Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Sunday, 5 July 2015

GLOBSTERS ABOUNDING! - PART 2: SEEKING GIANT OCTOPUSES… BUT FINDING ROTTING SPERM WHALES


Vintage illustration of a deepsea octopus, by Ernst Haeckel (public domain)

In Part 1 of this ShukerNature blog article (click here), I surveyed a wide range of globsters, including the celebrated Trunko, and I also chronicled a selection of reports featuring alleged giant octopuses – traditionally, the most popular identity for globsters. As now revealed, however, modern-day studies of these latter anomalous entities have unveiled a very different explanation for them.

UNMASKING THE GLOBSTERS, AND UNVEILING THE QUASI-OCTOPUS
Thanks to the advances in DNA technology during the past two decades, science now has a reliable tool with which to investigate and expose the hitherto-cryptic identity of globsters, and in the past few years this is precisely what has happened, with eye-opening results.

The first notable globster to be unmasked by DNA analyses was the Fortune Bay specimen from Newfoundland. In February 2002, a team of researchers led by Newfoundland molecular systematics expert Dr Steven M. Carr published their findings in the Biological Bulletin scientific journal, summarising them as follows:

"DNA was extracted from the carcass and enzymatically amplified by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR): the mitochondrial NADH2 DNA sequence was identified as that of a sperm whale (Physeter catodon). Amplification and sequencing of cryptozoological DNA with "universal" PCR primers with broad specificity to vertebrate taxa and comparison with species in the GenBank taxonomic database is an effective means of discriminating otherwise unidentifiable large marine creatures."

Effective it has certainly been. One South Florida scientist with a longstanding interest in globsters is Dr Sidney K. Pierce, and in recent years he has led several studies of preserved globster remains, culminating in a detailed Biological Bulletin paper of June 2004 co-authored by Carr and several other researchers, which concentrated upon the Chilean globster but also examined samples from various additional specimens.

Chilean globster (© Dr Elsa Cabrera – Fair Use/Educational Purposes Only)

The team announced:

"Electron microscopy revealed that the remains [of the Chilean globster] are largely composed of an acellular, fibrous network reminiscent of the collagen fiber network in whale blubber. Amino acid analyses of an acid hydrolysate indicated that the fibers are composed of 31% glycine residues and also contain hydroxyproline and hydroxylysine, all diagnostic of collagen. Using primers designed to the mitochondrial gene nad2, an 800-bp product of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was amplified from DNA that had been purified from the carcass. The DNA sequence of the PCR product was 100% identical to nad2 of sperm whale (Physeter catodon). These results unequivocally demonstrate that the Chilean Blob is the almost completely decomposed remains of the blubber layer of a sperm whale. This identification is the same as those we have obtained before from other relics such as the so-called giant octopus of St. Augustine (Florida), the Tasmanian West Coast Monster, two Bermuda Blobs, and the Nantucket Blob. It is clear now that all of these blobs of popular and cryptozoological interest are, in fact, the decomposed remains of large cetaceans."

Yet how can a decomposed sperm whale transform in shape and texture so dramatically that it becomes a globster, sometimes even equipped with apparent tentacles? As I revealed in my book, Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), the answer is fascinating, and also has a notable precedent:

"There is a notable precedent for such dramatic misidentification when dealing with beached remains, which is known as the pseudo-plesiosaur effect. When a basking shark Cetorhinus maximus dies and its body decomposes, it undergoes a remarkable transformation. The gill apparatus falls away, taking with it the shark's jaws, leaving only its small cranium and exposed backbone, thus resembling a small head and long neck. The end of the shark's backbone only runs into the upper fluke of its tail, so during decomposition the lower fluke falls off, leaving what looks like a long slender tail. And to complete the plesiosaur deception, the shark's pectoral fins, and sometimes its pelvic fins too, remain attached, resembling two pairs of flippers. Little wonder, therefore, why a number of amazingly plesiosaurian carcases have been reported over the years, only for anatomical and biochemical analyses to expose them as sharks.

