Friday, November 26, 2021

Book Review: The Brilliant Abyss

The Brilliant Abyss: Exploring the Majestic Hidden Life of the Deep Ocean, and the Looming Threat That Imperils It

Helen Scales (2021: Atlantic Monthly Press, 288pp.)

Scales, a marine biologist and a very busy nature writer, spends the opening chapters of this excellent book explaining the geology and topography of the underwater world. She presents the vertical journey by dropping a marble from a ship and describing the changes of light and life until it hits the bottom of a deep trench six hours later. She highlights a three-year study that photographed 347,000 animals in the Pacific, only one-fifth of which were assignable to known species and genera. She mentions the origins and legends of the abyss (from abyssus, “bottomless pit” in Latin) and its monsters. 

The book goes on to describe the history of seafloor exploration from sampling lines through modern robots and submersibles. Then the author takes us to the seas, where she describes being on a research cruise where sperm whales breach around the ship while the scientists haul up samples from over 2,000 m (6,560 feet) down. She spends a chapter on introducing the sperm whale and its marvelous adaptations, how humans have studied it, and the bizarre bone-eating zombie worms that gather on sunken whale skeletons. On the same voyage, scientists dropped dead alligators to the seafloor and watched how the predators moved in.

We learn about Ernst Haeckel, whose 19th-century work on jellyfishes formed the basis of modern efforts to study the bewildering variety of undersea invertebrates. Scales includes the discovery of a whole new ecosystem, the geothermal vent community. The total of species living in vent communities worldwide is over 700 and climbing. The book includes other discoveries, like octopus nurseries and the Mariana snailfish (documented living 26,500 feet [8,080m] down). 

Next, Scales considers what the oceans mean to us and what we’re doing to them. She explains the function of the oceans in sequestering carbon, the role of photosynthetic algae in generating oxygen, the pharmacological value of marine life, and other benefits. Then she explores the threats: overfishing (notably the rise and fall of the orange roughy population), the destructive trawling of seamount ecosystems, the rise in twilight-zone fishing, and pollution by everything from microplastics to nerve agents, and seabed mining. She argues the deep sea needs to be protected completely by something akin to the International Antarctic Treaty.

It’s a book with a lot of science on fascinating animals, plus thought-provoking arguments and even a couple of cryptozoological lines. “When Yeti crabs were discovered, it would have been poetic if they were found to eat marine snow.” (They don’t.) She writes that plesiosaurs were “extinct oceangoing reptiles that looked like Loch Ness monsters” instead of the other way around. I liked that.  The copious source notes top off the book, serving as an excellent resource.

Matt Bille


Twitter: MattWriter

Author, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library, due out December 1 from Hangar 1 Publishing 

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Cyptids and Comic Books: A Wild Bunch

 I came across this site today. It collects 152 appearances of cryptids in printed comics, and I wish I could read them all.  They range from specialized cryptozoology comics like Monster Hunters to mainstream comics like Hulk and the obvious ones like Scooby-Doo.  Tintin, the Powerpuff Girls, and Bart Simpson have all met cryptids. The specialized cryptid-focused comics are, I think, all gone at the moment. My favorite cryptozoology comic was Cryptid, which lasted one issue.  I still hope someone restarts it.  

Good as it is, this collection could be bigger. Jonny Quest, Tarzan, the X-Files, Batman, Superman, and many other comics feature heroes encountering cryptids. Marvel's Sasquatch character pops up many times and was on the Canadian superhero team Alpha Flight, although he never got his own book.  (Marvel's Sasquatch and the one Batman meets [see image below] look almost identical, yet very little like any reported Sasquatch.  Black Panther and the X-Men (some of whom arguably are cryptids) met the yeti. Aquaman and the Sub-Mariner must be sick and tired of meeting sea monsters all the time. There also were horror/science fiction comics like Challengers of the Unknown.

Among comics that are less known today, there was an independent comic ("independent" usually meaning not DC, Marvel or maybe Dark Horse) called Teddy and the Yeti. Champion of the Pines was a ten-issue indie comic featuring the Jersey Devil. There was Gold Key's run of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and the indie The Battle of the Sea Titans, a project that produced a gorgeous 20-page preview and was never seen again. The comic book version of Beany and Cecil featured the world's nicest sea serpent, A special hat tip to comic artist Steve Bisssette, who offered free Swamp Thing art to support cyrptozoologist Loren Coleman a few years ago when Loren had surgery. (I'm sorry I overlooked it at the time.)  

The team in Sea Devils (35 issues in the 1960s, and revived a few times between then and 2009) met sea monsters a lot (indeed, I'm not sure they had any other plots), and numerous war comics had someone meeting a monster, usually on a Pacific island.  Donald Duck met Nessie, and Dark Horse ran a 2012-2013 four-issue series of the uniquely titled Billy the Kid’s Old Timey Oddities and the Orm of Loch Ness. I'm going to find that one for myself.

