Down through the decades since it first attracted notable public and media attention during the early 1930s, Scotland's (in)famous Loch Ness Monster has inspired all manner of suggestions as to its possible zoological identity – always assuming, of course, that it actually exists in the first place!
But none, surely, can be any stranger than the little-known example revealed here, a veritable monster in its own right – and which also featured at much the same time, moreover, in one of the most extraordinary zoological hoaxes ever recorded, concerning a large and highly dangerous yet hitherto inexplicably-overlooked species of dancing worm!
MEETING TULLY'S MINI-MONSTER
In July 1966, based upon some fossils found in Illinois and dating back 280-300 million years, Dr Eugene S. Richardson Jr (1916-1983), Curator of Fossil Invertebrates from Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, fully described within that month's issue of the Field Museum's scientific Bulletin a new species of small, ostensibly inauspicious worm-like creature, but which has subsequently proved to be one of the most zoologically baffling beasts ever recorded by science. Not only that, it can also boast a couple of startling, unexpected links to cryptozoology, as will now be seen.
The official taxonomic name of this enigmatic little animal is Tullimonstrum gregarium, which Richardson had bestowed upon it a short time previously in the prestigious American weekly journal Science. However, it is commonly known colloquially simply as the Tully Monster, and in subsequent years it became so famous that in 1989 it was officially designated the State fossil of Illinois.
This very strange species derives both its binomial and its vernacular name from its fossils' discoverer, Francis J. Tully, an amateur fossil collector who in 1958 had found some specimens of it in the Mazon Creek formation, a series of fossil beds in Grundy County, northeastern Illinois, which had been a coastal estuary during the Late Carboniferous Period when Tullimonstrum had thrived. Unable to identify them, Tully took these mystifying specimens to the Field Museum, whose palaeontologists were equally puzzled, never having seen anything like them before.
However, further fossils of this archaic mystery mini-beast were subsequently discovered – so many, in fact, that their abundance inspired Richardson's eventual naming of it, because Tullimonstrum gregarium translates as 'common Tully monster'. Having said that, however, only one Tully Monster species is known, and only one very specific locality for it is known (the Essex biota section of the Mazon Creek fossil beds) – but what is not known at all, or at least not for certain, is what on earth, or in earth, Tullimonstrum actually is!
The reason why this ancient anomaly is so baffling is its morphology, which is so thoroughly bizarre that it has defied all attempts by researchers to categorise with any degree of satisfaction or confidence its singular species within any pre-existing taxon, not even one as elevated in the taxonomic hierarchy as a phylum.
Vermiform in basic body shape and measuring approximately 3-14 inches long, Tullimonstrum is characterized by some truly novel attributes. At its anterior end is a long slender proboscis terminating in a grasping, claw-like pair of jaws, each containing up to eight small, sharp tooth-like structures. Just behind the base of the proboscis is a thin transverse bar, at either end of which is a small round organ believed to be a camera-like eye, each containing melanosomes whose form and structure is consistent with such an identity for it. Further back still are paired structures that have been identified as gills, and its most posterior, tail-end body portion bears a pair of vertical fins resembling a spade in shape. In addition, and the principal reason for its having incited so much speculation as to its taxonomic identity, is the presence of what may be a rudimentary notochord or spinal cord.
Every few years ever since its mid-1960s description, a new study of its fossils results in a new idea being proposed in the scientific literature as to what Tullimonstrum may be, only for this to be hotly disputed by opposing viewpoints.
The most recent published study and proffered opinion dates from as recently as April 2023, when a Japanese research team announced that their advanced 3-D imaging techniques had revealed that Tullimonstrum has segmentation in its head region which extends from its body – something that no known vertebrate lineage possesses. So in spite of possessing a putative notochord or spinal cord, Tullimonstrum was not, they believed, of vertebrate affinity.
Previous suggestions by earlier researchers, meanwhile, have ranged from this latter beastie being a basal vertebrate distantly related to lampreys, or an anomalocaridid-allied arthropod, to a specialized form of mollusc, a worm, a conodont, or a chordate but of non-vertebrate identity (like present-day tunicates).
As this present ShukerNature blog article is not concerned primarily with either the taxonomic or the palaeontological complexities and controversies relating to Tullimonstrum, however, I shall abstain from presenting any further considerations of these subjects here, and progress instead to what it is concerned with. Namely, two very surprising links between Tully's weird little worm from the far-distant past and cryptozoology in modern times.
IS THE TULLY MONSTER THE LOCH NESS MONSTER?
Ever since the early 1930s, the Loch Ness Monster has always been a major source of cryptozoological contention, but this was especially true during the 1960s and 1970s, following Tim Dinsdale's shooting in 1960 of his short but iconic cine-film purportedly showing a very large, unidentified creature moving across and below the loch's surface. Numerous Nessie-themed books and articles appeared during this period, but one of the most unusual was undoubtedly The Great Orm of Loch Ness: A Practical Inquiry Into the Nature and Habits of Water-Monsters, authored by F.W. 'Ted' Holiday (1921-1979) and published in 1968.
