Friday, July 30, 2021

New Dunkleosteus Model: It's Different

This one from Bandai looks like more of a novelty, the kind of toy you might put on a kid's birthday cake,  although it's not that cheap.  There's not much to say from a zoological standpoint, but it's unique. The armor on this 65mm mini-figure looks like slabs of rock (maybe Marvel Comics' Thing has one in a goldfish bowl). The jaws have gained a full set of teeth, and the tubby little body would have to work hard to get this creature anywhere.  It's cute in its own demonic-looking way. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Book Review: Bigfoot in Maine

 Bigfoot in Maine

Michelle Souliere. Introduction by Loren Coleman. (2021: History Press, 190pp.)

Mainer Michelle Souliere has talked to everyone from witnesses to government biologists to assemble this enjoyable excursion into the woods of my birth state.  

Loren Coleman of the Portland-based International Cryptozoology Museum provides some background on the state and its oddities.  Souliere starts with something most regional authors skip over: a list of reasons why the state would be livable habitat for a big primate. She covers the habits and appearances of black bears, the most likely source of mistaken reports, then offers her insights about how and where Bigfoot is most often encountered and the commonalities in witnesses’ descriptions.

Then on to the accounts. Maine has “wildman” traditions going back to the 1780s. (She admits she hasn’t had time yet to build up relationships with Native American tribes to learn what they think. That creates a gap in the relevant history, but she opted not to offer her own interpretations of their accounts and traditions, which is rather refreshing.) The author presents 19 accounts in depth. Some of the events, like the Durham Gorilla from the early 1970s, are relatively famous. An interesting bit from that one is that Michelle finds there were two exotic wildlife menageries in the area, but no evidence either had lost an ape.  Other reports appear here for the first time: the claim of a woman named Suzy to numerous childhood encounters with a creature that became accustomed to her is one such. Bigfoot stories often include some odd elements (besides the Bigfoot, of course), and one man tells of seeing a giant, dead, hairy foot sticking out between two pulled-over cars that were part of a larger official-looking convoy.

Souliere adds some notes about Bigfoot-hunters and hoaxers in the state. In offering her tentative conclusion, she keeps it simple: “Mainers are encountering something in the woods that does not match known large mammals.”

Readers know I doubt there are Bigfoots in Maine or anywhere else, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book and Souliere's matter-of-fact approach.  If you’re a Bigfoot researcher, a Mainer, a folklorist, or anyone else with an interest, you’ll dig into this well-written book.


Twitter: MattWriter

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Free archive of publications on cryptozoology and other topics

Isaac Koi has assembled a huge trove of old newsletters and magazines, mainly on cryptozoology but branching out to all sorts of oddities. He has, among other things, the International Society of Cryptozoology journal Cryptozoology, the most respected scholarly publication ever on the topic, and my old newsletter Exotic Zoology (1994-1999).  Thanks to Isaac for preserving all this material, much of which can be found nowhere else. 

Isaac Koi - New Uploads: "Exotic Zoology" and "Cryptozoology Newsletter" (both by Matt Bille) now online (

Isaac Koi - New Uploads: Another big one : Searchable scans of "Pursuit" (the journal of Ivan T Sanderson's "Society for the Investigation of The Unexplained") (

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Book Review: Extinct: Dunkleosteus

Extinct: Dunkleosteus (Extinct - The Story of Life on Earth Book 2)  

By Ben Garrod

2021: Zephyr, 114pp.

This book for grade schoolers by Ben Garrod is part of a series on extinct animals. It’s also the first book of any type devoted to Dunkleosteus, as far as I can tell. Fortunately, it's a terrific book, well written, current, and gorgeously illustrated. Garrod is a TV science personality and a professor of Evolutionary Biology and Science Engagement at the University of East Anglia.

He opens with an explanation of extinction and how it appears in the fossil record. The next chapter discusses the reasons a species may go extinct, starting with the usual suspects like competition but including coextinction, genetic mixing, and climate change (natural and otherwise) and discusses the phenomenon of mass extinctions.

After this material covering the purpose of the series overall, Garrod homes in on the Late Devonian extinction. He explains the distinctness of this event lies in having multiple causes over time. The Late Devonian is blamed on a mix of dropping oxygen levels, warming, rising seas, and a global algal bloom.

