Thursday, February 22, 2024

Book Review: Sunshine State Monsters

Sunshine State Monsters: Cryptids & Legends of Florida  

Eerie Lights, 2022: 300pp. 



This is a wondrous book for a Floria-raised naturalist and cryptozoological researcher to peruse. I know of three other books on the topic, but this is my new favorite. It's also the best of Weatherly's state-by-state cryptozoology books I've read so far. 

From Pinky the sea monster (wonderfully rendered by Sam Shearon on the cover) to skunk apes to giant octopuses, Weatherly has collected all the stories and uncovered new ones. His work shows a great deal of research. I would have been more skeptical in recounting some of the stories, but this is not a deep scientific analysis: Weatherly is a storyteller, and a very good one.

Weatherly of course covers all the most famous cryptids. He has the most thorough account I’ve read of the Saint Augustine globster, aka Octopus giganteus.  On the Brian McCleary “sea serpent” tragedy, he tries to be very fair to McCleary, but the sole witness was a terrified, nearly drowned 14-year-old in pitch darkness: you can’t prove there was no sea monster, but there’s no evidence there was. I have some nitpicks on his coverage of the “giant penguin” tracks known as Old Three-Toes. He correctly points out discrepancies between the tracks as reported by Ivan Sanderson and his inability to reproduce the tracks vs the iron shoes of confessed hoaxer Tony Signorini. However, he overlooks the fact Sanderson was a serial exaggerator. He also, like seemingly every other writer, misses the fact that Thomas Helm reported the hoax in this 1962 book Monsters of the Deep.   

He mines the state’s folklore for enjoyable tales of giant alligators, sharks, birds, snakes (not much of an exaggeration these days), and – one I’d never heard of – armadillos.  He mentions Scott Marlowe’s report of seeing a dead gator 24 feet long being removed by authorities. This is a bit of an aside, but I’ve never known what to make of this. I knew the late Mr. Marlowe and had no reason to think him a liar, but the gator simply could not have been that large – authorities would immediately have called the news media, the people involved in the removal would have gone on TV as soon as they clocked out, and the thing would have been hauled to a university and be on display. (I have email correspondence claimed n a 30-foot gator was killed and left in a swamp, but I’ll just leave that here.) I hadn’t heard much about Two-toed Tom, a gigantic gator blamed for a host of depredations at the north end of the state. Weatherly includes a claim of a 20-foot rattlesnake: I heard a similar story secondhand when I was a kid.

There are tales of dinosaur-like creatures, sea serpents, a mermaid or two, an alligator man, and much more! For cryptozoologists, Florida is the gift state that keeps on giving.

When it comes to Bigfoot-like critters, most writers lump them under the title Skunk Ape, which seems to be a primate a bit smaller and a lot smellier than its Pacific Northwest counterparts. As Weatherly shows, however, there is a confusing myriad of reports of everything from monkey-size animals to those more on the order of baboons or chimps, to wildmen, to apes of genuine Bigfoot proportions. Florida’s well-earned reputation as a haven for all sorts of escaped or released wildlife, including primates, can explain some of the smaller creatures, but the Skunk Ape endures.

The book includes the search for endangered or presumed extinct wildlife, including the ivory-billed woodpecker, Carolina parakeet. Concerning the Florida panther, the story is complicated by claims of black panthers, lions, and other exotics. Just for fun, Weatherly throws in stories of werewolves, El chupacabra, and similar unlikely beasts.

As in all Weatherly’s books, there is a short bibliography and nothing more in the reference section. He does, however, do a very good job of listing the sources for individual accounts in the text, and that largely makes up for it. The lack of an index is irritating when modern software makes it fairly easy to generate.  I certainly would have liked more maps and photos, although I know photos can jack up the cost for a small publisher.

This is a most enjoyable romp through the lore of a state that must have more types of cryptids than any other.

 

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Unique Dunkleosteus fossil model

 Here’s a unique Dunk item. Star Ace Toys in Hong Kong offers a simulacrum of a complete, articulated Dunkleosteus fossil. This is part of their Wonders of the Wild series. I'll leave aside my usual quibbles about the tail structure and just enjoy it. It's a great piece of work. 

Star Ace produces a wonderful selection of items (no, I’m not being compensated here), including pop culture figures, creatures from movies (Rhedosuarus, anyone?), and other fossils like mammoths and dire wolves.  

They have a detailed, large (42 cm) Dunkleosteus sculpt, but at $329 I need to wait for someone to buy me a Christmas present. 


Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!

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Booz Review: Merbeings as a Real Species?

Merbeings: The True Story of Mermaids, Mermen, and Lizardfolk 

by Mark A. Hall (Author), Loren Coleman (Author), David Goudsward (Author)

Anomalist Books, 2023, 200pp.

I wanted to be intrigued by this book, but in the event I was disappointed. It's an uneven work, a mix of speculation, interesting stories, and puzzling errors. Hall (the primary author) was an exceptional researcher, Coleman is a prodigious cryptozoological writer and a friend, and Goudsward wrote a very good book on creature tales from Florida. I understand the challenge of trying to mesh the work of three people into a cohesive whole, but I expected a better book. 