Holiday had long been intrigued by Nessie and other aquatic mystery beasts, but whereas in a second book, The Dragon and the Disc (1973), he pursued a paranormal explanation for such entities (even linking them to UFOs), in The Great Orm of Loch Ness he adopted a more conventional approach, proposing a corporeal, zoological identity for Nessie. However, the specific creature that he nominated was decidedly unconventional.
Rather than any of the then-in vogue herpetological contenders (such as a giant newt or frog-like amphibian, a crocodilian reptile, or, most popular of all back in those times, a living modern-day species of plesiosaur), after receiving a copy of Richardson's 1966 paper from a fellow LNM investigator Holiday boldly proposed that the Loch Ness Monster was nothing less than a gargantuan present-day descendant of the Tully Monster!
Holiday postulated that Nessie's frequently-reported long slender neck was in reality the elongate proboscis of his proposed giant Tullimonstrum, that Nessie's front flippers were actually his latter hypothesised creature's transverse appendages, and that Nessie's posterior body region, sometimes likened by eyewitnesses to a finned tail, was in fact the latter's paired vertical tail fins. He also saw indications of two dorsal humps in various photographs and other illustrations of Tullimonstrum fossils that might explain Nessie's famous humps if present in a giant Tully Monster.
Speaking of which, he pondered whether the small specimens of this extraordinary fossil creature so far discovered were only immature examples, and that perhaps there were full-sized (i.e. Nessie-sized) specimens still awaiting scientific discovery:
Moreover, it is by no means impossible that sections or parts of much larger Tully monsters may even now be reposing in museum basements awaiting identification.
Fifty-five years have passed since Holiday wrote those optimistic words, but as yet, however, no such specimens have come to light. Nor is that the only major issue with Holiday's attempts to identify the Loch Ness Monster with the Tully Monster. The sad but simple truth is that he had misunderstood the true nature of certain key aspects of the latter's morphology, which inevitably had led his proposals badly astray.
For instance, in his book he referred to the most anterior jawed portion of Tullimonstrum as its head, whereas in reality it is nothing more than the terminal jaws of this creature's long proboscis – and which Holiday misrepresented as its neck. Similarly, he did his best to identify the transverse bar behind the base of the proboscis as a pair of locomotory paddles, when in reality the pair of fleshy lobes at the two ends of this bar are believed to be visual organs, because they appear to contain some form of retinal structure. And what he envisaged as humps along its back appear to be nothing more than artifacts caused by the flattening of the fragile Tullimonstrum specimens during their fossilization.
Of course, one might suggest in Holiday's defence that by not being a zoologist or palaeontologist he could be forgiven for drawing such erroneous conclusions. Unfortunately, however, this defence falls by the wayside when we discover that his book also includes as an appendix the full text of Richardson's July 1966 Bulletin paper describing Tullimonstrum, in which its body regions' anatomy and functions are accurately documented by Richardson. In addition, Holiday had even corresponded directly with Richardson regarding his proposal that Nessie was a giant Tully Monster (but regarding which Richardson had in turn expressed grave misgivings to him). Consequently, Holiday had no excuse for his own highly inaccurate assumptions regarding these same matters.
Holiday had long believed that Nessie was some form of giant worm – hence the title of his book, the word 'orm' being an archaic version of 'worm'. This latter term is in turn sometimes applied not merely in zoology to limbless elongate invertebrates of the earthworm and outwardly similar kind, but also in western mythology to dragons that fit that same description, i.e. elongate and limbless, such as the famous Lambton worm and Laidly worm. This therefore explains why his second book, linking Nessie to UFOs, was entitled The Dragon and the Disc.
Holiday also considered the Tully Monster to be a worm, but one of a uniquely plesiosaurian shape:
Tully's monster did one great thing. It firmly demonstrated that wormlike animals with the appearance of a plesiosaurus did once exist.
If so, this could explain not only Nessie's shape when seen by eyewitnesses but also why it wasn't seen more often, i.e. on a regular basis. For if Nessie were indeed a worm, it could therefore absorb oxygen from the loch's water directly through its body's outer layer (epidermal respiration, like frogs and salamanders can often do), not needing to surface on a frequent basis in order to inhale air into its lungs like a mammal or reptile would need to do. Accordingly, Holiday concluded his personal identification of Nessie as a giant undiscovered modern-day Tully Monster with the following bold statement:
No-one knows whether the Orm of Loch Ness is a form of Tullimonstrum; but, talking most unscientifically, I would bet my shirt that it is.
Sadly, however, I think that my above account of how and why his understanding of Tullimonstrum is seriously flawed, and, as an inevitable consequence, his conclusion that a giant version of this species does indeed explain Nessie is wholly wayward, proffers more than sufficient evidence to suggest that Holiday would have certainly lost his shirt!
THE DANCING WORMS OF TURKANA
At much the same time that Holiday was seeking with fervor but ultimate futility to link the Tully Monster to the Loch Ness Monster, Tullimonstrum was also hitting the cryptozoological headlines for a very different yet no less memorable reason.
