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Thursday, 30 June 2011

Some More From the Mailbag II


I was surfing the web recently when I cam across an article on about the sea-serpent seen from the S.S. Umfuli in 1893. Here is a copy:

Strange Encounter
Posted in Oddities by Greg Ross on March 6th, 2010

Passing south of the Canary Islands on Dec. 4, 1893, the S.S. Umfuli passed “a monster fish of the serpentine shape, about 80 feet long, with shining skin, and short fins, about 20 feet apart, on the back; in circumference, about the dimensions of a full-sized whale.”

Neither captain R.J. Cringle nor his crew had ever seen anything like it, but they were certain of what they saw. The sea was like a mirror, “and this thing, whatever it was, was in sight for over half an hour.”

Cringle said it was rushing through the water at great speed, throwing water from its breast, and he saw fully 15 feet of its head and neck on three separate occasions. The body, which was not scaly, showed three distinct humps and was much thicker than the neck: “I should not, therefore, call it a serpent.” The Umfuli’s wet log shows that the chief officer observed the creature through his glass and saw an enormous mouth with great rows of teeth.

“I have been so ridiculed about the thing that I have many times wished that anybody else had seen that sea-monster rather than me,” Cringle said. “I have been told that it was a string of porpoises, that it was an island of seaweed, and I do not know what besides. But if an island of seaweed can travel at the rate of fourteen knots [an hour], or if a string of porpoises can stand 15 feet out of the water, then I give in, and confess myself deceived. Such, however, could not be.”

The sighting seems to be a fairly typical long-neck sighting except for one feature: the "fins" on it's back. In the sketch provided by the witnesses, the back is shown above the surface as three somewhat misshapen humps, and the fins are depicted as a crinkled ridge along the back. And this immediately brought to my mind your edited version of the Valhalla SS drawing.

Compare the corrected Valhalla creature (left) to the one seen by the Umfuli (right).
In both cases, the creatures described had a crinkled "fin" or ridge down the back. And Heuvelmans, too, noted this feature in his long-neck. And then, after reviewing his types, I was realized that both the male merhorses and female long-necks have this feature. However, in the merhorses, it is exaggerated into a serrated ridge on the back, following the mane.

Sketch of Caddy after F. W. Kemp (left, inset) and a cartoon of Caddy from (right).

I apologize for not being able to find better images for the discussion, but these at least give an idea of the serrations or crest seen in Merhorse reports.

I began to realize that, in the reports which clearly are long-necks, such as the Valhalla and Umfuli creatures, the ridge was described as a short, crinkled ridge or "fin," while the merhorse sightings specifically described the ridge as saw-toothed or serrated. So, my theory is that what witnesses are seeing is a ridge of fur on the back, which is short and stiff in the females, but extremely long and matted in the males, who also have the characteristic mane. My opinion is that, rather than being fleshy, the mane of the males simply becomes tangled and matted together in long locks (you could think of human dreadlocks as a comparison) and that, while it is torn out by rivals, the reason it grows back so easily is because it's made of actual hair; you can see something like this on a smaller level when a person waxes or plucks a hair.

Also, I think it is quite possible that the long-necks and merhorses could be covered with short hair, and that this could explain some sightings of scaly animals; my reading of the sightings mentioning scales is that the witnesses see the creatures body when it has been out of the water for some time and become partially dry, giving the appearance of scales. The same thing can be seen in the fur of otters. Or perhaps the rough texture of the skin could be the result of battles between rival animals. The resulting scars create a rough texture that can look like scales from a distance. Male elephant seals often exhibit this feature on their necks, which are scarred from battles with rivals.

