Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ambiguous Washed-Up Carcasses

Dear Constant Readers,

My acronym for this subject is a bit unwieldy (AWUCs?) and I should note that Cryptozoologists typically use the term "globsters" for this particular subject. The team of Pierce et al seems to prefer "blob" and I have even seen "blobster" used. My designation is broader, something I'll get into later. As the names indicate, these blobs all lack a recognizable morphology outside of being a large mass of decomposing tissue. As such, laymen are often prone to pareidolian observations which are unfortunately taken at face-value. For those of you that dare, you can take this link to read some of the startlingly strange AWUC descriptions. As we'll see, description and actually appearance are often drastically dissimilar. There's a lot of things to see later really.

I should point out the sentimental attachment that I have to these particular blobs. While I had dabbled in Cryptozoology before things really didn't take off until I looked at the back cover of Richard Ellis' Monsters of the Sea and saw the St. Augustine carcass. I think I was 12-ish then, and I don't think I've fully recovered since. Looking back on these old subjects I realize how uncritically and unconditionally I accepted them as monsters. It's a bit embarrassing really. So I suppose now is the time to revisit this old subject and clear up what I can.

Globsters: No Longer a Mystery

While many AWUCs are shrouded in their characteristic ambiguity, many globsters have actually received recent scientific analysis. There still are some, uh, interesting individuals who reject these studies apparently on the basis that they really really want these carcasses to be "monsters". Heck, I'll admit that I'd really want them to be monsters, but unfortunately reality dictates otherwise.

Previously mentioned here, the St. Augustine carcass is the most famous of globsters despite being overlooked by early Cryptozoologists. There is an interesting story behind it told many times and I truly do salute the Wikipedian that wrote this comprehensive article. Saves me a heck of a lot of trouble. In short: this was a carcass initially thought to be a cephalopod until it was rejected by a prominent Zoologist, re-"confirmed" as a giant octopus in the 70's and 80's, and then determined to be whale blubber by Pierce et al 1995. That paper (which determined the St. Augustine carcass to be wholly composed of collagen arranged in a banded pattern, wholly unlike the complex network present in the octopus (since they change shape). High levels of imino acids (not a typo) also pointed to the carcass coming from a warm-blooded animal. Despite this, some individuals (Ellis for one) were not convinced that such a huge mass of collagen could come off of a whale. The molecular tests were also doubted due to the age of the carcass (~100 years!). Oh, if only there was a fresher version of the St. Augustine monster...

A carcass that washed up in Chile in 2003 proved to be the defining point for my take on globsters. My faith was faltering by then, but at first this truly did seem to be a cephalopod-like mass with apparently identical features to the St. Augustine carcass. Pareidolia makes it seem as if there is a large mantle, at least one arm-like appendage, and what appears to be some webbing. Pierce et al 2004 were able to manage to extract DNA from the carcass and incontrovertibly showed it to come from a Sperm whale. The decomposition of a sperm whale into a "globster" has not been observed, but if I may speculate, I think it is a question of time more than getting the skin off in one piece. While the carcass is floating at the top, the cellular material slowly decomposes and the skeleton disarticulates and eventually detaches. Perhaps the more pronounced "mantle" was composed of the floating portion and the "tentacles" were portions hanging down from it. Pierce et al 2004 note that one globster was observed by a scientific team two years after it first beached, indicating that this may be a very long process. Presumably the reason we don't have more is that some may sink or be scavenged before only the collagen remains. The three Bermuda blobs* (see here for the 1995 and '97 examples) are all examples of this decomposition form as well.

* Pierce et al 1995 demonstrate it to be a vertebrate and speculate that the first may be from a large teleost or elasmobranch. The follow-up demonstrates the '88 and '95 examples to be cetacean. The '97 Bermuda carcass wasn't mentioned, but could indicate that these carcasses are actually fairly common.

In addition to the "octopus-like" decompositional form, a paper by Carr et al 2002 uses DNA testing on another carcass from Newfoundland in 2001 to demonstrate that it is also a sperm whale.

As you can see from this picture, the carcass isn't octopus-like but has strange "lobes" on the side. The authors speculate that this may be the remnants of tissue from in between the ribs, apparently not actually making it that amorphous. Interestingly, this feature has shown up in numerous carcasses which haven't been tested, but could very well have come from cetaceans. Yes, I know this is speculation, but it has a very solid case. There is proof that sperm whales can take the form of blobs with lobes, what are the odds that there is some bizarre giant unknown species with a very similar morphology? Close to none I'd say. While it may seem like a bold statement, I think it is reasonable to state that globsters are simply no longer a mystery. So let us give a farewell to the globsters. You can consult the Wikipedia category for some surprisingly complete information.

The famous Tasmanian globster from 1960, the example that the term was coined after. Pierce et al 2004 note that a 1962 expedition determined it to be a whale. The "gill arches" may be comparable to lobes.

A globster that washed up in the Hebrides in 1990. It has not been subjected to analysis (no samples taken). The species is unknown but it could very well be cetaceous.