On 1 September 1966, after reading a report in the East African Standard (a very well known newspaper in what was then British East Africa) concerning the discovery and Richardson's recent scientific description of Tullimonstrum, a retired army Lieutenant-Colonel named R.G.L. Cloudesley, from Nairobi in Kenya, wrote an extraordinary letter to Richardson, in which he made the following potentially exciting claim. The relevant portion reads as follows:
In 1926 having been seconded to the Kings (now Kenya) African Rifles from the Indian Army, I was in northwestern Kenya dealing with some border incidents. Passing through the administrative centre of Lodwar on my return journey, I took the opportunity of calling upon Mr. A. M. Champion, then D. C. Turkana District. In addition to being a keen shikar, Champion was a naturalist of the first rank, and during the two evenings I passed in his company he regaled me with many a fascinating yarn about the fauna of the area. Among these was one about a remarkable worm reputed to live in the swamp country to the southeast. The local tribesmen told fantastic stories about its dancing and giving milk, if I remember correctly. Such nonsense aside, Champion did give me a description of the creature which he had obtained from various natives (he never succeeded in getting a specimen) and this curiously enough has remained in my memory when much else has been forgotten. His account agreed remarkably well with the illustration of your "Tully Monster," even to the "paddles" and the long snout. Your mention of sharp teeth, incidentally, does agree with a Turkana tale that the creature bites. On this account they are deathly afraid of it, believing that it is poisonous. But then nearly all natives believe everything of the creeping or crawling kind to be venomous.
I hardly dare to suggest that a relation of your extinct "Monster" still survives in one of the remotest parts of East Africa, but it might just be worthwhile to pursue the matter.
Turkana is a northwestern county in Kenya, famous for the discovery there of various significant fossil hominid remains.
Unsurprisingly, Richardson was very interested in Cloudesley's letter, but even before he had chance to reply to it he received a second letter of note, dated 13 September 1966, this time from Purshottan S. Patel of Nakuru, a town situated about 100 miles northwest of Nairobi. Patel informed Richardson that something like Tullimonstrum may actually be existing in Turkana's lakes, as he'd been told by relatives of a strange form of dancing worm that lived in these watery expanses.
Not long afterwards, Richardson received a third letter, dated 8 September 1966, from Joseph N. Ngomo, an intermediate school teacher from Nakuru, who informed him that after his class had read the Standard newspaper's report concerning Tullimonstrum, several of his pupils had claimed that they'd been told of a similar-sounding creature from their fathers. Ngomo included in his letter a note written by one such pupil, a boy named Akai, which stated that these worms are known locally as the ekurut loedonkakini, swim and "wave hands" during the full moon, give milk, and possess a bite fatal to humans.
By now, Richardson was sufficiently intrigued by these ostensibly independent yet closely corroborating communications to suggest to his colleagues at the Field Museum that an expedition in search of Turkana's tantalising dancing worms might be justified, because if they did turn out to be a living Tullimonstrum species this would obviously be a very momentous zoological discovery. First of all, however, a note requesting any additional information regarding these creatures was prepared by the Museum and duly published in the Newsletter of the East African Natural History Association – but none was forthcoming.
In early 1967, while the proposed expedition was still at the planning stage, Richardson was visited by a former colleague, palaeontologist Dr Bryan Patterson (1909-1979), now a professor at Harvard University but previously Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Chicago Field Museum. Patterson had recently conducted some field work in Kenya and stated that he actually knew the uncle of Richardson's second correspondent, Patel. However, Patterson also stated that he'd never heard of dancing worms at Turkana, and seemed highly amused by the whole subject – as well he might be.
For it subsequently transpired that Cloudesley, Patel, Ngomo, and Akai did not exist – they had all been created, and their communications written, by none other than Patterson himself, as a prank with which to fool his friend Richardson, and which had clearly succeeded very successfully!
Happily, Richardson took it all in good spirit after receiving the truth from Patterson in a Christmas 1968 letter that also included a humorous hoax photograph in which Patterson was posing in full field regalia holding a rifle and a supposed shot specimen of a sizeable Tullimonstrum. Indeed, after cancelling his planned expedition to search for it, Richardson even prepared a short book entitled The Dancing Worm of Turkana, publishing it in 1969 under the pseudonym E. Scumas Rory. In it, he reproduced all four of the principal fake communications sent to him by Patterson, and also briefly referred to a second missive that he'd received from 'Patel', plus several additional ones sent to him by various other correspondents.
Additionally, Richardson revealed in this book that F.W. Holiday had written to 'Cloudesley' for information, but had never received a reply (for obvious reasons now!). Moreover, Richardson even contributed an introduction to the book under his own name, together with some fine illustrations under his Rory pseudonym, and nowadays this literary curiosity is a highly-collectable publication in its original hard-copy format (several websites contain downloadable public-domain pdf versions of it).
In short, even though the dancing worms of Turkana never existed, they are immortalized in print, meaning that their impact, albeit transitory, upon the zoological world will also live on!
Finally: the name 'E. Scumas Rory' seems so unlikely, even contrived, that I cannot help but wonder whether in reality it is a clever anagram, but I've been unable to discover one from it. So if any anagram aficionados are reading this article, perhaps they would like to see whether they can extract one – and, if anyone does, I'd greatly welcome details!