Otters showing "scaly" skin (left); scarred elephant seal (right)

Best regards,
-Tyler Stone

[Special thanks go to Tyler, I had just mentioned the "Scaly fur otters" photo and did not have it for reference in the Ponik blog entry recently. So here is a copy now. DD]

[Dale's reply]

Actually, Several of us (myself included) have noted that part about the saw-toothed ridge on the back being exaggerated in one place to form the mane on the males: it also forms another saw-toothed edge on the top of the tail. And it is irregular, males evidently pull; sections of it out and it seem to grow back after. BUT it is NOT hair: descriptions of "Hair" OR "Scales" always refer specifically to the crest. The classic description is that it has a texture like seaweed and it seems to be composed of a fleshy (not hairy or scaly) substance. And the skin on other occasions is definitely hairless and "Smooth as a skate" in more than one description, supposedly from up close enough to touch it. Against this we do have descriptions of the skin being rough, pimpled, or like the surface of granite-but once again, specifying the ridge of the back, the top near where the saw-toothed ridge is otherwise reported. so it may be shedding the exaggerated saw-toothed ridge or that section of the skin nearest regularly, perhaps seasonally. When Mackal was comparing the Loch Ness Monster to a longnecked newt, he said that the crest would be growing and diminishing seasonally, in accordance to hormonal triggers. It has also been suggested that the colours intensify in concert with the crest-the ordinary female colouration being a neutral brownish grey but the males in breeding finery in much stronger colours of reddish or greenish brown (The greenish merhorses are distinct enough and common enough worldwide that they should NOT all be mistaken impressions due to the colour of the water)

Male Merhorses are always distinctly larger in dimensions than the female Longnecks and the two can be sorted out statistically by size and colour. Moustaches and beards such as in the Corinthian case are reported occasionally but there is no reason to throw them out as being suspicious: the conformation is nothing like a seal's moustache and it is obvious that they are made out of the same material as the mane (whatever it is) and the beard and moustache are frequently compared to those shown on a Chinese Dragon. Furthermore, they are also green, as often as not, and once again compared to seaweed.

Merhorses with whiskers are actually reported only very rarely. They also feature prominently in reports which otherwise seem to be hoaxes (such as when the Merhorse is supposed to be well over 1300 to 1800 feet long....!)

Best Wishes, Dale D.

[Tyler's reply]

That does remind me, there was a sighting of a merhorse noted by Bernard Heuvelmans in which the mane was described as looking like it was made of warts. Perhaps it had been partially torn out? Or maybe it was simply an elephant seal - I can't decide which.

And that leads me to another theory: perhaps they actually do possess some scales or rough skin on the back. If the merhorses are ripping each others manes out, then it would seem that the general style of attack is directed toward the head, neck, and shoulders. Perhaps the merhorses have rough skin or scales as a form of protection during these battles?

Best regards,
Tyler Stone

[Dale's Next Reply]

Yes, there was the one report that said warts: not too far from saying they are spines, though. Yes, I think the area near the crest is cornified, for that reason, and it gets thickened and rougher in the adult males. I also think I have a couple of clear reports where one Merhorse has bitten another on the head and neck and left bitemark scars on each other. They also seem to threaten human observers by an open-mouthed threat gesture, at which times the observation is almost always made that the inside of the mouth is a bright red colour. Possibly that is to accentuate the threat: in the "Salamanders", for example, the inside of the mouth is pale or "White" I assume Longnecks have an escalating scale of threats between males where just showing the open mouth is one stage. making threatening gestures with the neck is the intensification, and then actual grappling is the last resort.

Females in general seem much more common than the males, going by statistical assortment by size and colour. That might be giving a false impression by including immature males in with the females. But they do not seem to mate except in pairs, they do not ordinarily make up harems. I have one or two sigthings of what might be courtship behavious in which the two animals make longitudinal passes past each other, head to tail, and evidently either sex gets aroused by proximity of the snout to the other's genitals. Only rarely do you get more than pairs of creatures acting this way, although some Native Americans have said that they can do this "Mating dance" in bunches of four or five at a time. That may be mistaken or it might be due to unusually high population density in the animals in some times and places: this is a reference to the "Horned Serpents" of the Southern USA, presumably deriving from the Gulf of Mexico. Horned Serpents are equivalent to Plumed Serpents and Plumed Serpents include the "Merhorse" variety.

Best Wishes, Dale D.

