Over the last few months, I and two of my colleagues have been involved in an interesting dialogue in the literature. It concerns the entity dubbed ‘Cadborosaurus’ – a marine, horse-headed ‘mega-serpent’, supposedly reported by witnesses from the waters off British Columbia and elsewhere in the North Pacific. People who read my stuff (both here and in print) will know that I have more than a passing interest in cryptozoology, and especially in ‘sea monsters’; indeed, I’ve written about ‘Cadborosaurus’ quite a few times. As I always say, this interest in cryptozoology might be a dumb thing to admit, given the negative stigma attached to the field. And I’m sure that it’s based in part on adherence to the naïve and childish hope that sea monsters, relicts hominoids and such might actually be real.

Nevertheless, I remain interested in cryptozoology both because I think that some eyewitness accounts are really intriguing and difficult to explain, and because I’m interested in how people perform as observers of wildlife (see Paxton 2009). Unlike many who class themselves as sceptics, I’ve tried to understand where cryptozoologists are coming from, I’ve read and (do still read) the cryptozoological literature, and I don’t think that we should necessarily reject cryptozoological hypotheses as untenable without looking at the data (such as it is) first.

Cadborosaurus wars: Round 1

As I aim to show here, dealing with cryptozoologists can be a frustrating, even infuriating, business. As most people interested in mystery animal research will know, Michael Woodley, Cameron McCormick and myself recently argued that an alleged ‘baby Cadborosaurus’ was very likely no baby sea-serpent at all, but rather a mangled and half-remembered description of a pipefish (Woodley et al. 2011). We tabulated the various observations reported by the witness (William Hagelund), compared them to lists of characters compiled by examining numerous candidate species, and showed as clearly as possible that the pipefish identification is the one that best matches Hagelund’s observations. In other words, we did our best to examine the identity of the alleged creature in an empirical, critical fashion (Woodley et al. 2011). As I explained last time round, we have to remember that Hagelund wrote up his description of the encounter about two decades after it actually occurred, and that he did not ascribe the various ‘cadborosaur’ traits to his animal that the primary supporters of ‘Cadborosaurus’ (Edward Bousfield and Paul LeBlond) said that he did.

Round 2

Most researchers were/are generally happy with our contention. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, I learnt from personal communication that Bousfield and LeBlond were not so happy. Essentially, they regarded our pipefish hypothesis as a non-starter hardly worthy of consideration. In a terse published response, provocatively titled ‘Pipefish or pipe dream?’, they accused us of “indulg[ing] in the common home-quarterbacking habit of insisting that anything described as different must be an erroneous description of something found in a book that vaguely looks like it” (Bousfield & LeBlond 2011, p. 779). I’ve no idea at all what a “common home-quarterbacking habit” is, and frankly the rest of the article isn’t much better. Bousfield & LeBlond (2011) cite Woodley et al. as “Naish and colleagues”, as if they weren’t paying attention, say that Hagelund’s ‘baby’ is grossly different from a pipefish and better matches ‘Cadborosaurus’, and even claim that employment of Occam’s Razor strengthens their hypothesised identification and bolsters rejection of ours (Bousfield & LeBlond 2011).

Round 3

Somewhat unhappy with the tone of Bousfield & LeBlond’s (2011) article, Michael, Cameron and I elected to produce a response (Woodley et al. 2012). Bousfield & LeBlond (2011) made three main points that require riposte. Firstly, they honestly thought that “by attempting to dismiss our pipefish identification, they had completed their task of critiquing our paper” (Woodley et al. 2012, p. 143). We find this dismissal premature and naïve, since – even if the pipefish hypothesis is deemed unsatisfactory – we (Woodley et al. 2011) drew attention to several other fish taxa that are more similar to Hagelund’s animal than is Bousfield and LeBlond’s reconstruction of ‘Cadborosaurus’.

Secondly, Bousfield & LeBlond (2011) argued that the Hagelund animal couldn’t be a pipefish due to the presence of an obvious neck, a horizontally aligned tail, large jaws and so on. However, they were apparently unable to appreciate or understand that the un-pipefish-like features they refer to were not reported or described by Hagelund at all. Furthermore, as I said above, Hagelund wrote about his encounter about two decades after it supposedly happened, and it again seems naïve to assume without caveat that the features he described were 100% accurate.