Halfway through the book, we get to the Dunk itself. Garrod takes readers through the discovery, naming, and features of D. terrelli. He discusses the challenge of figuring out bite force, not just in an extinct animal, but in living ones.  The author vividly describes the sucking/grabbing feeding motion of the multi-jointed skull as the Dunk “throwing its entire face forward.” Then he presents something that, for all my time reading on this species, I’d missed: that we have a fossil showing much of the pectoral fin (Carr, 2010) and the fin rays. Garrod agrees with the 2017 paper showing the tail was more shark-like than in many reconstructions. 

Garrod gives good descriptions of many other topics, including where Dunk and the placoderms fit in evolution, how many Dunk species there were, its food supply and environment, and so on. He explores possible behavior, including comparisons to modern predators. The oceanic whitetip shark, an open-water hunter, is his preference. He notes how cannibalism is hinted at by damaged armor plates but not yet proven, and he closes with a short glossary.

There aren’t many nitpicks to make about this book. Given the audience, the text is relatively sophisticated yet very clear throughout. (While he mentions live birth, the topic of the placoderms inventing intromittent sex is passed over.)  The book reflects the latest science. Garrod probably repeats the “apex predator” bit more than necessary, and he doesn’t include any suggestions for further reading or viewing (not that there is much for this age group). This is a great book for the curious young reader, and the curious adult reader will get a lot out of it, too. 

Gabriel Ugoieto contributes the wonderful color illustrations.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Congratulations to Bezos and company

It looks like it was quite a ride. Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin capsule soared past the 100 km mark, which is the closest thing we have to a definition of space. (It surprises most people that there's no international agreement setting the boundary for space. The U.S. Air Force awarded astronaut wings to two pilots who passed the 50-mile mark in the X-15 rocket plane in the 60s. The Karman line at 100km (62 miles) is the most commonly used definition but appears nowhere in law, national or international.)  

It's interesting Bezos was on the first crewed flight of his capsule. Of course he wanted to be, and his company built it, but it was risking the CEO and thus the venture, as did Branson's flight.  In Robert Heinlein's novel of the first private space flight, The Man Who Sold the Moon, D.D. Harriman's business partners resorted to out-and-out blackmail to keep him from risking his life on only the second flight of his spaceship. 

The only thing that would have made the flight cooler is for Bezos to have carried an Amazon package addressed to one of the ground crew and tossed it out the hatch when he landed.

There's a lot of critcism about billionaire "joyrides," but Bezos and Branson both think they can make money on space tourism flights, creating a new industry and supporting jobs and stockholders.  Beszos especially sees this as one aspect of a much larger venture: Blue Origin is competing with SpaceX. Boeing, and Lockheed Martin for contracts to launch government and commercial satellites into orbit. It's also fair to point out this money was raised from, in addition to sales of other things at Amazon and Virgin, investors whobought stock in Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic who hoped to make money from space flight.  A big chunk of the budget for these programs simply would not exist to give to charity.  Whether the two companies could do better with their support of human causes (and their employees) is aside from the point of this post.

A note on the passengers, or tourists, or astronauts (there's no official definition of "astronaut," either).  The flight carried the oldest and youngest people ever to reach space. Of special interest is "Wally" Funk, 82. The veteran pilot is one of the 13 women who, some 60 years ago, volunteeered to take the medical tests a private clinic had used to help select the Mercury astronauts under contract to NASA.   

As readers know, I write space history and want it to be correcct.  The tests at the Loveland Clinic were a privately run/funded experiment, and NASA had zero conenction to them.  The networks covering this flight harped endlessly on the "Mercury 13 astronauts" who were kept out of space when their program was canceled due to sexism.  That's incredibly sloppy journalism.  With all respect to Funk (and she deserves a lot of it),  the "Mercury 13 program" is a modern media myth. It simply never existed. Stephanie Nolen's award-winning book Promised the Moon explores every aspect of this and the debate aurrounding women astronauts.  

So let's see where this new ride takes us.    

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Cryptozoology Facebook groups: Any good science?

For those interested in cryptozoology, Facebook is, of course, one of the most popular social media ecosystems. As with so many other topics, there are dozens of Facebook groups about it.  


I've been at this a while and have developed some fairly strong views. If cryptozoology is to produce meaningful results, it needs to be real zoology, done to appropriate scientific standards. Some of the groups attracting the broadest audiences recycle the old claims, hoaxes, carcass photographs, and terrible logic that make broader acceptance so difficult.  