From: TS to: DD
Sent: Thu, June 30, 2011 4:34:56 PM
Subject: Re: The Umfuli and Valhalla Sea-Serpents and their "fins" and fur

As a general question, do you think it's possible that, should they turn out to be plesiosaurs, modern long-necks could represent a new family? Certainly, they seem very different from all known fossil plesiosaurs, including the post-Cretaceous ones. Fossil plesiosaurs had extremely stiff necks; while they could have held them horizontally, they wouldn't have been physically able to lift their necks any higher. Likewise, their anatomy suggests they were very slow swimmers. This completely contradicts the data on modern long-necks, which are fast swimmers with flexible necks that can be held at about a 90 degree angle to the body. If the manes and other structures are anything to go by, then they are very visually oriented. If a long-neck was eventually caught and found to be a plesiosaur, I'd be very interested to know what kind of pressure would cause it to change so fundamentally from the original fossil form.

On a side note, I am still having issues with my computer and am unable to join the FOZ Group on Yahoo. I'll keep trying, but if I can't join do you know of any other way I would be able to view some of the information and photos in the group? I would be very interested in seeing the information if you would allow me too.

And speaking of the group, I found this and figured you might find it worth adding. Behold! The S.S. Hillary Sea Serpent!

Did I say Sea-Serpent? I meant basking shark....
[This pic is Dale's substitution for Tyler's illustration, which did not make it through...]
Cheers and best regards,
Tyler Stone

[Dale's Next Reply to Tyler}

[Illustration from a scientific paper meant to describe flexibility in a Plesiosaur's neck. Most American scientists think this interpretation is much too liberal]

Actually the matter of Plesiosaurian neck flexibility is one example of one extreme opinion taking hold over all competing models in scientific theory and then insisting it is the only scientific model there is. In point of fact, studies of Plesiosaur neck flexibility quoted by L. Sprague deCamp in my 1985 edition of The Day of the Dinosaur allow that the flexibility of the neck in Plesiosaurus would just about the specifications given in the reports of Long-Necked Sea-Serpents and in Elasmosaurus it would be about twice as flexible. Of course the book did not make the comparison to Sea-serpent reports, I did, it just so happens the figures match. L. Sprague deCamp also remarks that the length and flexibility of a Plesiosaur's neck, and the Plesiosaur's speed, are all necessarily interrelated due to physics. The end result is that Elasmosaurus with its long flexible neck could not have moved very fast and very likely could not move its nech much above the surface of the water vertically (the reason for that is the length of the neck itself: the neck makes up so much of the length that the creature could not balance out much vertical emergence of the neck unless the whole body section started rising tail-end-first as a consequence. Underwater, paradoxically, the neck had a much greater range of vertical movemant) However, Plesiosaurus and other moderate Plesiosaurs could have been much faster and perhaps as fast as sea turtles or sea lions could be.(pages 151-153). So there is a problem with blanket statements being made too generically: not all Plesiosaur necks were equal, not all necks were of equal flexibilty and not all Plesiosaurs swam at the same speed. Otherwise, what was the possible use of an adaptive radiation?

Best Wishes, Dale D.

I do understand that differences in body type equal differences in lifestyle. I was simply going by the information available to me, and all the literature I have states that long-necked plesiosaurs had very stiff necks. So again, do forgive me for not doing enough fact-checking. And I apologize as always if I caused or do cause any offense; that is quite the opposite of what I wish to do.

BTW, if it some point you get a reply from Dr. Shuker on my invitation to continue the Gambo discussion, can you forward it to me? Thanks!

-Tyler Stone


In this case, I named you my source. L.Sprague deCamp, The Day of the Dinosaur, 1985 edition, pages 151-153 (which wraps around a section of the plates): I own a copy.

If I put this up on my blog, I'll quote you the whole passage. But surely you can see there has to be a range of different levels of performance (and corresponding different behaviours) with the wide range of body plans?

I am in no way offended because I understand what a complete mess Plesiosaurian anatomical scholarship is in and it is a matter I have been following for many years. I have been trying to get the point across to the establishment types that I have just tried to get across to you, for literally decades. And it is not that there is only one opinion on the matter, the situation is only presented as if the one opinion is the only one discussed in scientific circles. Actually it is not: you will find that "Science" is a good deal broader-minded and more flexible than the smaller-minded skeptics make it out to be, across the board and in nearly all categories. In this country what we have is a shortage of unattached researchers and a majority of scientists who make their livelihoods TEACHING-and they need to have their students taught the same basic facts uniformly, with definite yes or no answers to everything, basically just to make it easier grading papers. So you get the unified presentation of solidarity among the "Experts"-when of course that is about as far from the reality of the situation as it could be represented.

