look odd or unusually large at all.

Darren pointed out that there seem to be a lot of characteristics of the Barrington skull pointing away from a domestic cat and towards a Bobcat. It is quite amazing that animals with around 8 million years (or so I interpreted) of separation could be confused like that. But sure enough, there does seem to be similarity between them. I'll use photographic comparisons to further illustrate my confusion.

Barrington skull (side), Bobcat (middle), Domestic cat (bottom).

This is the first sort of comparison that I did, and it seems like the domestic cat makes a slightly better candidate. It should be noted that the nasal bone projection, skull flatteness and length, sagittal crest development and of course occipital bar closure is more pronounced in the Barrington skull than in the other two. There are similarities to the Bobcat skull too (note the apparent frontal concavity), but I can't help but wonder if some apparent similarities were due to size rather than phylogeny. According to bone clones a domestic cat cat skull in 4" and a bobcat skull is 5", and this appears to measure in between (Caitlin, back me up on this!).

Barrington skull (top), Bobcat skull (middle), Domestic cat (bottom)

While taken alone, the Bobcat skull seems to make a pretty likely candidate, which is what I first did. But when I found a good image of a domestic (well, feral) cat skull, that seemed like an even better candidate. The snout projection and narrow braincase (noticeably narrower in the Barrington skull) seem pretty similar between my skull and the bobcat, although the bobcat skull seems much more developed muscularly. However, the angle of the orbits and nasal opening and the shape of the zygomatic arch appear similar between the Barrington skull and that of a domestic cat. And it appear that domestic cats can have closed postorbital bars, see here and here. If any of you image hounds out there on the internet known of or have better comparisons, please let me know.

I'm going to hesitate on doing another anterior view comparison without the same angle. It should be noted that a bobcat skull (from here) does appear to have a similar nasal openings and canine development. However, the shape of the skull doesn't seem as flattened.

And this, Caitlin, is why the last picture you took for me was so important.

Barrington skull (top), Bobcat skull (middle), Domestic cat skull (bottom).

Darren Naish pointed out that Bobcats in fact lack a anterior pair of upper premolars, and my specimen appeared to. However, it sure does seem like from this picture that is in fact has those tooth sockets, the teeth having fallen out. While this may seem subtle, dental characteristics are strong diagnostic tools when it comes to identification. Caitlin, if you could be so kind as to confirm those are sockets and not just spots or something, well, thanks.

So it looks like this skull is not from a bobcat, and appears more similar to the skull of a domestic cat. I say more similar because it doesn't match up perfectly. As you could see, there do seem to be some characteristics that lay outside what I would expect for normal variation. I highly doubt that this is some exotic species, but it could be from an odd breed of cat. Of course, there probably are a whole host of strange subtle characteristics that I missed out on here too. Not having a database of cat skulls is frustrating as well. From a preliminary standpoint, I think the Barrington skull can demonstrate the variation on the boring old housecat. I think.

Some more blogs in the future, I'm unfortunately going to be quite busy in the near future though. Stupid Organic Chemistry.

Go Team McCormick!


Update: 4-21-07

I have come across this webpage which had another photograph of the Dufftown skull compared with a normal cat skull, dorsal this time.

Domestic cat skull (left), Barrington skull (center), Dufftown skull (right). Note that these skulls have been resized for the sake of comparison. The normal cat skull is around 9.4 centimeters (3.7 inches) and the Dufftown skull is around 10.1 cm (4 inches) judging from the source photo. The Barrington skull measured 10.9 cm (4.3 inches).

It could almost be viewed that these skulls represent varying degrees of muscular development from the domestic to Dufftown to Barrington as the most developed. Features that are only hinted at in the domestic cat skull are very prominent in the Barrington skull. There does not appear to be any hint of the parietal concavity in the smooth domestic cat skull, but there does seem to be one in the Dufftown skull and there definitely is one in the Barrington skull. I imagine that it can get quite confusing and controversial which traits are due to muscular development and which could be used as diagnostic tools. The Dufftown skull seems noticeably narrower than the other two, although the brain case of the Barrington skull is more narrow still. It should be noted that the nasal opening of the Barrington skull is much more upturned with oddly projecting bones, as opposed to the more downturned domestic cat skull and the even more downturned Dufftown skull. If anybody owns or knows about any skulls similar to the Barrington one, I'd greatly appreciate knowing about them.