Some cryptozoolgists will find this list judgmental or narrow-minded. And I will politely disagree with them.  Again, my opinions. There are things on cryptozoology groups I personally would be happy not to see again. To wit: 

  • The claim that finding the coelacanth over 80 years ago proves that live plesiosaurs are believable.
  • A 1925 photograph of a decaying beaked whale carcass from Santa Clara, California. No matter how many times it's been explained, it pops up again as a "sea serpent." Never mind that the skull is still in a museum. 
  • The "giant shark fin with a U-boat" picture and other bits from an allegedly scientific network's fake Megalodon and mermaid programs. 
  • "The scientists are conspiring to hide the truth!" Considering that the person who proves Bigfoot is a real species will be world-famous, rich, etc., no. (There's no Nobel prize for zoology, but they would INVENT one just for this.)
  • The same arguments made for 50 years over the Patterson-Gimlin film.
  • Endless "paranormal" posts about interdimensional creatures, psychic contact, etc. I wish people would leave those for paranormal groups.  
  • Posts claiming "lost" photographs, bodies, etc. are meaningful evidence.  
  • Statements like "It doesn't matter if mainstream science accepts it, WE know." OK, cool.  But such posts should acknowledge that protection for an animal and its habitat requires scientific description and government recognition. 

There are many more, but you get the idea. 

Rather than try to name all the groups I've looked at but not joined, or left, I offer a sampling of those worth looking at, depending on your interests.  

Lob comments and brickbats as desired.

Check it out: - MattWriter on Twitter

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Shark Week meets Dunk Week

OK, it's Shark Week, with the usual mix of good scientific shows (about three of them) and hyped shows with celebrities' pretending they are in danger (plus whatever those morons from Jackass think they're doing. I hope the shark that bit that granitebrain didn't become ill.) In the Devonian era, sharks were called "lunch."  My favorite predator, Dunkleosteus terrelli, a cross between a steampunk submarine and a giant staple remover, reigned supreme. 

Books written before the 21st century often quote lengths of 9-10 meters for Dunks. Today you're more likely to read 7 or 8 meters.  That's still bigger than the biggest Great Whites. 

Of course, everyone want to know what the top end of the size range is. The bone along the side of the lower jaw is called the infragnathal. This photo shows a complete right infragnathal (top) and the partial left infragnathal from the famous Cleveland Museum of Natural History specimen CMNH 5936. CMNH 5936 might have measured up to 8.9 meters in life, although people still argue about the tail. (These people are right, by the way.)

Matt Friedman provided this photo. Here's his paper on Palaeozoic jawed vertebrates. Is 5936 the biggest ever? It's probably very close, although I understand there a fragment of a supragnathal that might have surpassed it.  Of course, we'll never be certain.  Paleontologists have estimated two and a half billion T. rexes have lived and died. Humans have identified fewer than a hundred individuals, and there are only 32 mostly-incomplete skeletons. Who knows how many Dunks we've missed? 

The Dunk doesn't have the media presence of the denizens of Shark Week. It appears briefly in a couple of documentaries and has been stuck in a few awful films. There's a new book out for school kids by Ben Garrod - I'll review that soon.  Despite my years of fascination with the Dunk, I learned something new there. I thought the only fossils were of the head/armor and a bit of anterior spine, but there is in fact a pectoral fin fossil, too.  I'm embarrassed, because I've talked to people at CMNH and looked at their publications, and I missed the saga of CMNH 8982.  

No one is certain what the non-fossil portions of D. terrelli looked like, but the blanks are slowly being filled in. My photo of the specimen from the Denver Museum of Natural History, below, reminds us that, no matter what they looked like, they looked scary enough to deserve their own week. Or at least their own documentary.   



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Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Book Review: Still Alive


 Still Alive: A Wild Life of Rediscovery

Forrest Galante

Hatchette, 2021, 238pp.

This is a rousing tale of adventure and discovery.  Galante hosts the TV program Extinct or Alive? and, as described here, has found some surprising answers to the title question in between dealing with storms, disease, corruption, and all the other impediments to learning whether a particular species or subspecies is still with us. Indeed, Galante comes close to being on the “extinct” side of the title himself as he chases around the world.