But the basic plain fact is that Plesiosaurs are not all the same and issuing any one statement saying that they are all the same is verging on lunacy. And there is little agreement about Plesiosaurs in such basic matters as how they swam and how they used either set of flippers in the swim cycle, whether the backbone was rigid or whether it "bowed" up and down with the flipper strokes. how the tail was used and so on.And there is little agreement about the flexibility of their necks or even which way they would have bent while catching fish-to the sides, from above striking down or from below striking up.

If I ever do hear anything back from Dr. Shuker back on the matter I shall most assuredly forward a copy on to you...

Best Wishes, Dale D.

L. Sprague deCamp, The Day of the Dinosaur, the pertinent passage starting bottom of page 151:
"There has been some argumenrt over the speed of Plesiosaurs in the water. Some Paleontologists insist that they moved slowly, on the theory that an animal that swims by... flippers like a sea turtle, is bound to be slower than an animal that sculls itself along by wagging its tail.
Sea Lions, which also have flippers, manage to move very fast indeed, as anyone who watches a tankful at feeding time in the zoo. One of the authors spent a morning at the Philadelphia zoo watching a large male California sea lion and four females.When it is in a hurry, a sea lion's main propulsion is by means of its fore flippers, with the hind flippers held stiffly rearward and used only for steering..
.[Big sea turtles such as the Leatherback have also been clocked swimming at speeds over 25 miles per hour, which is quite respectable and at least as fast as the sea lions, for which see the Guiness Book of World's Records-DD] Plesiosaurs, which like modern sea lions pursued swift prey, flapped along by means of flippers but could doubtless move along swiftly enough to suit any but their victims.

The speed of a Plesiosaur, the flexibility of its neck, and its method of fishing are all interconnected. The earlier Plesiosaurs had moderately long necks, neither very limber nor very stiff. Some Paleontologists who have studied their neck bones, believe that these Plesiosaurs could could bend their necks around sideways in a complete circle. up and down they could bend them much less-no more than half a circle...they could not assume the graceful swanlike curves shown in the earlier restorations. It is common among reptiles-snakes for instance, for the vertebrae to bend more readily in horizontal than in vertical movement.

We may also assume that these early Plesiosaurs were quite fast: not so fast as an Ichthiosaur, perhaps, but quite lively. The slower fish they could overtake: the faster ones they would catch by swimming up alongside of them and siezing them with a quick sideways jerk of the head. That is how alligators fish today. Undoubtedly, Plesiosaurs fed on whatever meat they could catch. The stomach contents of onefossil Plesiosaur contained the remains of a fish, a belemnite (A squidlike cephalopod) and and even a piece of a dead pterosaur"
The stiffness of the neck as described in Plesiosaurus is about what is described in Longnecked Sea-serpents: that vertical half-circle curve also translates into the typical stretched-s or "Periscope" position, as opposed to a swanlike full-s-curve. And if these Plesiosaurs were eating such things as squids and pterosaurs, they had to be quick. DeCamp then goes on to explain how the later shortnecked and longnecked plesiosaurs diverged from the basic pattern with the Pliosaurs focusing more on speedy pursuit of prey and the Elasmosaurs relying more on the flexibility of the neck. The same scientists that studied the early Plesiosaur necks as mentioned in deCamp's passage also measured the neck of Elasmosaurus and estimated it to be twice as flexible. Which therefore implied that it had to be a much more careful and slower swimmer because the long flexible neck would be that much more difficult to manage. And there is still some stiffening to their necks because without that stiffening, and froward movenent would be impossible. Swim too rapidly with too flexible of a neck and you risk breaking your neck. This is a simple fact of Physics which also applies to Heuvelmans' model of the LongNecked Sea-serpent: the neck cannot be too flexible and it can't be too speedy or it would break its neck. Therefore I assume that the Longnecked sea-serpent is moderately speedy with a moderately flexible neck, comparable to Plesiosaurus-otherwise, going by Heuvelman's description too literally, it is an animal doomed to suicide by literally swimming at breakneck speeds.