Another Tasmanian carcass from 1997. Its identity is also unknown, but there is no reason to think it is an unknown species. Just because a carcass cannot be easily identified does not make it a new species.

Pseudoplesiosaurs and Pseudo-Sea-Serpents

While the cetacean/pseudo-cephalopod connection has only been confirmed fairly recently, the basking shark-as-pseudoplesiosaur identification is much older. Heuvelmans documented 12 as of 1964 (probably over-conservative) and Wood identified that 90% of "sea serpent" carcasses identified in the press as of 1982 were basking sharks. So why does the basking shark make a pseudoplesiosaur? The gill rakers are loosely attached and during decomposition they fall off, taking the lower jaw with it. This forms the appearance of a plesiosaur-like carcass, although conspicuously lacking a lower jaw. Further decomposition leaves nothing more than a long spinal column with a small attached head, leading to the impression of a "sea-serpent". The famous Zuiyo Maru carcass of 1977 was analyzed and found to quite clearly be a basking shark; this excellent page saves me a great deal of time in discussing why this is a reasonable explanation. Carr et al 2002 are the most recent published reference to this phenomenon, but unlike globsters recent molecular testing has not been done. This is no reason to doubt the explanation, but there are some odd cases that need looking into.

Wood notes that while there have been reports of basking sharks up to 50'/15.2 m, the largest accurately caught specimen was 40'3"/12.27 m in length. This is pretty amazing in light of the average being 26'/7.9 m according to Wood. But the problem is, some carcasses reportedly exceed the maximum substantially. The famous Stronsa beast of 1808 was a reported 55'/16.8 m and had six "limbs". It also had no lower jaw, "grisly" bones, and skin that was rough one way and smooth the other. According to Heuvelmans the carcass was measured a few times (varying 54-55 feet), but Wood notes that the vertebrae were identical to (but slightly smaller than) a shark of 25'/7.6 m. Was the size an exaggeration of the already fairly fantastic description? Like other carcasses this does have a modern counterpart of sorts:

The Effingham (British Columbia) carcass of 1947 did not possess "limbs" like the Stronsa/Stronsay carcass, but was incredibly long ("at least" 40 feet!). The largest vertebrae were the same size as Stronsa (6" diameter) and thus the 25' shark as well. Interestingly, Heuvelmans claimed that the vertebrae count (145) was conspicuously larger than the average basking shark figure of 105-115. I can't find figures to back this claim up, but if true it is quite perplexing. I've never heard any reports or indications of unusually long-bodied basking sharks or any sort of disorder that increased length by ~ 140%. There is no indication of scale, so can this too simply be an exaggeration?

While basking sharks-as-"plesiosaurs" certainly deserved to get mentioned, what isn't as known is that there is another group of animal that can form pseudoplesiosaurs: beaked whales.

Heuvelmans notes that despite appearances, the skull of the 1925 Santa Cruz carcass was found to be that of Baird's beaked whale Berardius bairdi. Though I can't find a picture of the same angle this somewhat gory picture demonstrates that yes, the resemblance is indeed quite strong. There are some Internet arguments of it having a "square bill", although the "squaring" is curiously not perpendicular to the angle of the is obviously a fragmented lower mandible (the gory picture also seemed to have one). Claims of small numerous teeth in the head also probably stem from damage to the mandible. So then that begs the question of exactly what the heck the head of a known creature is on what appears to be a long "neck". Heuvelmans thought that the skin detached and rolled up on itself like a Swiss roll...but honestly I am not quite certain exactly what he means by that. The possibility of pranksters was also raised. But, as usual, unusual carcasses are never normally singularities...

Tim Dinsdale in "Monster Hunt" documented this carcass from Barra in the Outer Hebrides in 1961. A biologist identified it as a beaked whale (no species was mentioned --- unsurprisingly) as well. This carcass appears to have nearly the same form as the Santa Cruz example less decomposed and ambiguous looking. I am still quite baffled at what mechanism could be responsible for this, although given the improbable forms seen it should by no means be dismissed.

This was of course not meant to be a comprehensive overview of AWUCs, but more of a conceptual introduction to two of the best defined decompositional forms. There are many other strange carcasses out there, but they as well have plausible mundane explanations. What I do find encouraging is that scientists are not hesitating to resolve these mysteries, and do seem to genuinely want for them to be something unusual and unknown. For those of you that scream "bias" at the idea of your favorite monster being a hunk of blubber; it should be noted that one of the authors from the first paper, Eugene Clark, was on the board of directors for the International Society of Cryptozoology (see here). Many of the other carcasses are described vaguely and/or in a fantastic manner, which doesn't give much credibility to their cases. It seems exceedingly strange to me how ambiguous washed up carcasses are always assumed to be a new and strange species instead of the more plausible option of having a known one that decomposed irregularly. However, I think it would be in the best interest of all involved (and interested) for every available carcass to be analyzed in the future. The notion of large unknown animals in the ocean cannot be discounted, but there is no hard evidence to support their existence.