I'm sure I'm missing a couple of hundred more examples, but much of the fun with comic books is digging up overlooked or forgotten gems. Keep looking!


Cover art copyright belongs to the respective comics. Shown here as educational illustrations, not for profit: they will be removed if I'm notified of an objection.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

New Species Keep Coming

 The parade of new species shows no signs of ending. 

Many people miss this because popular media covers only discoveries that are spectacular, extremely cute, or extremely scary.  A sizable new shark will turn up on the news services, as will a cute monkey and the occasional colorful bird, but the only sure things is a large land mammal, and those have been limited to reclassifications. Some of these do make the news: the Sundaland clouded leopard, split off from tits Bornean cousin in 2007, drew some attention. I almost forgot the beaked whales, which offer something new every few years - indeed, I wonder when they will STOP showing up. A new species drifted onto an island off Alaska in 2016 (as is not uncommon, it turned out there were some museum specimens) and scientists are actively searching for a beaked whale videotaped by a Sea Shepherd expedition in 2020.  But when is the last time you saw a story about a new mouse? Or lizard? Or frog? Or fish?

Rice's Whale (Balaenoptera ricei Image NOAA

There's a nice sampler in this article on from June 15. Writer Brianna Barbu listed seven finds from the first half of the year (there were many more).  Among them are the Emperor Dumbo Octopus, with its ear-like fins, from 1,300 meters beneath the Pacific: the biggest species of the year, Rice's whale from the Gulf of Mexico, split off from Bryde's whale: and a deadly Chinese snake decked in handsome black and white scales, Suzhen’s krait.  Discovery rates for most classes of animals, including vertebrate animals, are still going up.  It's still a big planet. 

Countdown to Of Books and Beasts

 Only ten days now!  

Links published soon!

Thursday, November 04, 2021

Welcome a colorful bird

Five decades ago, Dr. Ernst Mayr wrote that we'd found almost all the birds.  The great evolutionary biologist (1904-2005) was happy to learn he'd been wrong, and new birds are still showing up. This spectacular yellow tanager is the newest example. The range of the Inti tanager (Heliothraupis oneilli) is within the Yungas bioregion, which straddles Peru and Bolivia.   The bird, first spotted in 2000 but languishing scientifically in the absence of a specimen, was unique enough to justify creating a new genus. 

In most bird species, the males are more spectacular, but what does that mean when both sexes are already eye-grabbing? Here the male does its best to show off by adding a black head stripe and a modest crest. 

Photograph Louisiana State University: Nonprofit/educational fair use claimed 

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Review: In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents


This is one of the foundational works of cryptozoology, published in English in 1968. How does it hold up?

In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents 

Heuvelmans, Bernard (1968: Hill & Wang, 645pp.)

In this massive volume, Heuvelmans laid the foundation of marine cryptozoology, as he did for land cryptids in On the Track of Unknown Animals. It wasn’t the first good book on the subject, but was the most comprehensive, and remains so as I write this in 2021. After throwing out many reports as vague or mistaken, he identified 358 cases as offering good information. Heuvelmans provides a worthy starting point for all researchers of the topic. As one example of a case, he suggests the famous 1907 Valhalla sighting by two British naturalists involved a huge eel or eel-shaped fish swimming with its head and forebody out of the water, and he might be right about that one. 

Heuvelmans concluded there were at least seven unknown species involved (five mammals, a reptile, and an eel): he includes two others here, a giant turtle and an anomaly called the yellow-belly, but omitted them in his later works. Understandably, Heuvelmans’ fellow zoologists found the idea of a whole zoo of huge unknown animals hard to swallow. It didn’t help that he went out on a limb with the science, suggesting the ancient whale Basilosaurus had armor and side-fins (highly speculative in 1965 and known to be incorrect now) and saying that “eels are powerful constrictors,” which they are not.

Alas, as with On the Track, no new species have been found that fit any of Heuvelmans’ types. His brief tour of mystery cetaceans notes a few sightings that may match now-identified types lie the tropical bottlenose whale, and this was my first introduction to Wilson’s whale, an Antarctic animal which remains a genuine mystery. He focuses on the unknown species, though, and any that exist are still undiscovered. Nevertheless, this book is a trove of information, gathering most of the known sightings going back centuries. Heuvelmans tries to match these to order and family, even though his proposed genus and species names are invalid without holotypes (physical type specimens used in the formal description of species). 

Subsequent cryptozoologists have proposed both more and fewer categories in their own views. One common approach has been to collapse his mammals down to one possible species, as I did in Shadows of Existence (Hancock House Publishers, 2006) and Rob Cornes and Gary Cunningham did in The Seal Serpent: the Search for a Long-necked Pinniped (Independently published, 2019). But In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents remains essential reading for those studying the unknown animals of the deep.

This review is from Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library, coming soon from Hangar 1 Publishers.  

Matt Bille