Tonight, Channel 4 here in the UK screens a new TV show called Alien Investigations [adjacent screengrab from here on the Channel 4 site]. I believe that it has already been screened on the Science Channel in North America, where it was titled Alien Mummies. I haven’t yet seen the show so cannot comment on it in any useful fashion; I merely want to mention it now because (a) I appear – at least briefly – in said TV show, and (b) it gives us another opportunity to comment on the hype that continues to surround the (mis)identification of odd-looking animal carcasses.

Several weird-looking carcasses, all identified by amateurs as freak, mystery creatures, and even intimated by some to be the bodies of genetic experiments or aliens, appear in Alien Investigations. Top of the list is the Montauk Monster, a mostly naked-skinned mammal carcass that was discovered at Montauk Beach, Long Island, New York, in July 2008. As is reasonably well known these days, I argued (in an August 2008 article at the ScienceBlogs version of Tetrapod Zoology) that both the overall form and proportions of the carcass and the detailed configuration and anatomy of its teeth and skull reveal that it is not an alien, a mutation, hybrid or otherwordly monster of any sort, but actually a partially decomposed Raccoon Procyon lotor. There is no doubt about this identification whatsoever.

The idea that the Montauk Monster can be identified as a raccoon is not ‘mine’ specifically; as you’ll recall if you were following internet activity at the time, numerous people (on chat rooms, blogs, facebook and elsewhere) simultaneously identified the carcass correctly. I was merely able to use Tetrapod Zoology as a vehicle to bring this hypothesis to widespread attention.

So far as I know – and so far as I can judge, given the theme and content of the interview segment I provided for the show – the people behind Alien Investigations have done the right thing, and are balancing the incredible claims and misidentifications that have surrounded the Montauk Monster and other such carcasses with rational explanations.

That impression, however, does not come across in the only clips I’ve seen online, but, then, maybe they’ve been put together in order to look as sensational as possible. We see people (some of whom are well known for being ‘pro-alien’) claiming that certain mystery carcasses have a mix of human and 'unknown' DNA, or have an anatomy that cannot be explained by scientists. As I recently said in my Journal of Cryptozoology paper on the Margaret River carcass (Naish 2012), people only tend to say this because they don’t show those carcasses to the right kinds of scientists! Comparatively few people are able to evaluate and identify decomposing raccoons, cats or monkeys – these days, even the majority of qualified biologists know a lot about genetics and perhaps behaviour and ecology, but tend not to be good on anatomy.

Besides the Montauk Monster, Alien Investigations definitely features a weird, pink, naked-skinned, primate-shaped creature, also alleged by some to be remarkable and other-wordly. I don’t want to say any more for now, though I do think that the identify of the carcass can be resolved. Let’s see how things pan out. How these carcasses have been interpreted and discussed by the media, by the online community, and by people in general is itself a fascinating subject worthy of coverage, no matter what the carcasses themselves turn out to be. In fact, a good argument could be made that the Montauk Monster and other cases covered here are 21st century versions of the Hydras, Jenny Hannivers, stuffed mermaids and other such 'monsters' of centuries past. Their interpretation and investigation is more to do with psychology, sociology and communications than it is about biology and zoology.

To those of you in the UK: Alien Investigations screens tonight (Sunday 2nd December) at 8pm, Channel 4. We can discuss the fallout in the comments here.

Ref - -

Naish, D. 2012. Identifying ‘Jaws’, the Margaret River mammal carcase. The Journal of Cryptozoology 1, 45-55.