Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Captain Hanna's Mystery Fish

In the spirit of this recent post, I'll attempt to critically re-analyze an alleged "sea serpent' carcass reported from New Harbor, Bristol, Maine. I believe that a plausible candidate has been overlooked by prior analyses, but of course I'll have to critically examine the possibilities lest I fall victim to Phylogenetic Roulette!

As detailed in the Bulletin of the U.S. Fish Commission, at some point in August 1880 one Captain S. W. Hanna caught a dead "young sea-serpent", badly tearing up his net in the process. Hanna thought he would have lost a considerable amount of money (~ $480 in 2008 dollars) by towing it to shore and let the carcass be. Fortunately he did make a sketch of the 24-25 foot (~7.5 m) fish later in the next month:

What immediately strikes me about the illustration is the placement of the dorsal fin directly behind the head and the subsequent superficial resemblance to elongated members of the actinopterygian order Lampriformes such as Lophotidae, Radiicephalidae, and Regalecidae. Of all these species, only Regalecus glesne can reach 7.6 meters; citations give a maximum of an incredible 11 meters and there is strong documentation of them at least reaching 9 meters. I'd highly recommend clicking on the last hyperlink - wow.

Wood (1982) mentions that circa 1885, a 25 foot/7.6 m oarfish weighing 600 lbs/272 kg was caught by fishermen off Pemaquid Point, Maine. There is no such town as "Pemaquid Point" in Maine - but that landmark is a portion of New Harbor which itself is a village within Bristol. It is very frustrating that Wood (1982) does not provide a direct citation for this account - the "circa 1885" certainly needs to be explained as does the possibility that people other than Hanna may have examined the carcass. The "circa 1885" implies that this is not an interpretation of the case as outlined by Hanna (1883) and the fact that it wasn't mentioned by Hanna could imply that there was a coincidental, second case involved. Such a coincidence seems rather improbable and it could be possible that Hanna was unaware of either the case or the synonymy with his own case.

To make matters even more confusing, Kendall (1914) states Chlamydoselachus anguineus or frilled sharks have occured in New Harbor and Pemaquid [sic] Maine, citing Hanna (1883) and Goode and Beane (1896)! It seems exceedingly odd that they didn't realize the locale synonymy. Anyways, Goode and Beane (1896) state that Hanna's description "might correspond very closely" (?) with a frilled shark and sea serpent stories; despite including an extensive discussion of frilled shark morphology there is absolutely no discussion for their reasoning. While the authors use confusing tenses ("At this time it was suggested") they only cite Hanna (1883) and appear to be the originators of the strongly suggested and poorly supported identification.

Heuvelmans does not cite Goode and Beane (1896), Kendall (1914), or any accounts other than Hanna (1883) yet also suggests that the Captain Hanna/New Harbor/Pemaquid "sea serpent" is either a frilled shark or a relative of some sort. This has proven to be the most popular identification and it has been echoed by Bright (1968) and by Shuker (cited by Roesch 1997). The popularity of this identification is baffling - Roesch (1997) points out that Hanna's description is hardly diagnostic of a shark and the only argument put forth by Heuvelmans and Shuker for the shark identification are the apparent multiple "gill slits". Roesch (1997) considers the possibility of artistic license, but Hanna (1883) (which he didn't appear to have access to) specifically states that the "three strokes" on the "neck" are "corresponding with those of the shark". Of course there are no known sharks with only three gill slits; none have less than five and frilled sharks have six - and they're distinctive enough to inspire the common name. Roesch (1997) suggests that Hanna could have been mistaken about operculum morphology; members of the lampriform family Lophotidae have operculums which can create the impression of three "gill slits" and I'd suggest that this could be an interpretation for the family Regalecidae as well.

Roesch (1997) puts forth several lines of evidence which convincingly suggest that the Hanna (1883) account describes a bony fish and not a shark; given the lack of availability for his paper (and anything published in The Cryptozoological Review) his points are worth summarizing here. The illustration and account clearly refer to pectoral fins with readily visible rays ("not stiff pointed fins like the shark... more like the side-fins of the cod or sun-fish") - a diagnostic trait for a member of Actinopterygii. The pectoral fin placement at the side of the body and not sloping down is also more characteristic of a ray-finned fish than a shark. The comparison of the dorsal fin to that of the cod also supports the notion that lepidotrichia are present and an anguilliform-like caudal region is also drawn with fin rays. Roesch notes that no sharks have such an area of continuous fins "like those of an eel" and this should be readily observed even on something like the frilled shark.

Roesch (1997) concludes that the Hanna fish is more likely a bony fish than a shark and concludes that it "quite likely represents a new species". I'm not so convinced and it seems odd to me that he didn't mention the only bony fish which appears to reach or exceed the reported size with some frequency. Could the Hanna fish have been Regalecus glesne? There are a number of statements in Hanna (1883) which make this identification problematic: the body was described as round or nearly so (and 8-10" thick) instead of laterally flattened, none of the dramatic color was observed (it was slate gray dorsally to gray and white ventrally), the pelvic fins were not observed, an anguilliform anal fin was observed (oarfish lack anal fins), and "fine, briery teeth" were located at the "extreme end" of the head (oarfish lack teeth). On the plus size the mouth was described as small and like that of a sucker (which is an OK comparison to an oarfish) and the reference to very fine skin is consistent with the scaleless oarfish. It should be noted that since this fish was viewed when still in the water and possibly partially submerged (with the head most elevated?), some of the morphology and coloration was simply not observed - note this live specimen and the difficulty of observing the dorsal fin and the apparent dull coloration. Alternately and/or additionally some of the misinterpretations/misidentifications could be due to post-mortem damage to the specimen - possibly inflicted by the nets used to capture it. The teeth are still rather problematic, although I'll have to check to see if the oarfish has gill rakers which can potentially be confused for teeth - this could be why they were described as "briery". The presence of an anal fin would have to be the results of assumption on the part of Captain Hanna - it could have been an optical illusion of some sort.

The notion of an oarfish-sized species remaining undescribed is not totally outside the realm of possibility, although the Hanna carcass does not demonstrate this convincingly. The reference to an identically-sized oarfish from the same location and roughly the same time is incredibly suspicious, as is the roughly similar morphology reported. Although the oarfish has become something of a cliche for "sea serpent" candidates, I think the evidence does lean towards such an identification regardless of some of the weird morphology described by Hanna. Further investigation into the case described by Wood could theoretically prove this hypothesis.

I've got to concentrate on little fish for the time being, but I hope to write more extensive posts about oarfish and frilled sharks at some point in the near future.


Bright, Michel. 1989. There are Giants in the Sea. Robson, London.

Hanna, S. W. 1883. Description of an Eel-like Creature Taken in a Net at New Harbor, Maine, in 1880. Bull. U.S. Fish. Commn. 3, 407.

Heuvelmans, Bernard. 1968. In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. Hill and Wang, New York.

Goode, George Brown and Bean, Tarleton H. 1895. Oceanic Ichthyology, a treatise on the deep-sea and pelagic fishes of the world. Available (Caution ~50 mb!)

Kendall, William Converse. 1914. Proceedings of the Portland Society of Natural History III, 1-198. Available

Roesch, Ben S. 1997. A Review of Alleged Sea Serpent Carcasses Worldwide (Part One --- 1648-1880) The Cryptozoological Review 2, 6-27

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