The book starts with the hypothesis there is a global species of aquatic primate behind the merbeing stories.  Most of the stories of merpeople, as well as some hard-to-classify animal reports and even “Lizardmen,” refer to some variety of this species. It’s fair to mention that the late Mr. Hall liked to throw out provocative hypotheses, and the reader isn’t always sure how strongly he believes in them, but this is what we have to work with. If we suspend disbelief and read with an open mind, the book is entertaining but far from persuasive.

The authors did their research. The book is filled with interesting stories, with sources given in the chapter notes. Another good point is that Indigenous sources are, whenever possible, referred to by tribe or group names, vs the still-too-common “the Indians around Lake Powell say…” approach of lazy writers. They wisely avoid tying their idea too closely to the aquatic ape theory proposed by Hardy and expanded on by Morgan: they mention it just enough to make it a possible source of support without being dragged down by its universal rejection. Finally, they make a worthy effort to collect information from all over the world, avoiding being hemmed in by relatively recent Western motifs.  Missteps include stating the existence of many land primates all over the world as given despite the nonexistence of hard evidence and Hall’s championing of Homo gardarensis, a discarded species based on an acromegalic H. sapiens skull. 

The supporting accounts are spread all over the world, decades or centuries apart, often describing creatures quite differently. The authors suggest there is only one species of marine primate, likely a descendant of the swamp-liking fossil ape Oreopithecus. The differences are due to its using ornaments and coverings (including tails) from other mammals and fish to improve mobility, provide insulation, or express cultural norms. It’s an imaginative solution, and would be fun for fiction, but without evidence, it’s easier to argue the differences indicate unrelated mistakes, folklore, and hoaxes. (At one point it is mentioned there might be two species, one genuinely tailed.) 

Tales from Pacific fishermen, Native Americans, Western explorers, and other sources are used, and the hypothesis requires we accept all of them as true and basically accurate – even the ones about lizardmen jumping on to the running boards of cars. There is not a whit of evidence besides stories. The worst choice of an incident to mention concerns huge yellow humanoids in Vietnam. The source account in Martin Caiden’s book Natural or Supernatural? says American troops blasted the creatures at short range with automatic weapons without harming them, meaning the story is necessarily a hoax. 

The authors never try to condense the accounts into a single description of the species: size, current range and the reason for it, reproduction, etc. Nor is there an illustration of such. The book holds that scientists haven’t discovered the living animal because they are closed-minded about it and have not found fossils in the likely places (land once covered by shallow water), because they haven’t been looking for them. In any fossil dig, though, everything is collected and examined, and there have been many, many digs of such sites. One could posit that the species was always too rare to have turned up yet, but if so, it wouldn’t have a worldwide distribution of viable populations. Hall explains this with a crackpot theory of crustal displacement, which doesn’t help any.   

The speculation here is just too much of a reach, the evidence too thin and scattered to support it. Some of the individual accounts and legends are intriguing, and those plus the references make the book worth having for cryptozoologists, but the boat the authors try hard to build just doesn’t float.

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!

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Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Excellent new article on placoderms

We have an important new publication on the placoderms, including Dunkleosteus. An article in Cell Biology by Australian paleontologists John Long of Flinders University (Adelaide), who's written a considerable amount on placoderms, and Kate Trinajstic of Curtin University (Bentley) recaps the entire topic with the latest research. 

Dunkleosteus, Paeleozoo model

The authors discuss the history of placoderm discoveries, their place in public awareness, and much more. They accept the view of Martin Brazeau (published 2009) that, in their words, 

"placoderms are not a ‘natural group’ (monophyletic) but represent a paraphyletic grouping of early jawed fishes, with some branches of the placoderm family tree leading to modern fishes, while others were dead-ends."   


Placoderm evolution. Copyright 2024 Cell Biology: nonprofit educational use claimed.

Some 450 million years ago, in the early Silurian, lived a recently discovered placoderm only 3 cm long.  Xiushanosteus, from China, is apparently the ancestor of the arthrodires (which make up 60 percent of placoderm species) and other major lineages. 

The paper reviews placoderm evolution, the features that first developed in placoderms, their contributions to evolutionary biology, and their radiation. It's a great addition to the literature. 


Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!

Friday, January 19, 2024

Is the government hiding UFOs? Nope.

 "...no record exists of any president or living DOD or intelligence community leader knowing about this alleged program, nor any congressional committee having such knowledge. This should speak volumes if this case were following typical procedure because it is inconceivable that a program of such import would not ever have been briefed to the 50 to 100 people at the top of the USG over the decades of its existence."

That's the word.

It comes from the first head of  the Department of Defense’s official investigators, the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO). Sean Kirkpatrick says his attempts to do serious scientific investigation but was buried in unverifiable, sensationalist claims. AARO will soon release its Historical Record Report Volume 1, demonstrating that nothing about claims the government has UFO remains can be proven.

