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Molecular biology and globsters: dashing cryptozoologists’ dreams

This post was featured in Dave Munger‘s Research Blogging column for Seed Magazine, “Spineless But Deadly.”  Thanks, Dave!

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgOn July 29th 2008, the day I turned 21 years, I received the best thing I could ask for: a birthday gift from Poseidon.

I was living in Newport, OR at the time.  After a long morning of observing nesting seabirds through a telescope, I returned home for what I presumed to be a long night ahead at the Rogue brewery across the street.  But I was to have more excitement first: I had gotten an email from the education director at Hatfield, informing me that 9-foot robust clubhook squid carcass had washed up on the beach just 20 miles away.  Even though I never got to see it, as it quickly made its way into an industrial freezer for preservation and future dissection, my excitement could not be quenched because obviously this was the ultimate gift from the sea (my true love).

I didn't get to see the real clubhook squid - but I did receive this lovely cake from my dear friend Lanaya the day I turned 21.

I have long had an obsession with squids, particularly of the large persuasion.  How could I not?  They are the closest thing to sea monsters that we’ve got!  They’re grotesque and mysterious, yet graceful (not really, only in my dreams — they’re actually quite slow) and sometimes colossal.  As I grew older, I realized that I was not alone, but there was a large, undefineable community of squid-lovers.  It seems to be in our nature to seek monstrosities: creatures new to science, alien, and potentially terrible.

This seemingly universal fascination and attraction to monsters is best exemplified in the phenomenon of globsters, also known as blobsters.  A globster is a blob-like animal that washes up on the shores of oceans and lakes which is morphologically unidentifiable, thus lending itself to be described as a variety of terrifying monsters as the viewer deems fit.

An early globster was the St. Augustine Monster, discovered on the coast of Florida in 1896 (a, below) by 2 young boys, originally suspected to be a giant octopus.  In 1977, a Japanese fishing trawler pulled up a hunk of flesh (dubbed “New Nessie“) (b) imagined to be an ancient underwater dinosaur, the plesoisaur, off the coast of New Zealand.  The Bermuda Blob (c) was found in Bermuda in 1988 and is the most blob-like of these three examples.  These are just three examples I chose to give here; there are more recorded examples, and many unrecorded.  (See Richard Ellis’s book Monsters of the Sea for a full history of globsters.)

Click image for larger view. Images compiled from Wikipedia.

In our modern reductionist mindset, it seems obvious what these things really are: just dead animals that have been floating out at sea, decomposing, and are thus unrecognizable by the time they wash up to shore.  But even now we are discovering hundreds of novel sea creatures every year; imagine a century ago when the sea was more mysterious and potentially dangerous.  How could a scientist identify a half-decomposed species and persuade the masses that it was not, in fact, the remains of a monster from the deep?

The answer lies in molecular analysis.  The journal Biological Bulletin published a paper in 2002 by Carr et al. identifying the the Newfoundland Blob, and another paper in 2004 by Pierce et al. looking at a variety of blobsters (including St. Augustine’s Monster, a above), but focusing on the 2003 Chilean Blob and the 1996 Nantucket Blob due to sample quality.

Both studies retrieved DNA from samples from the various blobs and sequenced their mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA).  Mitochondrial DNA is particularly useful for taxonomic identification.  It is a piece of DNA separate from your genome, found not in the cell nucleus but in the energy-producing part of the cell, the mitochondria, and is relatively well-conserved within species for easier identification.  Comparing the mtDNA sequences from their samples with known sequences from whales and sharks, Cass et al. found that the Newfoundland Blob is a decomposed sperm whale.  Similarly, Pierce et al. found that the Chilean Blob matched a sperm whale, while the Nantucket Blob was a finback whale.

Pierce et al. took it a step further and compared the amino acid compositions and microscope photos of tissue samples from many other blobsters, including St. Augustine’s Monster (a), the Bermuda Blob (c) and the 1960 Tasmanian Globster to classify those blobs as well.  They had an identical composition to the whale blubber of the Chilean blob, suggesting that these are also whale species and not large octopuses.

And thus, they’ve dashed the dreams of people all around the world who dream of sea monsters – but that was not their intent.  In fact, the authors themselves were hoping to find a new species.  Pierce et al. finish their paper with the sentence:

Once again, to our disappointment, we have not found any evidence that any of the blobs are the remains of gigantic octopods, or sea monsters of unknown species.

So do not think that the scientists are trying to say “I told you so.”  Rather, they dream big like the rest of us.

These analyses do not mean that we cannot continue dreaming; on the contrary, waterlogged animals are found regularly and each must be debunked individually.  Just this month, a strange creature was found on the shore of a lake in Northern Ontario, with a terrifying, hairless face and”creepy fangs,” covered by hair on the rest of its body.  Its discoverers suggested it was an omajinaakoo or “Ugly One,” a mythological creature considered a bad omen by First Nations (Native American) tribes.  Just this week this idea was debunked: it turned out to be a common animal, the American Mink, in a horrid state.

But don’t let these debunkings get you down.  Always keep your guard up for the excitement and horror of an undiscovered monsters.  It will at least keep you entertained.

Carr, S., Marshall, H., Johnstone, K., Pynn, L., & Stenson, G. (2002). How to Tell a Sea Monster: Molecular Discrimination of Large Marine Animals of the North Atlantic Biological Bulletin, 202 (1) DOI: 10.2307/1543217

Pierce, S., Massey, S., Curtis, N., Smith, G., Olavarria, C., & Maugel, T. (2004). Microscopic, Biochemical, and Molecular Characteristics of the Chilean Blob and a Comparison with the Remains of Other Sea Monsters: Nothing but Whales Biological Bulletin, 206 (3) DOI: 10.2307/1543636

Written by Hanner

May 25, 2010 at 7:15 am