If there is another AWUC that washes up, you'd better believe that I'll cover it here. A new species or not, this is a fascinating subject that deserves discussion.



Carr, S. M. et al. 2002. How To Tell a Sea Monster: Molecular Discrimination of Large Marine Animals of the North Atlantic. Biol. Bull. 202: 1-5. Available (for free): Here

Heuvelmans, Bernard. In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. Hill and Wang, New York, 1965.

Pierce, S. K., et al. 1995. On the Giant Octopus (Octopus giganteus) and the Bermuda Blob: homage to A.E. Verrill. Biol. Bull. 188: 219–230. Available (for free): Here

Pierce, S. K. et al. 2004. Microscopic, Biochemical, and Molecular Characteristics of the Chilean Blob and a Comparison With the Remains of Other Sea Monsters: Nothing but Whales. Biol. Bull. 206: 125-133. Available (for free): Here

Wood, Gerald. Guinness book of Animal Facts and Feats. Guinness Superlatives, Middlesex, 1982.


Christopher Taylor said...

IDing a beaked whale to species can be exceedingly difficult, apparently, and is often only possible for mature males.

There is one beaked whale, Tasmacetus shepherdi, that does have multiple teeth in the jaw, but I've always been most impressed by Mesoplodon layardii, the straptooth beaked whale, in which the two male teeth grow very long and curve over the upper jaw. Older individualscan have teeth that cross over each other, preventing the jaw from opening more than marginally.

Darren Naish said...

In a 2001 article on aquatic cryptids, I wrote that the 1925 Santa Cruz carcass is of a Baird's fourtooth whale Berardius bairdii: it's amusing that people even claim to see an elephant-like leg in the photo. Michel Raynal and others have continued to contest the identification of the St. Augustine carcass as cetacean, and as recently as 1997 were arguing that Pierce and colleagues' study was flawed and that the remains were really those of a cirroteuthid. Still...

While they aren't, unfortunately, easily accessible, I'd recommend that you get hold of Ben Speers-Roesch's series of articles on 'sea monster' carcasses: I cited all of them here. He was able to show that reported carcasses can either be satisfactorily identified, or are just not well known enough for anyone to make any sort of grandiose claims. Hyperbole and the lack of familiarity that most people have with decomposition and anatomy are probably the biggest culprits in leading people astray on identifications. Anyway, good post.

Cameron McCormick said...

Chris, M. grayi inexplicably also has small teeth which may or may not erupt in addition to tusks in males. I think the bizarre morphology is just amazing and this group was on my "to do" list...until SOMEBODY mentioned an interest in also covering this topic. I may write a post focusing on some of the really weird/obscure species at some point of time.

Darren (mentioned next, interestingly), it is possible that Cirroteuthids are among the largest octopuses (apparently there is photographic evidence of a ~4 m long specimen), but I do have significant doubts of some 60 m span monstrosity. How the biggest Colossal squid even reaches a ton or so (theoretically) is incredible given their short lifespan.

Oh yes, and it looks like I'm going to have to try and use some of (nay, all of) my cunning to get my hands on these articles. I always did feel rather "out of the loop" when it came to serious scientific Cryptozoology. Let me see how much I can exploit poor Brown's system of looking for any paper they don't have...

Darren Naish said...

For an appropriate bribe I would be happy to get copies of the articles for you (I accept most currencies).

The fast growth of squid is indeed incredible, and it's something I looked into lately what with all those studies indicating that mega-ton dinosaurs reached adult size as quickly as do rorquals and passerine birds. The phrases 'weeds of the sea' and 'nourishing vomit' come to mind: all will be revealed in due time.

And as for covering ziphiids in a blog post, you should feel free to proceed with any plans :) We all know that there is more than enough to say about the more than enough animals that there are... like choristoderes, for example...

Darren Naish said...

Oh and.. by the way, it is just me, or does the title of Carr et al. (2002) make no sense whatsoever?

How to tell a sea monster what exactly? That it needs to go on a diet? I'll ask Charles Paxton when I catch up with him tomorrow :)

Cameron McCormick said...

Would you accept a somewhat unusual cat skull as currency? Or perhaps some newly minted CamBucks? I'll cook up something in my two week hiatus.

What's odd is the title of Carr et al (2002) made perfect sense to me. "How to tell a ____" sounds like it could be the title of some famous-y paper written in the olde days. Dangit, that could have made a better title.

Anonymous said...

As long as you don't bring up this subject as dinner conversation, I think you'll be fine.

How dare you change it to "carcasses"? Trying to bring in a higher class of readers?

Oh well, blob, or glob, people will always be fascinated with whatever washes up on shore. Oooh look at that pretty seashell! And will make up stories about what it is. A seashell hold the soul of the great sea turtle.

Anonymous said...

Despite the fact that 1995 paper said the bermuda Blob was from a shark, I am inclined to think that that it is a ludicrous statement. I eamn, what part of a shark is white, smoot, three feet thock, and harder than a car tire?

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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