The book starts with his rewarding childhood of outdoor exploration in Zimbabwe, which turns to hell in a political upheaval. Relocated to California, Galante earns a degree in wildlife biology only to find it’s not a ticket to adventure. Instead, he’s employed in necessary but mind-sapping jobs pulling weeds and counting ants. His break comes when his ability to find edibles in the wild makes him king of the TV competition program Naked and Afraid, leading to his career in the media.

The meat of the books is, of course, the hunt for animals whose current existence is doubtful or dismissed. This has exciting but also humorous moments for the reader, as when Galante dives in very dangerous conditions searching for a missing African shark while his zoologist wife strolls along the beach with a photograph and finds one for sale.  The book discusses his successes, which he marvels at, noting the odds of finding something missing for decades in a two-week expedition are vanishingly small. His proudest moments are filming the Zanzibar leopard (Panthera pardus adersi) and locating a Fernandina Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis phantasticus), a Galapagos Islands animal last seen in 1906. 

Galante writes that biologists from the Galapagos Conservancy who were working with him looking for the tortoise have publicly, and unfairly, downgraded his role. This brings up an important topic. This is Galante’s book and his account. Other writers and scientists have disputed proper credit for the tortoise and some other events, such as the rediscovery of the Rio Apaporis caiman (Caiman crocodilus apaporiensis). (An important footnote on this animal is that Galante believes samples he collected show it’s not, as thought, a subspecies, but a species in its own right.) I won’t go any deeper into that subject here. This is a review of the book itself, and the book is exciting and highly readable. Galante clings to precarious cliffs, narrowly escapes a (legally justifiable) arrest in Malaysia, has a deadly snake crawl over his back, and otherwise takes us to scary moments and plain hard work in exotic but rarely pleasant locations. He also looks for some animals, including the thylacine, which elude him.

The book has some implications for my interest in cryptozoology. While cryptozoologists celebrate his demonstrations of how “presumed extinct” can turn out to be different from “extinct extinct,” his only mention of the field is dismissive, and he has no interest in looking for Bigfoot and company.  

Galante says a couple of times he’s redefined “extinction” or changed the way it’s declared, which is a bit of an overreach given that most of the creatures involved had not been officially declared extinct.  He does enjoy proving wrong experts who tell him he has no chance of success, something we all like to do in our own fields. He uses the terms "extinct" and "species" too broadly at times. While he's writing for a general audience, he could do better here. (I suppose also that compressing everything for TV doesn't get one in the habit of explaining nuances.)  

Galante includes some adventures not involving lost animals, such as catching a human-eating crocodile (the end of that tale will startle you) and documenting “wet markets” and the brutal Faroe Islands pilot whale drive.  As a gadget lover, I enjoyed reading how he and his team jury-rigged gear or made on-the-spot changes of plan to pursue success.

The book has a good photo section, but I would have liked some maps and an index.

Galante’s closing plea for conservation recognizes that species-finding is valuable but is putting small bandages on a giant wound. His most basic recommendation to start caring about the planet: “Get outside.” So take a hike, and take this book with you for the breaks. You'll enjoy it.


Sunday, July 11, 2021

Congratulations to Branson and Virgin Galactic

Millions of people want to go to space, even if for only a few minutes, and even if there's some dispute about what constitutes "space."  Now four more humans have crossed that boundary, and they did it in a new way: in a private spaceplane.  

Richard Branson has been working almost 20 years on going to space. Virgin Galactic, recovering from an early-model crash that killed its pilot, has pressed on until the triumph of today's flight. Congratulations to all the engineers, machinists, technicians, pilots, and others who made it possible!

Granted, going to space via Virgin requires one cough up $250,000. Certainly I couldn't do that. But there are 46.8 million millionaires in the world, and no one has ever accused Branson of lacking in sales ability.  Jeff Bezos thinks the same thing, although he's also aiming at the orbital launch market, currently dominated by the traditional providers (Boing, Lockheed Martin, and their joint venture, United Launch Alliance)  and the amazingly successful upstart, SpaceX.  Bezos goes to space later this month: Elon Musk has no immediate plans.

A lot of criticism has been leveled at the billionaires racing to space, but some of it's misguided. Every dollar spent here pays employees, contractors, or subcontractors. And, let's face it, I'm an old-fashioned romantic. I want space opened to more people, even if that doesn't include me. I want better space technology (and the associated spinoffs) developed, and all the competitors contribute to see to that.  I want more people to see Earth from space, see the oneness. If that sounds like the view of a hopeless space nerd, then it is.

