Little has changed since I last touched upon ‘Meganthropus’ in 2007. Google results are still dominated by Internet-kitsch connecting the name to fallen angels and bigfoot and such. In the peer-reviewed sphere, the name cropped up a few times without breakthroughs or clarifications. ‘Meganthropus’ is such a nebulous appellation that in order to keep myself sane, I’m going to take things back to basics. In this article, I will only concern myself with one specimen and the claim its robusticity indicates a large body size.
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17 March 2014: Massive updates! See below.
Jan Jonston¹ was a 17th Century Scottish-Polish naturalist who appears to have been largely forgotten by English speakers. Jonston made some of his own naturalistic observations (Miller 2008) but relied heavily on the works of 16th Century authors Conrad Gessner and Ulisse Aldrovandi (MacGillivray 1834) as well as the near-contemporary Georg Marcgrave (Romero 2012). Jonston’s work has been interpreted as some of the last done in the Gessner–Aldrovandi style and something of an anachronism for its lack of focus on classification (Asúa & French 2005); Miller (2008) argued Jonston took a unique philosophical approach. The important thing is, Jonston’s work is preserved on a website run by the University of Mannheim and is well worth looking at for the engravings by Matthäus Merian.
These are very nice renderings, but holy crap, Jonston needed an editor. This is the second illustration of a sawfish and why both are hanging out with marine mammals is mysterious; perhaps some earlier worker confused the spiracles for blowholes. The competing depictions of walruses as separate species (?) is really mind-bending. The ‘Rosmarus Wallroſs‘ is from Gessner who in turn based his depiction on Olaus Magnus’s… but with wings; the ‘Rosmarus Vetus‘ are from a 1613 illustration by Hessel Gerard (through De Laët) and are reportedly the most accurate walruses until 1853² (Allen 1880). So on the same page, Jonston managed to be cutting edge and behind the curve. Then there’s the mythical ‘Scolopendra cetacea’, a Roman dolphin-faced, Aldrovandi-style whale with extra… footy things³. I think this is a good sample of Jonston’s work: a beautiful, incoherent mish-mash of monsters and real animals.
But enough stalling, what is… Jan Jonston’s Wonderfully-Shaped Whale?
Cete admirabilis forme. Aside from this article, the phrase is only found on the University of Mannheim’s website. It doesn’t even seem to be in Jonston’s own text. Jonston doesn’t even use the word “cete” — “cetis” and “balaena” are used for his whales —so it may be a reference to size rather than affiliations. Or something. I have no idea why it’s grouped with relatively realistic fish, which can be recognized as a chimera, pufferfish, a lumpsucker, and a bream. Except for the lumpsucker (and Wonder-Whale), these fish have teeth specialized for crushing. The Cete admirabilis forme is nowhere to be found in Rondelet’s L’histoire entière des poissons or Aldrovandi’s De piscibus or Marcgrave’s Historia Naturalis Brasiliae. It could be possible it’s from a more obscure source, represents original research from Jonston, or it’s a fictitious entry.
I would opt for this being a joke because… just what the hell is going on here? The overall body shape is from a cartoon fish, the mouth is Sperm Whale-like, and the head is Basking Shark-like aside from the octopus stuck on it. It’s really hard imagining this having anything to do with reality. Unfortunately, I’ve hit a dead end and I… just don’t know. Normally I don’t publish these, but hey, it’s a new The Lord Geekington. Perhaps some day I’ll make a lucky discovery in an old tome and write a followup. Or perhaps somebody out there on the Internet already knows.
I would really recommend checking out the University of Mannheim’s website; Jonston may have been an iffy researcher, but Merian’s illustrations are well worth looking at.
Allen, J. (1880) History of North American Pinnipeds. Available.
Asúa, M & French, R. (2005) A New World of Animals. Partially Available.
MacGillivray, W. (1834) Lives of eminent Zoologists from Aristoteles to Linnaeus. Available.
Miller, G. (2008) Beasts of the New Jerusalem: John Jonston’s Natural History and the Launching of Millenarian Pedagogy in the Seventeenth Century. History of Science 46(152) 203–243. Available.
Romero, A. (2012) When Whales Became Mammals: The Scientific Journey of Cetaceans From Fish to Mammals in the History of Science. InTech. DOI: 10.5772/50811. Available.
¹ Also known as John Jonston, John Johnstone, Joannes Jonstonus and Scoto-Polonus.
² Walruses appear to have a particularly bizarre art history… I’ll have to cover this another time.
³ Perhaps my favorite monster and almost certainly a future subject. I’ve discussed the bizarre 20th Century revival of this beast on Memories of Myspace past or the Cetacean Centipede Rides Again! (from… 7 years ago?!), Return of the Many-Finned!, and The Many-Finned and Cladistics.