Puzzling? Yes. Alien? No. (US Government image)

There are sightings and videos not definitively explained. In an era soon to see advanced hypersonic weapons with AI brains, some capable of diving down from orbital altitudes, investigating anomalous targets is extremely important. But that's hard to do in a cloud of myths. 


Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's acclaimed book on the early days of the Space Age here.

The First Space Race was the first book to chronicle the efforts to launch the first satellites from all perspectives, US and Soviet. 


Tuesday, January 16, 2024

A bit of good news in rare tiger photo

Conservationists, with enormous effort, obtained a photo of the rare and endangered Malayan tiger. "It took 12 weeks of preparations, eight cameras, 300 pounds of equipment, five months of patient photography and countless miles trekked through the 117,500-hectare [451 square mile] Royal Belum State Park." There are fewer than 150 of this subspecies left. We need to celebrate every scrap of positive news these days.  I didn't include the photo here for copyright reasons. 

As a side note on my interest in cryptozoology, this puts into perspective the odds of a TV show going into reported Bigfoot habitat and immediately finding stuff, as they inevitably do. Bigfoot proponents, though, can also use it as an example of how hard it is to get a picture of a large, camera-shy animal.


Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!

 

Sunday, January 07, 2024

Book Review: Apocalypse Television

 

Apocalypse Television: How The Day After helped end the Cold War

Daivd Craig, Applause (Globe Peaquot), 2024. 245pp.

The title is a bit of a reach, but this film did have an impact far beyond what any other single Cold War TV-movie achieved. The story that unfolds here is an exciting as well as enlightening one. The best part is the inside baseball about how such a controversial film was approved and made, although the section on the film’s impact is also compelling. Craig is a good writer and has researched the topic thoroughly. He says at the start he wants to address the much larger issue of survival in a nuclear-armed world, and my reservations about the book mainly concern the way he treats that issue.


I am reviewing the book, not the movie so I went with my memory of the latter: I didn’t want my impressions of it to be overwritten by a rewatch long out of context.  It was certainly a good movie. Well-acted, well-cast, it used the town of Lawrence, Kansas as the perfect Middle American locale to study the impact of a holocaust. It was well-paced, although I thought the time wasted on bed-hopping was pointless. The military scenes made excellent use of stock footage and felt authentic. The ruined post-bomb town and its shattered, dying citizenry were superbly conveyed: no one could be unmoved.

I had an unusual perspective on the film. I was in a silo, with the keys to a nuclear missile, the night before we saw it. The Pentagon attitude toward nukes wasn’t cavalier as Craig portrays it. We knew the film was authentic because we’d watched in training the most graphic depictions of bomb test effects and horribly disfigured and dead inhabitants of Hiroshima: The Air Force wanted us to understand what we were doing.  I was certain the US would never fire first, but I understood the filmmakers’ decision to leave it ambiguous to focus on the human impact. In a quick survey of other retired missileers, everyone remembered the movie. Reactions ran the gamut: “I remember thinking how much worse reality would be;” “it made me more aware of what I was doing;” and “Marxist propaganda.”

How creator Brandon Stoddard got the movie made is fascinating. Initially, despite Stoddard’s track record of successful programming, no one else at the network wanted to touch it. As he persisted, debates included movie vs. miniseries, whether to make clear who started the war, where to locate the film (large city or smaller town?) and how realistic to make the postwar horrors. While Stoddard hatched the idea for the film with the intent of showing the horrors of a nuclear war, he insisted the film was nonpolitical with the villains being the nukes. The creative team did have antinuclear activists, including screenwriter Ed Hume and others connected to the nuclear freeze movement.

Craig portrays that movement as sincere, and it was, but he also portrays it as pure. As he surely knows, it was supported clandestinely by the USSR (although most protestors didn’t know that) and used heavily in Soviet propaganda. The book says very little about the Soviet actions the West was responding to or frightened by. Neither did the movement, which aimed 90 percent of its rhetoric at the US and carried out all its protesting in the West: no one took the risk of protesting anywhere an Eastern bloc government might arrest them. (I’m not sure Craig knows President Jimmy Carter offered Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev a nuclear freeze back in 1979 and was turned down flat.)

As Craig recounts, The Day After appeared during a space of American and British films, mainly documentaries but also dramatic films like Testament, dealing with nuclear war. On The Day After, producer Robert Papazian led the hard work of research. The filmmakers debated how much of the larger military and political world to depict, but they stuck (wisely) to focusing on the victims and showed just enough of the buildup and the war to tell their story.

The Pentagon declined cooperation since it was unclear who started the war, but did provide some access, like a tour of a missile control center. Young director Nicholas Meyer (whose recollections of the film, Craig notes, often differ considerably from those of his colleagues), came on board. There were many discussions with Broadcast Standards and Practices (“the censors”), and the filmmakers fought hard to keep realistic burns, illness, and death in the film. They definitely pushed the envelope. Some of the nuclear images in the film were from Hiroshima and some from American nuclear tests. The the mushroom of the explosion was a low-budget but effective special effect inspired when Meyer noticed how someone’s creamer dispersed in his coffee. The film used a reddish liquid dispersing into an aquarium and turned the film upside down, layering in the background shot behind it.