Onward and Upward! 

P.S. There is NO universally accepted definition of "space" or "astronaut" in international law. The boundary of space is not in the Outer Space Treaty. The U.S. Air Force has always awarded astronaut wings to those flying to altitudes over 50 miles. That's the line Virgin Galactic pilots and passengers crossed, and of course the line Branson and his company embrace.  At 100 kilometers (62 miles) is the von Karman line, where aerodynamics cease to apply.  That's the line Jeff Bezos embraces, and it's the closest thing to an international definition.  The lowest practical orbital altitude is about 200 km (125 miles), and no one argues that's NOT in space. So there we are.  


Update: Sharon Hill's Strange Times

Geologist Sharon Hill is one of my favorite writers in the oddity business.  She has written about everything from the "stone tape" theory about ghostly activities (she didn't find it plausible) to bigfoot to UFOs, and her work on such topics is must reading.

Sharon is skeptical in the proper sense of the word, being open-minded but (sometimes regretfully) refusing to accept claims without proof. As she put it in a 2017 interview with this blog, " I don’t want to be labeled as a “Skeptic:" that connotation is so negative when finding out the truth is a totally positive thing to do." She isn't a member of the major skeptical organizations, which she sees as preoccupied with secularism to the detriment of other topics.

I mentioned Sharon did an interview for this blog in 2017: it's still very interesting reading.  I also reviewed her book from that year, Scientifical Americans, a clear and concise analysis of why people accept weak or unsupportable claims if they are cloaked in "scientifical" terminology. See the review here

Today she maintains the website Spooky Geology, addressing "ringing rocks," quicksand, and so on. Her other current venture, in which she collects weird news and writes about science and pseudoscience, is her Strange Times site with its accompanying newsletter. Go to Sharon's Strange Times ( She also maintains a personal blog with many relevant stories. It includes links to her many book reviews, some of which are shared by agreement with reviews on this blog. 

Her very good paper on Pseudoscience and cryptozoology is on

Sharon has moved on from her "Idoubtit" FaceBook page because she dealt with endless negativity that would wear down anyone (or any block of granite), as well as her Doubtful News site and podcast.  She is, however, as much worth reading as she's always been.  Lovers of the strange should follow her to the new site.


Friday, July 09, 2021

Lake Iliamna: My Favorite Natural Mystery

Alaska is a land of countless lakes, many of them impressively large.  Lake Iliamna, however, is like no other.  It might be the grandest physical feature in the United States that most American citizens are completely unaware of.

Iliamna overhead (USG) and surface level views (Commons)

Fully eighty miles long and with a surface area over a thousand square miles, Iliamna is approximately the size of the state of Rhode Island.  Iliamna is the seventh-largest body of fresh water in the U.S., with a mean depth of 144 feet and a maximum depth greater than 900 feet.   The lake is connected to Bristol Bay, sixty miles southwest,  by the Kvichak River, through which such marine mammals as harbor seals and belugas can travel.  Iliamna, in fact, supports a resident population of harbor seals, along with a successful sport-fishing industry.

The most intriguing thing about Lake Iliamna, however, is the possibility it houses unknown animals of enormous size.  The lake’s mysterious denizens are nothing like the classic  long-necked “lake monsters” alleged to dwell in other bodies of water. Instead, the animals reported from  Iliamna look like gigantic fish.

Reports of something odd in Iliamna began with the indigenous tribes. The few hundred people living at the lake include a mix of cultures, with Aleut, Yup'ik, Tlingit, Dena'ina, and other inhabitants.  No no one knows how long ago such stories first took root.  None of these tirbes hunted the lake’s creatures, believed to be dangerous to men fishing in small boats.  While some early white settlers and visitors reportedly saw the things, too, stories about Iliamna did not gain wide circulation until the 1940s, when pilots began spotting strange creatures from the air.  The flyers’ descriptions generally matched the tales of the Alaska Natives.  The lake’s mystery inhabitants were most often described as long,  relatively slender animals, like fish or whales, up to thirty feet in length.