Incidentally the chart illustrated above is showing a good deal more flexibility than I would need or allow to make the model work. I added it primarily because it is different from the usual representaion but it is still a valid scientific opinion. A minority opinion but that is not the point.

DeCamp finishes his passage on page 153 with the paragraph " At any rate one can see that the crucial factor in determining the animal's speed is not whether it flaps along with paddles or wags a tail behind it, so much as the food it eats and the speed it must attain to get that food" In his footnotes, deCamp also refers to the work of Dr. C. Ray (footnote 2 on 296) mentioning that Ray had reached similar conclusions independantly but working from observations on earless seals and walruses.


  1. One problem with labeling long-neck reports made by experienced observers as plesiosaurs is the fact that many of the witnesses themselves have said that the creature they saw was mammalian (as in the case of the Valhalla sighting; the witnesses were very experienced, they saw the creature close up, and said they realized the head as that of a mammal.)

    1. And to the contrary, by the same token, the vast majority of reports speak of the creatures as being reptilian, including by the OTHER witness in the Valhalla sighting. One should not then assume the creature was mammalian. In the case of the Valhalla creature, as indeed is the case oin allof the Longneck reports, there is not ebnough brain space in the head to quialify as a mammal. the proportions of brain to body are typically "Dinosaurian" and not what would be expected of a mammal.

  2. Wasn't L. Sprague DeCamp's book Day of the dinosaur written way back in the 1960's (before it was decided by scientists who studied plesiosaur fossils decided that plesiosaurs had stiff necks?)In those days paleontologists who studied plesiosaur fossils believed that it was possible that plesiosaurs fished by lifting their long necks out of the water vertically and plunged the neck back into the water when they saw a fish (or that they lifted their necks out of the water vertically to snatch pterosaurs flying above the water's surface.) Adam S. Smith's plesiosaur directory tells us that 21st century scientists abandoned the idea that plesiosaurs did this because they had tall neural spines which would have made swan-like AND stretched "S" curves impossible. The fact that plesiosaurs had eyes and nostrils which faced upward is also pointed out by plesiosaurologists (yes, that's a technical term)as another strong indicator that plesiosaurs looked up at the water's surface, not down at it.
    I still think that L. Sprague Decamp's theories on plesiosaur osteolgy make excellent science fiction, even if 21st century studies on plesiosaur osteology (such as Zammit et. al's 2008 study) have refuted them.

  3. Actually, no, that contention had been bouncing around since the beginning of the century. The vertebral spines are not that all and the cross sections of the vertebrae are like those of human vertebrae. The scientists who say the plesiosaur necks were inflexible are ignoring the interstitial cartilages which must have been there (while at the same time they insist on the importance of such discs in the flexibility of mammalian necks.The scientists who say that plesiosaur's vertebrae were stiff and the necks inflexible are in fact concentrating on only a few genera when obviously there was a wide variation between different plesiosaurs in different genera, or otherwise they would all have the same necks. The point is that the matter was controversial and remains controversial: De Camp was by no means the only source but it was the most easily accessible of the popular sources at my library that discussed the idea when I was doing the research: he mentioned that his own observations tended to agree with the idea but he was quoting the research of others. Therefore it is a major mistake on your part to assume the research and the theory were his alone. The fact that the current fad (and it cannot be called anything other than that) among paleontologists is to favour the stiff-necked Plesiosaur theory in no ways eliminates the statements of the opposition who state otherwise. And may I remind you once again, we are speaking of a new genus of Plesiosaurs when ewe speak of the purported Post-Cretaceous Plesiosaur remains: they are of a different structure with a different cross section which indicates greater flexibility. That part was most especially mentioned in that discussion. And frankly I get a little tired of you people getting to some point where you sense a victory in the debate and stage a little victory dance to your own cleverness. In this matter you have misstated the case, mistaken the anatomy involved. misquoted authorities and made several misstatements of facts. Many Plesiosaurs have eyes which were directed laterally or even forwards, for one example. And some Plesiosaurs had to have been snatching pterosaurs, the remains of the pterosaurs are found in their fossilized stomach contents. On top of that, as has been noted on previous occasions when this argument had been presented, some of the Plesiosaur fossils still have their necks articulated into flexible curves, so such curves HAD to have been possible for the animal during its lifetime originally.