Lawrence, Kansas, became an indispensable part of the film, not only providing locations but most of the cast and its active local peace movement even reaching out to the Soviet Union to create exchanges. The choice to have only one name actor, Jason Robards (to whom Meyer offered the role in a conversation on an airliner), and a few younger actors plus a cast of unknowns and local talent turned out to be spot on. Forty percent of the speaking roles were local. Many actors came from Kansas City. Theater troupes, professors, etc. were solicited: University of Kansas students filled many roles, as did a good chunk of Lawrence’s fifty thousand people. Actual buildings were used unless they needed to be destroyed. Lawrence is in fact near numerous Minuteman missile silos, and it had the right rural Midwestern feel, even though Meyer and others were typical Hollywood types who wanted and expected the locals to be simplistic and aw-shucks. Despite that, it all gelled. Ratings were huge, and it’s not an exaggeration to say the whole country was discussing it. Reviewers felt the result, as filmmaking as well as an issue-raiser, was very good indeed, although Stoddard and Meyer both said later they thought the film could have been better.  The film’s signature shot, of citizens looking up as the ICBMs arc into a beautiful blue sky, is as effective now as it always was.

The political whirlpools and currents around the movie began swirling long before the air date. The movie was shown to peace groups, who did all they could to use it to promote the freeze movement. President Ronald Reagan saw an advance cut: while the book’s implication it was the film that ended in him enacting more “humane” policies toward the USSR is unproved, Reagan did describe himself in his diary as “depressed.” He and his Administration cited the film as proof of the famously hawkish Regan’s new mantra that “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Craig writes that ex-actor Reagan was moved by films “like no other medium.”  I never knew the Administration actually prepared a version with subtitles and sent it to the Soviets. The peace movement and the filmmakers didn’t want the message of the nonpolitical-but-political film co-opted, and they largely succeeded in keeping the focus on antinuclear sentiment. 

Craig makes the important point that The Day After would have less of an impact in similar circumstances in the modern day because it came at a time when the broadcast networks were still the most widely viewed and influential sources of televised drama. Excellent films of the streaming era rarely reach such a vast segment of the public.

In the mid to late 1980s, arms control policies were in flux, as hardliners in Russia lost their grip on power and, in 1985, passed power to the more practical Mikhail Gorbachev. Amid the continuing battle over intermediate-range weapons in Europe, Reagan proposed the “zero option” – no such weapons for either side. (Only later did he expand that phrase to include all nuclear arms, a distinction the book misses.)  In 1987 came the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which enshrined the zero option in Europe. Craig writes this treaty “ended the arms race.” It most certainly did not, as it had no effect on the heavier long-range strategic arms, but it was a major step in the right direction.

Stoddard went on to make the Russian-occupation film Amerika, which neither Craig nor I thought was all that good. He never admitted The Day After was political, although the rest of the creative team had never denied it was. Meyer, in later years, thought delivering the antiwar message through this film was “the best thing I ever did.”

Thie book, like the film, has a bit more of a political slant than the creator admits to. Only a lunatic can be in favor of nuclear war, but Craig doesn’t allow for the sincerity of people who thought keeping peace meant keeping a strong force and handling reduction step by step, with caution about Soviet intentions. Still, those of us who believed in a strong nuclear deterrent can’t claim there’s anything moral about it except the bare fact that it’s worked.

Craig has provided us with a well-written book that chronicles an important, though perhaps not pivotal, moment in Cold War history. This is a rare look at how the entertainment industry – or one determined individual, in this case – played a role in that war and the public’s understanding of it. I have differences with the context and background Craig provides, but that doesn’t take away from the importance of the book.


 Matt Bille is a former Air Force officer, now a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He is hte author of The First Space Race Launching the World's First Satellites (Texas A&M, 2004).  He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.


Sunday, December 31, 2023

A Prayer for 2024 courtesy of Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 I publish this poem every year. Whatever your faith or views, this poem has sentiments everyone can embrace.

In Memoriam, [Ring out, wild bells]
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

An Amazing Novel of Octopuses, Intelligence, and Humanity

 Ray Nayler

The Mountain in the Sea

MCD (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux), 2022. 452pp.

Nayler, an author of acclaimed short fiction, delivers a first novel that’s original, superbly written, and profound, showing extensive research and a fearless approach to the largest of themes – consciousness, sentience, and life. 