It should be noted that the external appearance of the owner of the Dufftown skull is known, and it is quite strange looking:

While the image is often "squished" on webpages making it look even weirder, this certainly doesn't look like a normal cat. But is it different enough to warrant a new species? If anybody knows about any more views of the Dufftown skull, I'd also appreciate it.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Late Breaking News

Dear Continuous Readers,

As you may have gathered by the past posts, currently I am under-taking the laborious process of transforming my old Cryptozoology web-page into blog form. This has required a great deal of re-researching, and whilst on a certain subject, I happened to receive a startling communication. Rather than give the details immediately as a more vulgar web-page would, I'll give the current article in a form leading to the discovery. This will make it all the more shocking to you, and hopefully illustrate that this Cryptozoology is not in vain as some have predicted!

Historical Data

Our first piece of datum comes from the coast of Thula, Iceland in the year of 1674. The account, being related in the obscure 1923 booklet Sea-Serpentes and Other Exquisite Corpses by F. H. Pabodie, tells of the capture of a strange creature in a trawl. The appearance of the still-living creature was likely to cause panic amongst the super-stitious townspeople, so it was carted under-blanked to a nearby barn. A local scientist, Yeremi Haarde, examined the specimen under close scrutiny. Here is a sample of his written documentation:

The heade was in the maner of a Cat, but with-out Eares. Teith were num-brous, smalle, and quite Sharpe. The Bodie was the sise of a comon-Dog, but more of the Forme of a sea-Oter. In-lieu of Limbes were Flap-pers, the sise of a hande but with twain the number of fingars. Much in the mannar of an Armor-dilla, the Bodie was cover'd with rouf intar-locking armorous Plates and Skaeles. The taile was in the Forme of a sea-Carpe but turn'ed the opposite mannar...

There was also a rough little sketch that went along with this description, but unfortunately I do not happen to be in possession of a scanner and/or camera at the moment. As such, I will attempt to reproduce the drawing to the best of my abilities.

In the spring of 1795, 50 miles off the coast of Puerto Duttono, Argentina a remarkable sighting occured. On a science vessel called the Alert, biologists including A. Alborg, E. Haeckel, T. H. Huxley and Dr. W. D. Duy observed, under close quarters, a remarkable animal. This account was preserved in the Heuvelmans archives from a London Epitaph article from October 28, 1765. It was seen by every passenger on board for half an hour at a distance of half a mile to only a few dozen meters. Conditions were cloudy, although the animal could be keenly observed. One Sir Thomas P. Ward, having observed the animal through a pair of field spectacles. As such, he was able to give the most detailed account. Here is a portion of his observations:

The animal at first appeared to be a member of the Reptile clan, perhaps the mighty Dinosauruses of Owen, but in other regards appeared to be a Mammal. The head was a simple oval in shape, about the size of a gasket switch, and had a horribly stupid expression upon it. The cow-eyes stared in a dull manner towards the ship, and brown mucous emanated from the hideous prognathous lips. The head was perched awkwardly upon a long neck like that of the local ostrich-rhea. After a half-hour of paying little attention to the ship and periodically dipping down to pick up foolish cuttle-fish, the hitherto unseen body raised up, in preparation of a dive. The coloration was as black as the plumage of a common-Raven with a rugged texture, as opposed to the smooth neck. At this point the animal gave an impression of an enourmous island-tortoise. As the fell beast dived down, it briefly and lowly erected a dorsal fin like that of a Perch, giving the hint of being able to arise it much further...

There are of course many more similar sightings to these two sightings. These merely represented case studies of outstanding and un-deniable credibility.

