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In Search of… the Sea Snake

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In October 1845 British geologist Charles Lyell was visiting Boston, when he noted an advertisement proclaiming that a “Dr.” Albert C. Koch would exhibit the 114-foot-long skeleton of “that colossal and terrible reptile the sea serpent” to the paying public. Lyell dismissed this claim soon as a fraud , as the skeleton was in fact from the extinct whale species Zeuglodon, described by Richard Owen just some years earlier.

Fig.1. The infamous “Hydrarchos” by German fossil collector Albert Koch as displayed in New York. Not only was the fossil animal composed of various specimens of the extinct whale Zeuglodon, but in this illustration even the size of the supposed skeleton is exaggerated.  Image from FOWLER (1846): “The American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany”, image in public domain.

Like many other Victorian naturalists Lyell showed great interest in the supposed existence of large marine monsters. A good friend of Lyell, Canadian geologist John William Dawson, informed him of  a sighting in August 1845 at Merigomish, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Here two “intelligent” testimonies had observed a 100-foot-long sea snake with humps on the back and the head similar to a seal. Lyell describes this sighting in his book “Second Visit to the United States of North America” (1849) and adds that stories about unusual encounters abound along the west coast of the U.S. He mentions even that a young sea serpent was still preserved in spirits in the Museum of New Haven. However Lyell, seeing the specimen for himself, agreed with other skeptics that it was nothing more than a land snake (Coluber constrictor) with a deformed spine.

Fig.2. Newspaper from Boston with an article about the strange, but true, encounter with the Mountauk Monster – a sea snake in 1817 (image in public domain).

Despite the lack of evidence, Lyell confess in his writings that he remained optimistic “for I believed in the sea serpent without having seen it.” Lyell’ s interest in sea snakes was strongly influenced by his passion for geology.

At Lyell’s time the age and destiny of earth was still a controversial topic. Most geologists assumed a gradual formation of earth, characterized by constant progress until the human epoch. In contrast Lyell postulated two important principles for geologic time – processes observable today were active also in the remote past and time is (similar to the motion of the stars) organized in cycles. Large marine reptiles (like the Ichthyosaur or Plesiosaur), but also large marine mammals (like the Zeuglodon), were known to have existed in the past. Their continuous existence would provide biological – and therefore independent – evidence for his geo-theory.
Assuming sea serpents were never captured alive in historic times as they were very rare and almost extinct, the supposed rise in population during the 19th century (as, so Lyell, this could explain the rise in sightings since 1817) was a result of  earth’s history repeating itself. The large prehistoric reptiles of the past, almost gone during the last ice age, would again rise to conquer the warming world.

Lyell was not the only geologist searching for the mythical sea snake. Many naturalists at the time considered (or explained) sea snakes as survivors of a former world. But Lyell was aware about the controversy surrounding the topic. In the end he never published sea snake accounts to support his geo-theory and probably it would do more harm than good to include sea snakes and other monsters in a textbook about geology.

Fig.3. The Ichthyosaurus, only to be found in the museum? The discovery of bones and description of prehistoric beasts boosted the sightings of supposed sea and lake monsters during the 19th century, caricature published in 1885 in the Punch magazine (image in public domain).

Bibliography:

CLIFFORD, D.; WADGE, E.; WARWICK, A. & WILLIS, M. (eds.) (2006): Repositioning Victorian Sciences – Shifting Centres in Nineteenth-Century Thinking. Anthem Press: 300
GLENDENING, J. (2009): ‘The World-Renowned Ichthyosaurus’: A Nineteenth-Century Problematic and Its Representations. Journal of Literature and Science. Vol.2 (1): 23-47
LYONS, L..S. (2010): Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age. State University of New York Press: 260
SWITEK, B. (2010): Written in Stone – Evolution, the Fossil Record, and our Place in Nature. Bellevue Literary Press – New York: 320

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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