"Now, moreover, we have confirmation that an analogous transformation is responsible for at least some of the hitherto perplexing globsters that have come to light - a transformation that I propose should hereafter be referred to as the quasi-octopus effect. As detailed by Drs Pierce, Carr, and Letelier, after a whale dies its body can float for months, decomposing, until eventually its heavy backbone and skull dissociate from their encompassing skin-sac of rotting blubber, and sink to the sea bottom, leaving behind a thick gelatinous matrix of collagen - the tough protein found in skin and connective tissue. It is this mass of collagen, still encased in its skin-sac, that washes ashore, as a globster. Furthermore, if a few of the whale's ribs remain within the collagen matrix, and any 'fingers' of fibrous flesh are attached to them, these resemble tentacles [or even a trunk, in the case of Trunko]. And if the whale is a sperm whale, the spermaceti organ gives the resulting globster a bulky shape reminiscent of an octopus."

So does that mean that globsters are a dead-end as far as providing evidence for the reality of giant octopuses is concerned? Not quite, perhaps...

VERRILLY A GIANT OCTOPUS?
The grand-daddy of all globsters was washed ashore near St Augustine, Florida, on 30 November 1896. Its prodigious remains, pinkish-grey and pear-shaped, were over 6 m long, 1.6 m wide, and 1.3 m high, and were estimated to weigh 5 tons. What appeared to be the stumps of five massive tentacles were clearly visible in photographs taken of this monstrous carcase by local physician DeWitt Webb, as was what seemed to be a severed tentacle, measuring 8.7 m long and 20 cm thick. Webb sent a sample of its tough flesh to Yale University cephalopod (squid and octopus) expert Prof. Addison E. Verrill, who announced that the carcase had been a giant octopus, which he formally christened Octopus giganteus. Later, however, Verrill recanted, claiming that it was merely the spermaceti organ of a sperm whale.

St Augustine globster (public domain)

A second sample, sent to the Smithsonian Institution, has been tested on numerous occasions via several different techniques, and has yielded differing results. Whereas Pierce’s studies indicated that it was indeed of sperm whale origin, analyses by eminent Chicago University biochemist and longstanding cryptozoological investigator Prof. Roy P. Mackal strongly supported an octopus identity. However, the sample has been preserved for so long that it has probably been contaminated and rendered useless for detailed study - which would explain the greatly diverging results - unless future advances in technology can overcome this obstacle. If they can, then interested researchers should apply to the Institute of Creation Research (ICR) in El Cajon, California, for it is here that the only surviving sample of tissue from the St Augustine globster can be found, donated by Prof. Mackal in 2003 to the ICR’s Professor of Biology, Dr Kenneth Cummings.

Drawing of St Augustine globster by Prof. Addison E. Verrill (public domain)

How ironic it would be if the existence or otherwise of what would be (if real) one of the largest marine creatures alive today – the elusive giant octopus – is ultimately determined by this tiniest sliver of substance, the last remnant from one of cryptozoology’s most enduring enigmas. For a further picture and details concerning this globster, click here to access my ShukerNature-reprinted interview conducted back in the 1990s with Prof. Mackal.

THE MULTI-LIMBED MONSTER OF ANTIBES
In addition: A truly bizarre sea monster was allegedly sighted between Antibes and Nice in 1562. Oval in shape, with a pig’s head at one end and a trunked elephant-like head at the other, it boasted no less than eleven claw-bearing limbs.

Antibes multi-limbed sea monster (public domain)

Is it possible that this weird entity, depicted in the Paralipomena (supplement) to the second edition of Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium Liber IV: Piscium et Aquatilium Animantium Natura (1604), was a distorted description of a giant octopus?