We’re in a world set just far enough in the future for the creation of Evrim, the world’s first and only sentient android (such creations were immediately outlawed). The world has been reshaped by wars but remains functional, with greater roles for international authorities (governmental and corporate) plus a powerful cyber empire based in Tibet. Transport is largely AI-driven, and advanced drones and other gadgets are ubiquitous. Nayler chillingly depicts life on an AI-driven fishing vessel where the crew are slaves, never setting foot ashore and unable to communicate. On one such ship, fisherman Eiko learns from his Vietnamese friend Son the legend of a shapeshifting sea monster at the Con Dao Archipelago. This is where Dr. Ha Nyguen has just been hired to investigate what may be a sentient octopus species. Nayler's characters talk through the factors that have kept octopi from having a civilization: short lives, no parent-child bond, and lack of symbolic communication. The author repeatedly and effectively shows how hard it may be for humans to understand the thinking of any alien species, as theory after theory goes bust.

With Ha on the remote atoll are only Evrim and Altantseteg, the enigmatic guard who commands an array of automated defenses. Also in the cast are Ha’s long distance friend Kamran, the cybergenius Rustem, the DIANIMA corporation’s scientist Arnkatia Minervudotter-Chan, and a mysterious woman hidden by an AI facemask who ruthlessly manipulates people for DIANIMA’s benefit. Nayler introduces the “point five,” an AI companion (it and a human together make one point five) sophisticated enough to have discussions and arguments, and pass almost any Turing test, and we’re not always sure who is actually human.  One of Nayler’s fascinating explorations concerns what tips the scale to sentience: why Evrim is an autonomous intelligent being and other constructs, cyber or physical, are not. What, he asks, is the ultimate Turing test?

The octopuses are not what you’d expect. They are trying to understand us, as Ha and Evrim try to understand them. There are echoes here of other interesting works: Star Trek TNG (although the gap between android and human is greater than Data showed us), Alien, and the film A Cold Night’s Death are a few. The various stories collide, literally, at a point where we find out what’s really happening on the island, who’s in charge, and key characters’ real motivations, all of which come as revelations.   

This isn’t a novel you can read casually. Nayler’s prose is inventive and highly effective without ever becoming flowery. Every paragraph is there for a reason, and the reader needs to pay attention. The technical and philosophical details are well thought out and often provocative. Excerpts from the books of Drs. Nyguen and Minervudotter-Chan give essential insights into the characters’ thinking as well as their world. The result is a masterpiece of suspenseful and thoughtful storytelling.

My last thought is that Nayler needs to keep tight control when this book is optioned for a film. A studio’s first instinct will be to make it a monster movie, which is like making Moby Dick an Ahab-vs-whale contest while ignoring the many layers that make the tale profound and unique. I wish him luck.


 Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Review: Darren Naish Gives us the Best Book on Marine Reptiles

 Ancient SeaReptiles: Plesiosaurs, Ichthyosaurs, Mosasaurs, and More

by Darren Naish

‎ Smithsonian Books,  2023.  192 pages

My go-to book on marine reptiles used to be Richard Ellis’s Sea Dragons: Predators of the Prehistoric Oceans (2003), which is highly readable but long since obsolete thanks to a raft of new fossils and analytical techniques. Ancient Sea Reptiles, which reflects the latest information in text and diagrams while remaining readable, is my new one.



An excellent Introduction sets up our voyage into the Mesozoic. Dr. Naish explains land masses, climate, temperatures (until recently no one was sure whether marine reptiles braved cold seas), and a capsule history of discoveries by naturalists and paleontologists.  The first ichthyosaurs, mosasaurs, and plesiosaurs came out of Europe in 18th and 19th centuries. Speaking of Europe, Naish zaps the myth Many Anning was ever obscure or forgotten, even if she didn’t always get proper credit. More discoveries came out of North America, although Edward Drinker Cope in 1869 delayed proper study of his stunning Elasmosaurus by mistaking the neck for the tail and putting the skull on the wrong end. More mosasaurs and plesiosaurs also came out of North America, supplemented in modern times by marine reptile finds all over the world: from Australia, Morocco, China, and many other places.

Diving into evolution, Naish straightens out the convoluted mess of theories, family trees, and cladograms. These lead to the predominant modern hypothesis, that all the marine reptiles form a superclade descended from a common ancestor. That ancestor may resemble Womengosaurus, 255 million years old. The evolution within the clade was complex. With nearly 200 million years of changing conditions and evolutionary pressures, bodies responded in all kinds of different ways. Not only did the same body plans appear (and reappear) from different reptilian lineages, but similar body plans were shared among creatures as different as ichthyosaurs, cetaceans, and fishes.

Each of the major groups gets a chapter, but the “and More” in the title is very important. Most readers will have at least a general idea of the three largest groups, even if their relationships are very complex.  Naish shows us in Chapter 4 the marine reptiles were much more diverse than is generally known, not to mention weirder.   Mesosaurs, a bit crocodilian to our eyes, prowled the shallows and ventured on land. Placodonts looked like bony, husky, broad-bodied marine lizards. The platyochelids looked like bizarre turtles with shells of heavy scales: I was remined of a swimming waffle iron. Nothosaurs had long, shallow skulls, a bit alligatorish. Then there’s Tanystropheus, with a neck as long as the body and tail put together. It appears to have been an amphibious shoreline ambusher that picked off fish in the shallows. There are many more groups. Above the Mesozoic oceans soared pterosaurs and, eventually, seabirds. There were sea snakes, too, some with tiny hind limbs.