In 1988, “Babe” Alsworth recounted his 1942 sighting in an interview with cryptozoologist Loren Coleman. Alsworth, a bush pilot and fishing guide, saw a school of  animals well over ten feet long in a shallow part of the lake. Alsworth  described them as having fishlike tails and elongated bodies and described the color as “dull aluminum.” Larry Rost, a survey pilot for the U.S. government, saw a lone creature of the same type as he crossed the lake at low altitude in 1945.  Rost thought the animal was over twenty feet long.

There have been several attempts to find or catch Iliamna’s mystery inhabitants.  In the 1950s, sportsman Gil Paust and three companions (one a fisherman named Bill Hammersly, who had been in Babe Alsworth’s plane in 1942 and shared in that sighting), tried  to fish for the creatures.  According to Paust, something grabbed the moose meat used as bait and snapped the steel cable it was hooked to.  In 1959, oilman and cryptozoology enthusiast Tom Slick hired Alsworth to conduct an aerial search of the lake, but nothing was sighted. An expedition in 1966 also apparently met with no success, as no results were announced. More recently, famed fisherman/TV host Jeremey Wade tried his luck without success. 

In 1979, the Anchorage Daily News offered $100,000 for tangible evidence of the Iliamna creatures.  The reward attracted both serious and eccentric researchers (one man reportedly played classical music to lure the animals up).  Apparently, there has never been a well-financed expedition with sophisticated sonar and photographic gear.

 According to a 1988 article in Alaska magazine, a noteworthy (but unnamed) witness was a state wildlife biologist.   In 1963, this official was flying over the lake alone when he spotted a creature which appeared to be twenty-five to thirty feet long.  In the ten minutes it was under observation, the animal never came up for air.  Other flying witnesses mentioned in media accounts include a geologist who flew over the lake with two companions in 1960, reportedly spotting four ten-foot fish, and Tim LaPorte, who reported a sighting in 1977.

In LaPorte’s case, the veteran pilot and air-service owner was near Pedro Bay, at the northeast end of the lake.  He was flying just a few hundred feet above a flat calm surface.  LaPorte and his two passengers, one a visiting Michigan fish and game official, saw an animal lying still, its back just breaking the surface.  As the plane came closer, the creature made a “big arching splash” and dove straight down.  LaPorte still remembers watching a large vertical tail moving in slow side-to-side sweeps as the animal sounded.  Comparing the object to a familiar type of eighteen-foot boat seen from the same altitude, LaPorte and his companions estimated the thing was twelve to fourteen feet long. LaPorte described the creature as either dark gray or dark brown.  LaPorte had been a passenger in a different aircraft in 1968 when the other two individuals in the plane had a very similar sighting.  (In that incident, LaPorte, who was taking flight instruction and sitting in the left seat, could not see the animal from his side.) 

Many sightings have occurred near the villages of Iliamna and Pedro Bay.   It was off the latter town in 1988 that several witnesses, three in a boat and others on shore, reported one of the creatures.  In this case, it was described as black.  One witness thought she could see a fin on the back, with a white stripe along it. 

It is important to note that Lake Iliamna today remains isolated, its shores largely unpopulated.  The largest village, Kakhonak, counts only 200 permanent residents.  There is no highway to provide easy access to (or from) the outside world.  (There is a very  dangerous portage road from Cook Inlet.) Sport fishermen and other summer visitors come by boat or fly in to the area’s single airstrip.  If there are unusual creatures in the lake, it’s hardly surprising that a long time can pass between good sightings. 

A common theory about the Lake Iliamna creatures (sometimes called “Illies,” although that seems to be a modern media name, not a long-held tradition) is that they are gigantic sturgeon.  These could be either an outsized population of a known type or an unknown species.  Sturgeon – large, prehistoric-looking fish, with armorlike scutes covering their backs and a heritage dating back before the dinosaurs - match most descriptions from Iliamna fairly well.  Sometimes the match is precise.  Louise Wassillie, who watched a creature from her fishing boat in 1989, said, “It’s only a fish.  It was about twenty feet long and had a long snout.  Probably a sturgeon.”  An earlier witness named Eddie Behan told writer Kim Fahey of seeing a twenty-foot spindle-shaped animal with a fish’s tail and rows of lumps on its back – a good description of what a sturgeon that size would look like.