Modern Sightings

It is quite unfortunate that sightings have become increasingly infrequent compared to those of the past, but that does not mean that their credibility has been diminished. They are considerably better covered than the historical data and do not need to be covered here in considerable detail. One familiar case involved an animal of this type seen after the destruction of the U-571 by Commander Fields of the British destroyer Emma. There was an extremely detailed and close sighting in the Delaware River near the town of Sandyston, New Jersey by a John Westfall and his girlfriend Marge Kool as recently as 2005. There have been similar, though unfortunately more vague, sightings in locations as diverse as Loch Lochy, Four Lakes Village Quarry, the St. Lawrence Seaway, Brickyard Pond, Lake Baikal and others. Captures of juveniles similar to the Thule specimen have been reported in '68 by W. Hagelund and in '91 by Phyllis Harsh in the San Juan Islands. You can read these sightings in Heuvelmans's In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, and Burns's comparable tome Leviathans. It is unfortunate that more accounts have not made their way online, and perhaps I will document these and earlier reports in future blogs.

Fossil Record

Almost equally as fascinating as the story I am about to relate is an currently unpublished journal article by Whitton, Eliot, Nash, et al. It is a recent (2004) discovery from Uhlanga, South Africa in the Lopingian period. Not much can be related before publication, but it is known to be a highly derived aquatic basal Dinocephalian Therapsids. Multiple complete individuals with a distinct larval stage have been documented. The authors mention reports of isolated specimens from as late as the Oligocene. If true, it could provide a ghost lineage that could just as easily extend into the modern day.

Breaking News

It has not been reported to Reuters or AP yet, but a carcass of this species has recently been discovered. It was believed to have washed up some time during the night of March 30, 2007 on the Barrington Town Beach in Barrington, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. It was discovered by local researchers Kait MacCorbmaic and Tracy Cuccarulloo on the morning of the 31st. They took very detailed measurements and drawings and preliminarily confirmed the existence of a new species and extreme similarity to the classification matricies established by previous authorities (Champane, Kolman and Hoey, Heuvelmans, Dambriadopra, Burns). It was sent to URI under the care of Dr. Yeremir Halonen who further confirmed the details and began an autopsy.

While preliminary in nature, the autopsy revealed a great deal about this creature. Gross skeletal anatomy confirmed a relict Dinocephalian offshoot with extreme derivations. The spinous processes in the neck allow for great vertical flexibility with enormous ligands supporting the vertical posture (presumably the natural position) of the 8 foot (2.5 m) neck. The neck has oddly thick ribs (neck ribs being odd anyways) for unknown reasons, but perhaps conspecific infighting. It appears that the neck can "fold" in a humped position when not in use to create a more streamlined profile. There is a long barbed tongue present with muscular attachments to grossly enlarged collar bones at the base of the neck. The lips are extremely prognathous and probably used for securing food items. The head is very weakly muscled with most of the skull bones having fused. Vestigial teeth and a sagittal crest suggest juveniles with a far more powerful bite and different feeding habit.

The body is deep and overall torpedo shaped, measuring 15 feet (4.5 m) in length. The ribs exhibit pachystosis and there is a single large lung, perhaps indicating a more elongated phase. Another notable feature is the extremely long small interesting, perhaps measuring over 100 meters. The rest of the internal anatomy has yet to be analyzed, but initial investigations show it to be quite distinct from known reptiles, archosaur, or mammals. There appear to be some quill-like hairs present on the body as well as shorter oily hairs, likely more common on juveniles. This and the internal anatomy seem to indicate a metabolism in between what would be considered endothermic and exothermic. Sub-cutaneous armor is present on this specimen, and it too would likely be considered more common in juveniles, which would be more vulnerable to predators. The erectile supports for the sail-like fin are made out armor instead of bone, representing a rather unique condition. The outstretched tail measures 23 feet (7 m) in length and also has thick ribs, perhaps for combat. Like the neck, it too appears able to "fold" in order to make the animal more streamlined. The bilobate tail is heavily armored and possesses a "teslon" and seems to be able to produce sound.

Some details on the anatomy are likely to change, and pictures will be up soon. You will hear about this on your local news sometime next week, but likely in a warped and/or hyped way. Remember, you heard it hear first on this blog! Finally good for something. Look for numerous followup posts on this subject, this is one of the most remarkable finds, well, ever. So it looks like Cryptozoologists finally got something right. I guess this does change things for the blog, looks like I've got a lot of re-writing to do!