The ichthyosaurs looked the most like modern fishers or cetaceans. They were around more than 100 million years from the 1-meter (m) types of the early Triassic to the amazing shastosaurs, which reached 21 m and probably longer. They split into many groups and evolved countless variations. The Suevoleviathan had unusually large front fins and a gigantic tuna-like tail. Some had enormous eyes indicating they, like some modern cetaceans, didn’t let the need for oxygen keep them from diving deep to hunt fish and squid.

The plesiosaurs might be the most famous group of all. They are classically described as looking like “a snake threaded through the body of a turtle.” Naish notes the media stars are the elasmosaurs, with their extremely long necks, but necks and skulls came in all lengths and thicknesses. (He also notes they did NOT produce the alleged Loch Ness monster.)  For 130 million years, the plesiosaurs evolved, differentiated, and even produced the pliosaurids, which had massive heads and short (sometimes almost absent) necks. There was also the giant Liopleurodon, once estimated at 25 m but really well under half that (still a giant!)  Kronosaurus was another large and relatively famous species (among the types resurrected, with gills in the novels of Max Hawthorne), and up to 11 m long. Leptocleidids were smaller types inhabiting estuaries and lakes, filling niches many modern seals occupy: indeed, some look considerably like four-flippered seals.

Naish spends some time on the interesting and still disputed topic of just how these creatures swam. Were they underwater flyers, like penguins? Rowers? It now looks more complex, with precisely synchronized fore and hind paddle movements for top efficiency.

The thalattosuchians were the ocean-going crocodylomorphs, though unrelated to modern crocodiles. The teleosaurids came first, starting with predators of the shallows and moving into the oceans, while the later-developing metriorhynchids were pure ocean-going animals with smooth skins.

The mosasaurs were unique in being, literally, huge seagoing lizards. Naish says they can be thought of as “whale-lizards,” albeit scaly-skinned, driven by their shark-like tails. While the discovery of a soft-shelled egg 29cm long, which made headlines in 2020, led to speculations mosasaurs laid eggs, the evidence is strong that they bore live young (exactly what laid that egg is still a mystery). One branch, the tylosaurines, produced giants 14 meters long. Here again underwater flight has been suggested, at least for the long-limbed and deep-chested Plioplatecarpus. In this case, too, the idea has been largely dismissed. Mosasaurus itself might have grown as long as 18 m, although the Jurassic Park films make it the size of a small U-boat. 

Finally, we have the sea turtles. On group, the protostegids, which may not have been turtles at all, is extinct. This is unfortunate, since it produced the spectacular Archelon, from North America, 4.6 m long and with a sharp parrot-like beak and a cover of skin and/or scales over a full ribcage, unlike modern turtles where ribs and carapace are fused.  The others are the hard-shelled turtles, relatives of those still with us today, and the leatherbacks, which swam pretty much unconcernedly through the K-Pg event and everything since. The only real enemies of the jellyfish-loving adults, decimating their ranks today, are plastic bags.

The illustrations are superb throughout. The book offers a plethora of photographed fossils, artwork, and line drawings which connect us to the creatures being discussed and to the technical topics like the importance of salt glands. The diagrams of evolutionary relationships are equally helpful.  

It’s not a perfect book.   While Naish gives many sources in text, there are no footnotes, endnotes, or other citations and only a token bibliography. This Smithsonian series doesn’t have citations in general, and Nasih himself doesn’t consider them critical for a popular book, but I’m a fan of them: I love the way books by people like Ellis and Susan Casey (and, for that matter, me) give us many pages of things to look up as curiosity dictates. Finally, the book just ends. There are two lines on the future of the oceans at the end of the turtle chapter, and it just stops. Naish had more material he could not incorporate, but even a short summary of this broad topic we’ve just covered would make it feel more complete. 

The marine reptiles, then, were a group of astonishing numbers, variations, and sizes. Naish has given us the best guide in print to these creatures and their world. An exciting aspect, threaded throughout the book, is that discoveries, theories, and analysis of these animals is progressing faster than ever before. Naish may have to revise this superb book in ten years or so.

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.
Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!



Saturday, December 09, 2023

Following the work of Sharon Hill

Sharon Hill, geologist, science writer, skeptic, and reporter on cryptozoology, natural phenomena, and paranormal claims, is a very important resource for those of us who follow those topics.  She has been on several platforms which either proved unsatisfactory or became so, so she is consolidating.  

Her Substack will go away and everything will be on her website at Sharon A. Hill - Strange Claims Adjuster (sharonahill.com) She also posts on Mastodon.

This includes her old Spooky Geology site and her Modern Cryptozoology blog. 


Good luck, Sharon!


Sharon A. Hill

Independent researcher, Geologist, author, and science communicator with 25+ years of research and writing about anomalous natural phenomena, paranormal beliefs in society, paranormal popular culture, pseudoscience, science and society, cryptozoology, Forteana, and geologic topics.