  4. Is it also faulse that ALL plesiosaurs had ear and narial anatomy suggesting they were incapable of picking up sensory cues in the air (and that they were better at doing this underwater),and that ALL plesiosaurs had tightly packed skeletons indicating they were trying to stay submerged in the water?
    I also am also curious to know if some plesiosaurs (such as elasmosaurs)had taller neural spines than others (and if all of them had neural spines that were sub-rectangular.

    1. It becomes very clear that you have little background training in comparative anatomy and that you are merely passing along the judgements of others without attempting to do any independent research or evaluating any of these statements. For your information the neural spines in some cetaceans are also very tall and subrectangular and this does not inhibit the flexibility of the spine, and that sometimes Plesiosaur and cetacean (dolphin) vertebrae are close enough in form to be mistaken for one another, even by experts. Furthermore the denser parts of a Plesiosaur's anatomy (the part that would seem to want to stay submerged) are the underparts, the back and the tops of the ribs having a much less compacted structure. As to the sensory equipment not working in the air, I would say that you are speaking of speculation which certainly cannot be demonstrated authoritively without a living specimen to study, and that such studies have been done on a few individual specimens only rather than on a wide spectrum of different Plesiosaurian genera. Your statement assumes a weight of authority which it cannot have the backing it needs to carry through in all unexplored possible cases. At any rate we do have some evidence that Plesiosaurs' eyes worked perfectly well above as well as below the water, and that the neck itself was sensitive to vibrations, both above and below the water. And the passage above does mention a pterosaur found in a Plesiosaur's fossilized stomach contents. You missed that. The passage quoted above cites an authority DeCamp specified while making the discussion. You missed that, too. You seem to be reading the material set before you vey poorly and your arguments are not directed at what was specifically stated in the text because of that.

  5. You are right, Dale. I have no training (yet) in comparitive anatomy and because of that I was just passing along the conclusions of the "top authorities" on plesiosaurology when discussing their osteology. Also, thanks for sharing this interesting information about plesiosaur osteology that is usually suppressed by plesiosaurologists.
    P.S: I can't wait to read more on this subject in Day of the Dinosaur by L. Sprague De Camp; it sounds like a good read.

  6. You also do not know enough to recognize "Plesiosaurology" is not even a word. This information on Plesiosaur osteology is not suppressed, you obviously lack the basic tools for recognizing the meaning of the anatomy when you see it. Once again, simply appealing to a higher authority is the mark of the Pseudoscientist. If you do not really know what you are talking about, you are not making any kind of a valid argument, are you?

  7. You are mistaken, I do NOT consider the opinion of higher authorities on this matter to represent the end of this particular debate and for this reason plan to read about the studies done on plesiosaur necks in L. Sprague Camp's Day of the Dinosaur to learn more.

  8. OK, you must surely see why am getting a mite peeved at what you are saying? I have told you repeatedly that DeCamp is quoting others when he makes these statements (And adding his own observations, of course) but you repeatedly ignore my references to other experts DeCamp is quoting and you speak as if DeCamp was all there was to the matter. At the time I was writing the review article for the SITU which forms the foundation for this line of inquiry, there was a new edition of The Day of the Dinosaur out and I bought a copy: it counted as a contemporary source at the time, not at all outdated. And I find it annoying that you cannot find a listing on a clearly-posted index on Tyler Stone's blog and then you ask me to look it up for you. Repeatedly. Do you have some thing about making me do the work for you? What is that all about anyway? besides, the index on this blog is just as prominently displayed, only it has more entries. I do not know why you find it so difficult to use the indexes and I do not know why you cannot read the blog entry before you and then go ahead and ask me to tell you directly what you could easily have gotten by reading the blog.

    It does not seem to do any good to explain anything to you, cite you any sources, or to tell you any additional information which might prove to be helpful, because for one thing you are not paying any attention and for another, you expect me to do all of your work for you.

  9. I did a bad job of wording my above comment; I meant to say "studies done on plesiosaur necks as quoted in L. Sprague De Camp's Day of the Dinosaur" (which I plan to read soon.)

  10. All right, let's leave it at that.


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