Biologist Pat Poe of the Fisheries Research Institute (FRI) at the University of Washington, who has studied the salmon populations in Iliamna and neighboring Lake Clark, once commented, “I’m sure there’s a big fish.  I think the lakes have a lot of interesting secrets.  We don’t know much about other resident fish in the lake.”  Warner Lew, a biologist with the FRI’s Alaska Salmon Program, also said the  lake seems a suitable habitat for large sturgeon.  Lew told me that several witnesses have told him of sighting giant fish, but he has yet to see any fish larger than a four-foot Northern pike in his twenty-four years of research visits to the lake.

There are nine species of sturgeon in North America.  The white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) is the largest of these, and is the continent’s largest fresh-water fish. The record claim for a white sturgeon was made for a fish caught in Canada’s Fraser River in 1912.  The sturgeon was twenty feet in length and weighed 1,800 pounds. A fish of 1,500 pounds was reported caught in 1928 in the Snake River in the United States. An eleven-foot specimen weighing 900 pounds was found dead on the shore of Seattle’s Lake Washington in 1987.

Sturgeon expert Don Larson, curator of the Sturgeon Page Website, reports sturgeon over ten feet long are often caught in the Fraser and Columbia Rivers. Larson comments, “Most biologists I’ve talked to say that white sturgeon over twenty feet and 1800 pounds is highly probable.”

White sturgeon are not known from Iliamna, but have been found in other Alaskan lakes and in coastal waters as far north as Cook Inlet.  There is a single record of a catch in Bristol Bay, which puts a migration to Iliamna within the bounds of possibility.  It’s also possible that white sturgeon became trapped in the lake thousands of years ago, when the last glaciers receded, and have developed in isolation. Jason Dye, a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Bristol Bay office, once said, “There’s never been any documentation that anyone’s caught one in the lake, or seen one, as far as I know.  But that doesn’t mean they’re not in there.”

Sturgeon are bottom-feeders and would rarely be seen near the surface, which fits the Iliamna phenomenon.  The appearance of white sturgeon – gray to brown-brown in color, with huge heads and long cylindrical bodies – appears to match most Iliamna reports. (No one is certain how the species got the name “white sturgeon,” although some genuinely white specimens have been reported from salt water.) 

It may be a distinct sturgeon population has developed, distinguished from the known white sturgeon mainly by unusual size.  Whether this hypothetical type is different enough to be a new species is unknown.  There is plenty of food in Iliamna, where up to twenty million sockeye salmon return to the lake from the sea every year.  (There is serious concern among conservationists that this number is declining, and that the salmon run is being too heavily depleted by legal and illegal fishing as the fish migrate via the Kvichak.)  There is also plenty of room.  Iliamna has fifteen times the volume of Loch Ness.  At the same time, it must be admitted there is no physical or film evidence for unknown creatures of any kind. 

A landlocked population of fish becoming larger than their relatives which are anadromous (dividing their lives between fresh and salt water) would be unusual.  In most cases where a species has become split between freshwater and anadromous populations, as with salmon, the freshwater dwellers run smaller.  However, this rule may not be valid for Lake Iliamna, with its huge size and bountiful food supply. 

Other candidates have been out forward. Wade initially suggested a Pacific sleeper shark before setting on a white sturgeon. Others have also make shark suggestions. An episode of Missing in Alaska suggested (seriously) a fish-like fantasy monster like nothing that ever existed. (Among the interviewees was a "tribal elder" whose tribe was never mentioned, a critical thing when putting a story in cultural context.)  Sightings in the present century are rare but certainly have not ceased. Many people have come to look for a creature, but no one has found it. Scientists Bruce Wright and Mark Stigar are out there looking as I write this.   

Sturgeon?  Monster? Folklore? Or something completely different?  Whatever is going on in Lake Iliamna, it makes for one of the most unusual and intriguing mysteries in the animal world.   If any of the lake monster cases turns out to involve a real creature of prodigious size, it is Iliamna, not the more famous lakes in Canada and Scotland, where I would place my bet.



Anonymous. 1988.   “The Iliamna Lake Monster,” Alaska, January, p.17.

Alsworth, Glen.  2000.  Personal communication, November 2.

Coleman, Loren.  1999.  Cryptozoology A to Z.  New York: Fireside.

Dihle, Bjorn. "Pride of Bristol Bay: Catching the Iliamna Lake Monster," October 29, 1990. 

 Fahey, Kim.  2003.  Personal communication, May 19.