Thirdly, Bousfield & LeBlond’s (2011) claim that Occam’s Razor demands that their ‘baby sea serpent’ interpretation be taken more seriously than our ‘misidentified pipefish’ hypothesis is laughable. You can read our response in full to see how we dealt with this claim (Woodley et al. 2012). You might be able to guess.

Round 4

Bousfield and LeBlond will not, it seems, be responding further in print.

But after receiving a series of emails from an apparently frustrated Ed Bousfield, I feel it’s time to say publicly that the published work on ‘Cadborosaurus’ is terrible science and more to do with the imagination and preconceptions of the protagonists than anything to do with actual biology.

Frankly, I’m tired of being told that I and my colleagues are the ones with the ridiculous ideas, the ones who aren’t thinking things through in proper scientific fashion, or the ones who are failing to recognise the true phylogenetic affinities of organisms reported by eyewitnesses. Bousfield has even – I wish I were joking – referred to us as “ivory tower scientists”, and as people who “may indeed know something about fossil vertebrate animals but know relatively little about living megaserpents in general and Cadborosaurus willsi in particular”. I wish he would do his homework and work out for himself that only one of us is a palaeontologist. The 'Ivory Tower' claim is amusing, since it doesn't take much research to appreciate that I and my colleagues are pretty much the very antithesis of that term. I offer the adjacent cartoon as a parody.

As if it’s not clear enough already, I want to state here why I think that the ‘Cadborosaurus’ work published by Bousfield and LeBlond is terrible science. Much of this has been covered elsewhere in the literature (Ellis 1994, Staude & Lambert 1995, Bauer & Russell 1996, Naish 2001, Woodley et al. 2008), but I want to repeat it so that the above discussion can be better seen in context, especially for those who are unfamiliar with this subject. And to those who have read what I've said about 'Cadborosaurus' before (in this 2006 Tet Zoo ver 1 article, for example), note that I have definitely become less sympathetic.

Interpreting Cadborosaurus: eyewitness accounts

The idea that ‘Cadborosaurus’ might exist and be real all stems, of course, from the fact that eyewitnesses have reported encounters with apparently long-bodied, horse-headed ‘mega-serpents’ in the waters of the north-east Pacific. A long-bodied, horse-headed vertebrate carcass, apparently retrieved from the stomach of a sperm whale at a Queen Charlotte Islands whaling station in 1937, sounds like the same sort of animal. Herein lies the case for ‘Cadborosaurus’. To conclude that the animal is real, you have to accept that these eyewitness reports, and the photos of that carcass, all represent descriptions or depictions of the same one species.

Needless to say, the foundations of the case for ‘Cadborosaurus’ are far from secure. Once you look at individual eyewitness accounts in detail, the hypothesis that they all represent the same animal species crumbles as clearly untenable. In fact, one of the many failings of Bousfield, LeBlond and like-minded cryptozoologists is that they’re unable or unwilling to realise that the cryptids they believe in are composite entities, constructed by combining observations of different species and/or phenomena. Some ‘Cadborosaurus’ descriptions do refer to vertically undulating, serpentine phenomena that, if they do represent animals, are difficult to reconcile with species that we know about, so please note here that I am not necessarily discounting altogether the existence of a marine vertebrate that remains unrecognised by scientists at large.

But, not only are the observations on record highly disparate, they are most parsimoniously interpreted as descriptions of many things. If you own any or all of the ‘Cadborosaurus’ literature, look at the images penned by eyewitnesses. There are various seal-shaped and deer-shaped heads, sometimes with obvious ears and short ‘horns’, and sometimes not (Heuvelmans 1965, Bousfield & LeBlond 1995, LeBlond & Bousfield 1995). Could it be, I wonder, that many (maybe all) of these sightings are actually of seal and swimming deer? The ‘camel-like’ head of ‘Cadborosaurus’, with its large, dark eyes and overhanging upper lip, is likely that of a surfacing male Northern elephant seal Mirounga angustirostris – a surprisingly large beast, the head of which might stand about a metre above the sea surface when ‘standing’ vertically in the water. I came up with this myself after seeing photos of a surfacing elephant seal and later heard it from a Canadian biologist whose father had a close encounter with a surfacing elephant seal (and immediately thought 'Cadborosaurus'). Bauer & Russell (1996) “regard pinnipeds, especially the northern elephant seal Mirounga angustirostris, as the most likely candidates for the source of most of the [‘Cadborosaurus’] observations reported at sea” (p. 13). The Northern elephant seal is confirmed, incidentally, as a visitor of British Columbian waters, and remember that it stays down for so long, and visits the surface so briefly and intermittently that (some specialists suggest) it might be better regarded as a ‘surfacer’ than as a ‘diver’. Note that the description of the 'Cadborosaurus' head is also is a good match for that of a Moose Alces alces, as emphasised by the composite image below (from Cryptomundo). Moose are excellent swimmers and even dive to feed on submerged vegetation (the idea that they might explain some sea and lake monster reports is not exactly novel).

