ResearchBlogging.org

Our efforts to get analyses of cryptozoological data into the technical, peer-reviewed literature continue, with the ‘our’ being myself, Michael Woodley and Cameron McCormick (aka Lord Geekington). I’m referring here to our new paper, titled ‘A baby sea-serpent no more: reinterpreting Hagelund’s juvenile “cadborosaur” report’, published within recent weeks in Journal of Scientific Exploration (Woodley et al. 2011).

What’s the point of this paper? We show, via an analysis of morphological character states, that the ‘baby Cadborosaurus’ encountered by Captain William Hagelund in 1968 was most likely…. a pipefish, not a baby sea serpent. Cadborosaurus, if you’re not familiar with it, is a long-bodied, horse-headed sea monster thought by some to exist in the waters of the north-east Pacific.

With apologies to those who already know everything I’m about to say, Cadborosaurus – or ‘Caddy’ – has been of extra-special interest to those who follow the literature on marine cryptids/sea monsters ever since Edward Bousfield and Paul LeBlond claimed to find support for its existence in a set of old, black and white photos. Taken at Naden Habour Whaling Station (British Columbia) in 1937, these photos [one is shown below] seemingly show the carcass of an unusual, long-bodied vertebrate, retrieved from the stomach of a sperm whale (Bousfield & LeBlond 1995, LeBlond & Bousfield 1995). Bousfield and LeBlond were so impressed by these photos that they decided to formally name ‘Caddy’ as a new species of extant reptile, Cadborosaurus willsi Bousfield & LeBlond, 1995. This has not been uncontroversial and several authors have criticised Bousfield and LeBlond’s proposals and even the way in which they published this research (e.g., Staude & Lambert 1995, Bauer & Russell 1996, Ellis 1996, Woodley 2008, Woodley et al. 2008).

Numerous ‘Caddy’ sightings are on record. To researchers like Bousfield and LeBlond, they likely represent the same sort of animal. I don’t agree with this hypothesis; as you can see from Cameron’s illustration (below), reported ‘Caddy’ sightings describe a rather diverse set of creatures. Rather than concluding that these are all slightly garbled references to the same animal, it seems more likely to me that people have been describing disparate sightings of assorted species and phenomena. The caveat is that this doesn’t necessarily negate the possible existence of an unknown animal species within the reports.

Assorted 'Caddy' creatures, image by Cameron McCormick. Hagelund's 'baby' is visible at bottom left.

As is also the case with other attempts to neatly classify sea monster reports (I’m thinking of Bernard Heuvelmans), accounts typically used to support the existence of Cadborosaurus have been cherry-picked in order that only those characteristics that conform to the favoured appearance of the alleged creature are emphasised; the others are ignored or downplayed. As for the Naden Harbour carcass, I’m now confident that it represents the decomposed remains of a known species and is not the body of a sea serpent descended from Mesozoic plesiosaurs. More on that to come, some other time.

The importance of ‘Hagelund’s baby’

Hagelund's baby and a pipefish; illustrations by Cameron McCormick.

Like at least a few other technical projects I can think of, our new paper (Woodley et al. 2011) had its genesis in the blogosphere – specifically, in the comments section of an article published over on Tet Zoo ver 2. Cameron happened to state, essentially in passing, that he noticed a very strong similarity between Hagelund’s drawing and pipefishes. In discussion, Michael and I realised that this was not only a fine hypothesis, but also one worthy of coverage in the technical literature.

Hagelund’s report is but one of many tens of Caddy reports, but it’s a significant one because Bousfield and LeBlond used it to endorse a specific view of cadborosaur biology and life history. So, Hagelund captures what he thinks is a baby sea serpent. Bousfield and LeBlond follow this interpretation, and argue that Hagelund’s baby is a juvenile of their Cadborosaurus. Because this ‘baby’ is (a) apparently precocial and living independently of adults, and (b) tiny compared to adults, they conclude that cadborosaurs produce tiny, precocial babies and do not indulge in any form of parental care – classic r-strategy reproduction. Because r-strategy reproduction is more typically associated with reptiles than with mammals, Bousfield and LeBlond used Hagelund’s ‘baby’ to endorse their view that Cadborosaurus is a reptile (specifically, a living plesiosaur).

Viviparity in the plesiosaur Polycotylus, illustration by S. Abramowicz.

It now seems rather ironic that – so far as we know – plesiosaurs actually produced extraordinarily big babies that involved substantial maternal investment and, plausibly, post-parturition parental care (O’Keefe & Chiappe 2011) [for some discussion of this research, go here].