Author of Scientifical Americans (McFarland, 2017)


Thursday, December 07, 2023

The most puzzling of "Sea Serpents"

In the age of hard science and amazing tools, is there any room for the romantic possibility of large and truly strange creatures roaming the oceans of the world? The age of monsters is long past, but there remains a most peculiar eyewitness account from December 7, 1907 by two British men of science, Michael J. Nicoll and E.G.B. Meade-Waldo.  In 1905, these witnesses observed a "sea monster" which still hasn't been definitively explained.
The men were both experienced naturalists, Fellows of the Zoological Society of London.   Their account of "a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions" is recorded in the Society's Proceedings and Nicoll's 1908 book Three Voyages of A Naturalist.

On December 7, 1905, at 10:15 AM, Nicoll and Meade-Waldo were on a research cruise aboard the yacht Valhalla.  They were 15 miles east of the mouth of Brazil's Parahiba River when Nicoll turned to his companion and asked, "Is that the fin of a great fish?" 
The fin was cruising past them about 90 meters away.  Meade-Waldo described it as "dark seaweed-brown, somewhat crinkled at the edge."  The visible part was roughly rectangular, about 1.8 m long and 60 cm high. 
As Meade-Waldo watched through  “powerful” binoculars, a head on a long neck rose in front of the frill.  He described the neck as "about the thickness of a slight man's body, and from seven to eight feet was out of the water; head and neck were all about the same thickness ... The head had a very turtle-like appearance, as also the eye.  It moved its head and neck from side to side in a peculiar manner: the color of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below - almost white, I think."
Nicoll noted, "Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature."  They kept the creature in sight for several minutes before the Valhalla drew away from the beast.  The yacht was traveling under sail and could not come about.  At 2:00 AM on December 8th, however, three crewmembers saw what appeared to be the same animal, almost entirely submerged. 
In a letter to author Rupert T. Gould, author of The Case for the Sea Serpent, Meade-Waldo remarked, "I shall never forget poor Nicoll's face of amazement when we looked at each other after we had passed out of sight of it ... " Nicoll marveled, “This creature was an example, I consider, of what has been so often reported, for want of a better name, as the ‘great sea-serpent.’”
What did these gentlemen see?  For the sake of inquiry and fun, let's assume they got the description right.  If the animal did have this "extraordinary" appearance, and thus could not be simply ascribed to a known creature, and we let in the possibility of an unknown one, then what might we theorize?
Meade-Waldo offered no theory.  Nicoll, while admitting it is "impossible to be certain," suggested they had seen an unknown species of mammal, adding, "…the general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this impression."  The witnesses did not notice any diagnostic features such as hair, pectoral fins, gills, or nostrils.
The late zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, in his exhaustive tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, suggested this sighting involved a huge eel or eel-shaped fish swimming with its head and forebody out of the water.  For reasons no one understands, the largest known species of eel, the conger, does swim this way on occasion.  Interestingly, the conger also has been observed to undulate on its side at the water’s surface, producing an appearance that looks little like an eel and a lot like a serpentine monster, albeit a small one.  Congers are known to reach about nine feet in length.
Another candidate for the sighting might be a reptile.  Nicoll's sketch certainly bears some resemblance to a plesiosaur, a Mesozoic-era tetrapod suggested as a solution for sea serpent sightings as early as 1833.  
Plesiosaurs keep turning up in connection to sea serpents because they were one of the few marine species of any type in the fossil record to have long necks.  American humorist Will Cuppy once remarked on plesiosaurs, “They might have a had a useful career as sea serpents, but they were before their time. There was nobody to scare except fish, and that was hardly worth while.”  Indeed, the plesiosaur fossil record stops with that of their land-based cousins, the dinosaurs. 
There is another problem in connecting these animals to the 1905 description.  In addition to the absence of relevant fossils dated within the last sixty million years, no plesiosaur is known to have possessed a dorsal fin.  There was no need for a dorsal fin for stability on the turtle-like bodies of these animals.  A plesiosaur with a fin or frill unsupported by bones and thus unlikely to fossilize, presumably for threat or sexual display, is not impossible, but this is pure speculation As a non-expert on these creatures, I can only refer to my favorite source, Darren Naish's book, which, shows no hint of a dorsal on any relevant species.
Nicoll's idea of a mammal poses problems as well.  No known mammal, living or extinct, fits the description given by the two naturalists.  Some cryptozoologists believe sea monster reports are attributable to archaeocetes: prehistoric snakelike whales, such as those in the genus Basilosaurus.  It's conceivable this group could have evolved a long-necked form but not only did the basilosaurs, according to fossils, vanish millions of years ago, but the known whales were actually evolving in the opposite direction, resulting in the neckless or almost neckless modern cetaceans.  One other mammalian possibility is a huge elongated seal.  This seems equally difficult to support, given that no known seal, living or extinct, has either a truly long neck (although the necks of pinnipeds are startlingly long when extended) or anything resembling a dorsal fin.
The original eyewitness drawing by Nicoll (out of copyright)

