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Scientists ponder mysterious beached remains

Loren Coleman lcolema1 at maine.rr.com
Mon Jul 7 04:30:24 EST 2003


Florida News-Journal Online

Scientists ponder mysterious beached remains
South American find recalls turn-of-the-century St. Augustine sea creature

Environment Writer 

Last update: 04 July 2003

Some scientists say descriptions of the Chilean find, announced by the
Centro de Conservacion Cetacea in Santiago, are strikingly similar to a
specimen that washed up on a St. Augustine beach in 1896 and may be a giant
octopus. (Photo courtesy of the Jacksonville Shell Club)

The remains of a giant sea creature washed up on a Chilean beach recently
and set off waves of speculation in the marine science world that ripple all
the way to Florida and beyond.

At almost 40 feet long and 15 feet wide, it's not your average jellyfish.
Its very mention evokes images of legendary and mythical monsters of the
deep, like the giant squid Captain Nemo battled in "20,000 Leagues Under the

Some scientists say descriptions of the Chilean find, announced by the
Centro de Conservacion Cetacea in Santiago, are strikingly similar to a
specimen that washed up on a St. Augustine beach in 1896 and may be a giant

Other scientists say it's probably just part of a dead whale. They say the
existence of a giant octopus has never been scientifically proven.

Officials at the Cetacea center in Chile say they believe their animal is a
giant octopus. In a news release, center officials said veterinarian
Veronica Altayo looked at the mass, "compared it to the decomposing organs
of marine mammals and clearly determined it was not a whale, but an
invertebrate with the characteristics of cephalopod," the class of marine
mollusks that includes octopuses and squid.

The center quotes Italian scientist Lorenzo Rossi as saying the animal
probably wasn't a squid and looked more like the animal found on Anastasia
Island in St. Augustine that some scientists believe was a giant octopus.

Reports of extremely large marine animals surface from time to time in myth
and reality. With much of the sea still unexplored, no one really knows what
animals may remain undiscovered, which is perhaps what prompts so much
speculation when large and unusual creatures are found in fish nets or on

Two new whale species have been discovered just in the past 10 years, said
James Mead, curator of marine mammals for the Museum of Natural History at
the Smithsonian Institution.

"We're improving the technology, but we still know much less about the depth
of the ocean than we do about the surface of Mars or the moon," Mead said

Scientists have debated the St. Augustine sea monster for more than 100

The mysterious blob washed ashore in November 1896, measuring 22 feet long
and 6 feet wide and weighing more than 6 tons, according to historical
accounts. A local doctor researched it for more than three months, taking
samples of the white, fibrous tissue to send away. A Yale University
professor first concluded the animal might be a large octopus or squid after
reviewing photos, but changed his mind after studying the tissue, saying it
was probably from the head of an abnormally shaped sperm whale and
discounting reports of arm stubs as erroneous.

In 1957, a biologist at the Marineland Research Laboratory in Flagler County
found a file on the St. Augustine sea creature and concluded it was more
than likely a giant octopus rather than a whale. He enlisted another
biologist from the University of Florida to examine tissue samples stored at
the Smithsonian.

"We decided at once, and beyond any doubt, that the sample was not whale
blubber," and was similar to an octopus sample, the second biologist wrote
in 1971.

But after the men's work was published, other scientists questioned the
results and many modern marine biologists doubt the existence of a giant

In 1995, a University of Maryland biologist examined a small sample of the
1896 mystery creature, and a similar blob that washed up in Bermuda in 1988,
and concluded both were from whales, according to Nicholas Curtis, a
biologist at the University of South Florida.

DNA testing has not been possible on the St. Augustine creature.

Even really good myths often have a hint of truth, said Dr. James B. Wood,
project manager for a database on octopus and squid species for the National
Resource Center for Cephalopods with the University of Texas Medical Branch
in Galveston.

"There are giant squids. These are big and have been washing up on shore or
seen at sea just often enough to inspire all kinds of stories about sea
monsters for thousands of years," Wood wrote. "It is amazing how little we
know about these 60-foot long animals. There are also giant octopuses, but
they are much smaller than the giant squid."

Experts say the true size and nature of squid and octopus species are often
misrepresented or exaggerated by eyewitnesses and the media.

Images of the blob on Pinuno Beach in Chile quickly winged their way around
the world via the Internet.

New Zealand marine scientist and squid expert Steve O'Shea studied the
pictures. "I would be very comfortable referring this mass to mammalian
(whale), especially so because another gray whale was dead next to it,"
O'Shea said in an e-mail interview Wednesday night.

"A bit of DNA should confirm this," said O'Shea, a Senior Research Fellow at
Auckland University of Technology's Earth and Oceanic Sciences Research

The Smithsonian's Mead agrees, based on the pictures. He said he gets calls
two or three times a year about mysterious blobs that turn out to be
decomposing whales.

Mead urged the Chilean officials to send tissue samples away and get DNA
tests, which they are doing.

Officials at the Centro in Santiago said Thursday that specialists will
genetically analyze the samples in the United States, France and Italy,
"with the objective of confirming or denying the existence of a giant

dinah.pulver at news-jrnl.com

News-Journal Environment Writer Ivona Lerman and Staff Writer Patricio G.
Balona and Research Librarian Tom Rabeno contributed to this report.
What's this giant creature?
Some say it could be a large whale, such as a gray, sperm or humpback. All
are found in the Pacific and weigh between 25 and 45 tons.

· Gray whales, Eschrichtius robustus, can be up to 45 feet long.

· Humpbacks, Megaptera novaeangliae measure between 40 and 50 feet, while
sperm whales Physeter macrocephalus can be 49 to 59 feet long.

· The basking shark is another suspect. The Cetorhinus maximus can reach up
to 40 feet long.

Probably not. · The largest-known species of giant squid, Architeuthis dux,
has a mantle a little wider than six feet, while its two tentacles only
rarely exceed 15 feet from tip to tip.

· The colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, reaches greater lengths,
but little is known about it because it lives deep in the near-freezing
waters of the Antarctic.

· Not the scientifically accepted North Pacific giant octopus, Octopus
defleini, which averages about 16 feet from tip to tip, although it has been
measured at 30 feet.

· Could it finally be proof of the species proposed as the Octopus giganteus
by Prof. A.E. Verrill in 1896 after examining the animal that washed up in
St. Augustine?

Only DNA will tell.

-- SOURCE: American Cetacean Society, CephBase, The Octopus News Magazine


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