GIANT OCTOPUS, OR MYSTERY JELLYFISH?
Finally: In 1953, while testing a new type of deep-sea diving suit in the South Pacific, an Australian diver encountered a Lovecraftian horror from the ocean’s unpenetrated depths, which I documented as follows within my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997):

"The diver had been following a shark, and was resting on the edge of a chasm leading down to much deeper depths, still watching the shark, when an immense, dull-brown, shapeless mass rose up out of the chasm, pulsating sluggishly, and flat in general outline with ragged edges.

"Despite appearing devoid of eyes or other instantly-recognizable sensory organs, this malign presence evidently discerned the shark's presence somehow, because it floated upwards until its upper surface made direct contact. The shark instantly gave a convulsive shudder, and was then drawn without resistance into the hideous monster's body. After that, the creature sank back down into the chasm, leaving behind a very frightened diver to ponder what might have happened if that nightmarish, nameless entity had not been attracted towards the shark!"

Cirrothauma murrayi, a species of deepsea cirrate octopus (public domain)

In the past, a deepsea octopus has been offered as a possible identity for this disturbing creature, but as I discussed in detail within my book, a far more satisfactory candidate is a deepsea jellyfish.

Whereas all octopuses have tentacles, some deepsea jellyfishes do not. What they do have, however, are potent stinging cells called nematocysts on their bodies (and tentacles if they possess any), armed with venom that swiftly paralyses their prey. This would readily explain the immediate paralysis of the shark. Moreover, jellyfishes do not possess true eyes but they are equipped with sensory structures responsive to water movements. Consequently, the creature would have learnt of the shark’s presence by detecting its movements in the water. How lucky, then, that the diver had remained stationary!

Artistic representation of the deadly Chilean hide (© Icarito)

Interestingly, Chilean legends tell of a very similar beast called el cuero or the hide, as it is likened in shape and size to a cowhide stretched out flat, with countless eyes around its perimeter, and four larger ones in the centre. As it happens, jellyfishes possess peripheral sensory organs called rhopalia that incorporate simple light-sensitive eyespots or ocelli.

Moreover, some jellyfishes also have four larger, deceptively eye-like organs visible at the centre of their bell, though in reality these organs are not eyes at all. Instead, they are actually portions of the jellyfishes' gut, known as gastric pouches, with the jellyfishes' horseshoe-shaped gonads sited directly underneath these pouches and also very visible (as in the familiar moon jellyfish Aurelia aurita).

Exquisite illustration of various jellyfish species revealing their four centrally-sited gastric pouches, depicted by Ernst Haeckel (public domain)

So perhaps the deadly hide is more than a myth after all, lurking like so many other maritime horrors reported down through the ages in the deep oceans' impenetrable black abyss, but only very rarely encountered by humankind – which in view of the dreadful fate that befell the hapless South Pacific shark in 1953 may be just as well!

A sinister-looking deepsea octopus in a 19th-Century illustration (public domain)

For further details concerning globsters and Trunko, check out my books Extraordinary Animals Revisited and Mirabilis.






2 comments:

  1. The 1953 experience of the Australian diver rang a bell. I first read about it in a short story by R. L. Fanthorpe, writing as Bron Fane, and published in 1960. The full story can be found at http://peltorro.com/SN038_The_Loch_Ness_Terror.htm . Mr (now Rev) Fanthorpe was a brilliant amateur polymath who churned out a science fiction or fantasy book every two weeks while holding down a day job, and he had a very wide general knowledge. You will note in the story, a professor lists a number of sea monster sightings. I was able to confirm all of them from Heuvelmans' book except the 1953 one. I therefore e-mailed Rev Fanthorpe and asked about it. He replied that he was sure it was a genuine sighting, but he could not remember what his source was.
    I don't suppose you can provide us with the source. Also, exactly where in the Pacific did this take place.

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    1. My source was the sea monsters chapter in Eric Frank Russell's book Great World Mysteries (Dennis Dobson: London, 1957). Unfortunately, he gives no details of the diver's specific location in the South Pacific, nor does he provide any source for this report. There is a bibliography at the back of his book that contains a number of potential sources for it, but I don't own all of them, so I can't check through all of them to discover whether any contain this report, sadly.

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