With the seal-headed and deer-headed sightings out of the picture, do the descriptions of serpentine, multi-humped animals remain as good evidence for marine ‘mega-serpents’? Elsewhere in the world, standing waves, colliding wakes, lines of swimming cetaceans, pinnipeds and even seabirds flying close to the water surface have all been misinterpreted by people as representing giant, multi-humped water monsters.

So I’m not confident that there is a large and compelling body of eyewitness data supporting the reality of ‘Cadborosaurus’. Instead we have a tainted and inconsistent pool of discordant accounts that cannot be interpreted as evidence for the existence of a single species.

Interpreting Cadborosaurus: the Naden Habour carcass

It is with the identikit image of the ‘Cadborosaurus’ construct in mind that Bousfield and LeBlond interpreted the Naden Harbour photos. The photos show a seemingly long-bodied, camel-headed vertebrate carcass.

Bousfield and LeBlond’s assumption that what we see in the photos represents the life appearance of a very peculiar creature is naïve. After briefly considering (and rejecting) an informal suggestion that the carcass was a “fetal baleen whale”, they adopted the hypothesis that Naden Harbour carcass = mega-serpent (Bousfield & LeBlond 1995, p. 9) without considering other hypotheses. Could it actually have been the highly decomposed, incomplete remains of a known species, like a large shark, or a bony fish of some sort? Many of us interested in ‘sea monsters’ are thinking along these lines, and in fact the idea that the carcass might be the substantially mangled remains of a shark has already been mentioned in print (Bauer & Russell 1996, Naish 2001). Bousfield & LeBlond (1995) provided a superficial and wholly amateurish description of the carcass, made some enormous and highly error-prone assumptions about its skeletal anatomy, and used one of the photographs of the carcass (yes, I said one of the photographs) as the holotype for a new species: Cadborosaurus willsi Bousfield & LeBlond, 1995.

Does any of this seem like ‘good’ science involving appropriate consideration of alternative hypotheses, caution, conservatism and best practise? I leave you to judge, but I certainly do not regard ‘Cadborosaurus’ as a valid biological entity based on the data that Bousfield & LeBlond (1995) presented. Incidentally, Bousfield and LeBlond published their description of the ‘new species’ in ‘supplement 1’ of volume 1 of Amphipacifica, a new publication stated to be devoted to invertebrate systematics. The editorial board consisted of Bousfield as Managing Editor and C. P. Staude and P. Lambert as Assistant Editors. On the ‘Cadborosaurus’ article, Staude and Lambert were “opposed to its publication as a formal species description” and felt the need to express this opinion in an editorial published at the front of the issue (Staude & Lambert 1995).

The ‘living serpentine plesiosaur’ hypothesis

Bousfield and LeBlond have consistently employed a somewhat confused approach to the identity of ‘Cadborosaurus’. The original description (Bousfield & LeBlond 1995) proposes that ‘Cadborosaurus’ is a long-bodied member of ‘Euryapsida’ (the mostly defunct and now ambiguous term once used for sauropterygians and a number of possibly allied reptile groups); specifically, they classify it as ‘Class Reptilia, Subclass Euryapsida?, Order Plesiosauria?’ (p. 8). They’ve also said that ‘Cadborosaurus’ combines reptilian and mammalian traits, and in LeBlond & Bousfield (1995) they intimated a relationship with thalattosuchian crocodyliforms. On other occasions, they’ve said that they were not/are not supporting a plesiosaurian identify for ‘Cadborosaurus’ (the abstract of Bousfield & LeBlond (1995) uses the wording “within vertebrate class Reptilia … the animal appear [sic] least unlike some plesiosaurs of Mesozoic age” (p. 3)). To be clear, they actually were and are favouring the hypothesis that ‘Cadborosaurus’ is a relict surviving plesiosaur.