Foley, John.  1991.  “Mystery monster tales keep Newhalen residents on guard,” Anchorage Times, July 8.

Hendry, Andrew P.  1996.  “At the End of the Run,” Ocean Realm, March/April, p.52.

International Game Fish Association, “World Record Freshwater Fish,”

LaPorte, Tim.  2000. Personal communication, October 5.

Larson, Don.  Sturgeon Page

Larson, Don.  2000.  Personal communication, January 31.

Lew, Warner.  2000.  Personal communications, September 25 and 26.

Mangiacopra, Gary.  1992.  “Theoretical Population Estimates of the Large Aquatic Animals in Selected Freshwater Lakes of North America.” Academic paper.

McKinney, Debra.  1989.  “Believe it or Not,” Anchorage Daily News, April 14, p.H1.

Morgan, L.  1978.  “A Monster Mystery,” Alaska, January, p.8.

Snifka, Lynne.  2004.  “Monstrous Mysteries,” Alaska, October. 

River Monsters

Missing in Alaska: Swallowed by the Lake Dragon

Monsters and Mysteries in Alaska, 2010, a program I am credited on even though I was recuded to a minute or so (and they never sent me to the darn lake).

 Additional help: Chris Orrick, Ken Gerhard, Mary Andrew, Loren Coleman



Sunday, July 04, 2021

Book Review: Monsters and Maps

 Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps

Chet Van Duzer (2013: British Library, 144pp.)

This is a beautiful book, to say the very least.  Van Duzer shows us how sea creatures, real, intended-to-be-real, and wholly imaginary, decorated maps from the earliest surviving Western examples, as much as 1,200 years old. The practice may be much older.

Van Duzer’s focus is on the sixth through tenth centuries. Maps were decorated with creatures real and fantastic to show believed dangers in specific areas, to emphasize the breadth and wonder of Creation, or just as decoration, especially on maps commissioned by the wealthy as art.  The creatures are sometimes absurd, sometimes intriguing, and sometimes even believable (a swordfish and a whale on the Gough map of Britain, c. 1400, are very accurate). An illustrated copy of Ptolemy’s Geography, made about 1560, was the pinnacle of sea monster art, including in its maps 476 creatures. Often creatures shown on maps turn up in other places, such as illuminated manuscripts, bestiaries, and church decorations.

Monsters on maps declined in the more scientific era that followed the Renaissance, but the older maps left us some gorgeous art as well as a window to the thinking of their times. Do any possibly indicate cryptozoological creatures, the modern sea serpents that never quite vanish into myth? They might: there is something in here to match up with almost any hypothesis (I don’t know what one artist used as a guide for a half-fish half-rooster, a literal chicken of the sea.) 

This is a great reference to the real and imagined monsters of the period as well as a thing of sometimes-breathtaking beauty. The 299 endnotes add many interesting details.

Friday, July 02, 2021

My Newest Dunk Model: Attractive if Not Realistic

Made in China for an animal-figures company called JOKFEICE, this is an interesting Dunk that falls mainly into the “cool toy” bin, but has some flair. 

It’s a slightly chunky-looking vinyl Dunk about 21 cm long. It’s not a paragon of scientific realism, but the artist put some work into the details. The armor, shown as external and painted silver-gray, has some bumps and scratches indicating the animal took the predator business seriously.  The armor/mouth detailing is carried on under the head to the throat, which low-cost Dunk models often skimp on. The fish has the open-mouth posture required, apparently by international treaty, for all Dunk figures regardless of origin. The artist avoided the temptation to oversize the biting plates: indeed, they strike me as a smidge undersized. 

The body has a pebbled texture above and a slightly dappled blue-green color that would facilitate lurking around waiting to ambush prey. After that, it gets a bit weird. The large dorsal continues back to the upper lobe of the tail. The tail has an unusual look like the splash of a wave, or maybe a mermaid’s tail. It’s unrealistic but pretty and blended into the body in a sweeping curve that makes the whole fish attractive. To achieve that, the spines of the dorsal are raked too sharply backward.  (The only real piscine analogue I can come up with is, of all things, a koi.) The pectoral fins are also weird: not only are they unreasonably small, but they have a fleshy core with rays fringing it in all directions.

So it’s a handsome addition to the collection. If I don’t think it realistic, I do think it cool.