Meade-Waldo was aware of the famous sea monster report made in 1848 by the crew of the frigate HMS Daedalus.  He thought his own creature "might easily be the same."  The Daedalus witnesses described an animal resembling "a large snake or eel" with a visible length estimated at sixty feet. To me, though, a squid or whale seems most likely.
Eels come up in relation to this sighting because Maurice Burton and others have written of conger eels (known maximum size 3 meters) showing peculiar behaviors. One is undulating on their sides on the surface (which, if you make the eel big enough, is an impressive "sea serpent:" the other is rushing about with head and forebody lifted out of the water, which makes no sense but must look really cool and can include the tip of the dorsal fin. 
There are a few reports specifically describing giant eels.  A German vessel, the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, observed such a creature in its entirety off England in 1912.  The Kaiserin's Captain Ruser described it as over six meters long and half a meter thick. Four Irish fisherman claimed to have caught a six-meter eel in 1915.  In 1947, the officers of the Grace liner Santa Clara reported their ship ran over a brown eel-like creature estimated at nearly 20 meters.   In 1971, English fisherman Stephen Smith was in the area of the 1912 sighting when he allegedly encountered an eel 6-7 meters long, with the head of a conger eel but “four times the size.”  He told author Paul Harrison, “I have fished all over the world, but never have I seen something like this.”  Smith suggested it was “…a form of hybrid eel, but at twenty feet? There must be a more rational explanation, but I’m damned if I know what it is!”
The first “non-monster” hypothesis offered came from Richard Ellis, a prominent writer on marine life.  Ellis suggested in 1994 that a giant squid swimming with its tentacles foremost, with one tentacle or arm held above the surface, could present an unusual appearance which, combined with a reasonable degree of observer error, might account for the details reported in this case.
Squid can swim tentacles-first, and often do so when approaching prey.  For one to have presented the appearance described, though, it must have acted in a totally unnatural fashion.  The squid would have to swim on its side to keep one fin above the water while pointlessly holding up a single limb and swimming forward for several minutes.  Even assuming it is physically possible for a squid to act this way, it seems impossible to come up with a reason why it might do so.  This explanation also requires that Meade-Waldo, at least, made a major mistake, since he recorded seeing a large body under water “behind the frill.” (Nicoll did not see this or did not remark on it.)
Dr. Naish has suggested the witnesses saw a large pinniped, perhaps a sea elephant, lying on its side, head slightly above the water, "finning:" waving one fin for cooling.  That's known behavior. It's the most plausible known-species idea, and may be current, but it not being an exact fit makes me keep the file open. (Sheer romanticism, of course, is another reason.) 
While the idea of a large seagoing animal remaining unidentified to this day may seem surprising, it’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility. Recently identified whales have already been mentioned.  The five-meter-plus megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios), while discovered quite a while back (1976), is still a good example because this huge, slow-moving, blimplike filter-feeder was not just unknown as a living species, but completely unknown in every respect.  There were no fossil indications, no sighting reports, and no local folklore about such a strange creature among Pacific islanders.   The species just appeared. The newest of the beaked whales was known only by Japanese fishermen's reports until it stranded in Alaska in June 2016. We still don't know the identity of the species called the Cross Seamount beaked whale, even though records of its vocalizing show it prefers shallower water than any other beaked whale. 
The whole sea serpent business is hopelessly buried in hype and hoax, but there are a handful of reports that still make a few scientists wonder.  If the Valhalla report is ever satisfactorily explained, I'm willing to give up the whole topic.  But all we know for now is that, on this date in 1905, two well-qualified witnesses described a large unknown marine animal for which no convincing explanation has been presented.   
REFERENCES
Ellis, Richard. 1998. The Search for the Giant Squid. New York: Lyons Press.
Ellis, Richard. 1994. Monsters of the Sea. New York: Knopf.
Gould, Rupert T. 1930. The Case for the Sea Serpent. London: Philip Allan.
Harrison, Paul. 2001. Sea Serpents and Lake Monsters of the British Isles. London: Robert Hale.
Heuvelmans, Bernard. 1968. In the Wake of the Sea Serpents. New York: Hill and Wang.
McCullough JLK, et. al. 2023. "Geographic distribution of the Cross Seamount beaked whale based on acoustic detections," Marine Mammal Science, 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.13061
Meade-Waldo, E.G.B., and Nicoll, Michael J., 1906. "Description of an Unknown Animal Seen at Sea off the Coast of Brazil," Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, p.719.
Molloy, R. 1915. “A Queer Tale of Flanagan and the Eel off Dalkey Sound,” publication title unknown, August 28. Available at http://www.clubi.ie/dalkeyhomepage/ee.html.
Naish, Darren. 2023. Ancient Sea Reptiles: Plesiosaurs, Ichthyosaurs, Mosasaurs, and More. Washington, DC: Smithsonian.
Naish, Darren. 2016. Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths. Arcturus,
Nicoll, Michael J. 1908. Three Voyages of a Naturalist. London: Witherby and Co.

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.
Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!