Regardless, the fact remains that Hagelund’s story is an unsupported anecdote, written up decades after the actual event is supposed to have occurred. But – even if the story is true – is ‘baby sea serpent’ really the most likely identification for that little animal? Errr, no. We argue that Hagelund’s animal can be identified specifically as a Bay pipefish Syngnathus leptorhynchus. In an effort to analyse this proposal as objectively as possible, we tabulated a list of obvious external characters present in pipefishes, in Hagelund’s creature (24 different traits can be tabulated from Hagelund’s report), and in an assortment of other north Pacific animals that might, just might, be candidates for the identity of Hagelund’s baby (Woodley et al. 2011) [the table is shown below]. These included decapod crustaceans, poachers, cutlassfishes, sturgeons and seals. We also tabulated the morphological features ascribed to ‘Caddy’ by Bousfield and LeBlond, and also those of various fossil animals suggested at times to be something to do with modern ‘sea monsters’ (Woodley et al. 2011). The conclusion: yup, Bay pipefish is the best match.

It shouldn’t seem ridiculous that Hagelund was apparently unable to recognise a known, north Pacific fish species. Pipefishes are not all that familiar and are rarely encountered. They also do weird stuff that most people would find unexpected: they can produce a neck-like region by bending and raising the anterior part of the body (some pipefish taxa actually spend a lot of their time in a ‘necky’ posture) and can even raise the head above the water surface, for example. Note also that Hagelund wrote about his encounter with the animal about two decades after the incident occurred, and that’s easily enough time for all kinds of memory slippage and distortion to affect an interpretation.

Greater pipefish (Syngnathus acus); image from wikipedia.

I often find the back-story to a scientific paper as interesting as the paper itself. In this case, we went through several different rounds of review, in one case getting rejected from an august journal simply because cryptozoology is mostly nonsense and hence our analysis must be nonsense too. We also got a bit of flack on another occasion for including an attempt to do cladistics on sea monster reports. Yes, contrary to popular misconception, character scoring and the generation of parsimony trees can be applied to any data set, since cladistics simply groups operational units together on the basis of shared characters – there’s no reason why it should be exclusively applied to datasets of units that undergo biological evolution (and indeed cladistics has been applied to galaxies, volcanoes, languages and ancient texts). Anyway, in the end we cut the cladistics section out and it’ll be salvaged elsewhere – we’ll come back to the classification of sea monsters some other time, oh yes.

Email me if you want the pdf. Oh, and I do know that pipefishes aren’t tetrapods.... the Cadborosaurus creature hypothesised to exist by Bousfield and LeBlond, however, is.

Cadborosaurus willsi, as imagined by Bousfield & LeBlond. Illustration by D. Naish.

I want to finish here by echoing sentiments made at Lord Geekington by Cameron. Bousfield and LeBlond knew full well that their conclusions and ideas about Cadborosaurus would get a rough ride in the technical community, and they did what they did because they found the evidence for the reality of Cadborosaurus fairly convincing. I don’t agree with their conclusions, but I do respect the guts and determination involved in publishing these ideas.

Cameron has written a series of articles about our new paper and about all those ‘Caddy’ reports: part 1 is here, then there’s part 2a, part 2b, part 3, part 4 and part 5. For various Tet Zoo articles on ‘sea monster’ mysteries of various kinds, see...

Refs - -

Bauer, A. M. & Russell, A. P. 1996. A living plesiosaur?: A critical assessment of the description of Cadborosaurus willsi. Cryptozoology 12, 1-18.

Bousfield, E. L. & LeBlond, P. H. 1995. An account of Cadborosaurus willsi, new genus, new species, a large aquatic reptile from the Pacific coast of North America. Amphipacifica 1 (Supplement 1), 1-25.

Ellis, R. 1996. Monsters of the Sea. Alfred A. Knopf (New York).

LeBlond, P. H. & Bousfield, E. L. 1995. Cadborosaurus, Survivor from the Deep. Horsdal & Schubart (Victoria, British Columbia).

O’Keefe, F. R. & Chiappe, L. M. 2011. Viviparity and K-selected life history in a Mesozoic marine plesiosaur (Reptilia, Sauropterygia). Science 333, 870-873.

Staude, C. P., & Lambert, P. 1995. Editorial . . . an opposing view. Amphipacifica 1 (Supplement 1), 2.

Woodley, M. A. 2008. In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans: An Introduction to the History and Future of Sea Serpent Classification. CFZ Press (Bideford, Devon).

- ., Naish, D., & Shanahan, H. P. 2008. How many extant pinniped species remain to be described? Historical Biology 20, 225-235.

Woodley, M. A., Naish, D., & McCormick, C. A. (2011). A baby sea-serpent no more: reinterpreting Hagelund’s juvenile "cadborosaur" report. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 25, 495-512