If you’ve never heard the remarkable claim that a giant, serpentine plesiosaur might inhabit the modern waters of the north Pacific, I can hardly blame you. This work has been largely ignored by qualified biologists, mostly because they think it’s nonsense and unworthy of serious consideration. Aaron Bauer and Anthony Russell (1996), well known for their excellent work on lizards and other vertebrates, wrote a lengthy critical assessment of Bousfield & LeBlond’s (1995) description of ‘Cadborosaurus’, and I note that their conclusions and criticisms were highly similar to those of myself and my colleagues (Naish 2001, Woodley et al. 2008, 2011, 2012).

Time to say it like it is: BAD SCIENCE

We’ll be coming back to ‘Cadborosaurus’ again in the future. For now, I hope that several things are clear:-

-- eyewitness accounts used to support the reality of ‘Cadborosaurus’ likely represent a hodge-podge of seal and deer sightings, as well as sightings of other animals and phenomena. Maybe the north-east Pacific is home to a large, as yet unrecognised, vertebrate animal, but this is not clear from eyewitness accounts. They represent an inconsistent set of diverse descriptions that cannot be interpreted as evidence for a new species.

-- the 1937 Naden Harbour carcass, believed by Bousfield and LeBlond to represent the same ‘mega-serpent’ reported as a living animal by eyewitnesses, is ambiguous and its interpretation as a modern-day serpentine plesiosaur, awarded a binomial name on the basis of old photographs, cannot be considered conservative, competent science.

-- a re-interpretation of a supposed ‘baby Cadborosaurus’ account as that of a pipefish has been strenuously counter-argued by the main supporters of ‘Cadborosaurus’ on the grounds that its identification as a baby mega-serpent is more likely. Whether the ‘misidentified pipefish’ hypothesis is correct or not, it is just insulting to be told that this hypothesis is less parsimonious than the hypothesis that it represents a baby sea-serpent.

-- all in all, the published research on ‘Cadborosaurus’ involves improbable conclusions, a lack of critical analysis, and a lack of the conservatism and restraint that’s normal in scientific research. It’s just bad, bad science. Furthermore, the primary supporters of the alleged reality of ‘Cadborosaurus’ have displayed a frustrating arrogance, lack of humility and stubborn attitude whenever their ideas are – quite justifiably – placed under scrutiny.

Cameron has written a series of articles about our Woodley et al. (2011) paper and additional ‘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.

- . & LeBlond, P. H. 2011. Pipefish or Pipe Dream? Journal of Scientific Exploration 25, 779-780.

Bright, M. 1989. There are Giants in the Sea. Robson Books Ltd, London.

Ellis, R. 1994. Monsters of the Sea. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Heuvelmans, B. 1968. In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. Hart-Davis, London.

LeBlond, P. H. & Bousfield, E. L. 1995. Cadborosaurus: Survivor From the Deep. Horsdal & Schuber Publishers Ltd., Victoria, Canada.

Naish, D. 2001. Sea serpents, seals, and coelacanths: an attempt at a holistic approach to the identity of large aquatic cryptids. Fortean Studies 7, 75-94.

Paxton, C. G. M. 2009. The plural of "anecdote" can be "data": statistical analysis of viewing distances in reports of unidentified giant marine animals 1758-2000. Journal of Zoology 279, 381-387.

Woodley, M. A., McCormick, C. A., & Naish, D. 2012. Response to Bousfield & LeBlond: Shooting pipefish in a barrel; or sauropterygian “mega-serpents” and Occam’s razor. Journal of Scientific Exploration 26, 151-154.

- ., Naish, D. & McCormick, C. A. 2011. A baby sea-serpent no more: Reinterpreting Hagelund’s juvenile “Cadborosaur” report. Journal of Scientific Exploration 25, 497-514.

Woodley, M., Naish, D., & Shanahan, H. (2008). How many extant pinniped species remain to be described? Historical Biology, 20 (4), 225-235 DOI: 10.1080/08912960902830210