Updates (St. Patrick’s Day 2014):
Thanks to Andreas Johansson for pointing out I should have been searching for Cete Admirabilis Formae (or Formæ). This directed me to Allen (1882) which briefly describes the image and attributes it to Carolus Clusius. One edition of Clusius (1605) has an ‘æ’ that looks very much like an ‘e’ at a glance, so I suspect Jonston used that as a source. Nieremberg (1635) also features the whale, but the ‘Æ’ is unmistakable. So what does Clusius have to say about this remarkable, uh, whale? Unfortunately, in order to find out, I will have to clumsily stumble my way across his Latin text. But first, a picture:
SVB finem Novembris ſuperioris, ab ornatiſſimo viro Iacobo Plateau diligente reruna Exoticarum conquiſitore, & quibus muſeum habet inſtruetiſſimum, Cetacei piſcis iconem, quam ex F. Ludovici Granatenſis Catechiſmo excepiſſe ſcribebat, accipiebam: eam licet ſatis negligenter, & ab imperito forſitan pietore, expreſſam, quia tamenmeo argumento ſerviebat, hoc loco inſertam volui, additâ etiam ex Latino Fratris Ludovici exemplari ejus deſcriptione.
So in November 1604, one James Plateau received a naïve picture and description from one Father Lewis.
LUDOVICUS igitur (ut paullò altiùs repetam ejus verba) in fuo Catechiſmo, ad finem cap. XXI. libri de Creatione mundi, hæc ſcribit.
So I guess Father Lewis also wrote this down?
Hoc autem capite declarato quàm admirabilis ſit in horum animalium fabrica, æquum eſt, ut quàm admirabilis ſit in majorum quoque animalium fabrica oſtendamus; ut facile appareat, idem eſſe in omnibus operibus ſuis: utque intelligatur, jure optimo illum Angelum, cuidam interroganti, quod ſibi nomen eſſet, reſpondiſſe, Iudic. XIII…
Something, something, admirable.
…Curmeum nomen interrogas, quod admirabile eſt? In hanc ſententiam poſſem ego huc adducere duas feras, quarum magnitudinem deſcribit idem Creator cap. XL. & XLI. Iobi ſub his nominibus Behemoth & Leviathan: ſic & cete, quæ notiſſima ſunt.
Not sure of the significance of bringing those two up…
Attamen his prætermiſſis, hîc admirabilem cujuſdam piſcis magnitudinem referam, qui anno M.D.LXXV.X.Kal.Maii ad Peniche jam mortuus in littus, è mari ſuit projectus
[ſinus is est in Luſitania Occidentem ſpectante, vicinus illi urbi qua vulgò Nova Lisbona appellatur, circiter ſeptem aut octo miliaribus ab Ulyſipona distante, panè ex adverſoejus inſulaquam las Berlingas vocant.]
Some further notes about the location, the significance of which I don’t understand.
Hoc nihil admirabilus viſum ſuit umquam: erat enim ejus longitudo quadraginta cubitorum:
The length was 40 cubits. Assuming 45 cm, this would mean 18 meters. However, Portuguese cubits were apparently 66 cm, which would give 26 meters… but who knows how that varied throughout time. So, uh, let’s call it cetacean-sized.
ejus corium in dorſo nigrum erat, in ventre album:
The skin was black and the belly was white, so damn, my illustration was wrong.
caudæ verò amplitudo ab extremitate unius pinnæ ad alteram quinque cubitorum erat, & ejus latitudo quindecim palmorum.
So it seems the tail was 5 cubits wide and… something about fifteen palm trees?! [Edit: Palms, as in the unit, of course. Thanks again, Andreas]
Corporis craſſitudo tanta erat, ut duo homines ſatis grandes in utroque latere collocati vix ſe conſpicerent:
It sounds like the body was so thick, two large men couldn’t span it, or wrap around it, or something.
uterque oculus unius cubiti erat longitudine:
Each eye was a cubit (?!) in length. Huh.
caput in ſublime elatum ferebat ad quatuor cubitorum altidudinem
Apparently the head was held four cubits high, or something?
Os in capite non habebat ut alii piſces, ſed in ventre:
The mouth was more ventrally placed than those of other fish.
majores illius dentes ſinguli erant octo cubitorum:
A comment about teeth and eight cubits I don’t understand.
in ore præterea fexdecim habebat dentes, & cujuſlibet circuitus erat dimidii cubiti, interſtitium verò inter ſingulos erat unius palmi.
I don’t understand a lot of this, but it seems the teeth were separated by a span (half-cubit).
Cujus figuram hîc addere volui, quæ ab Henrico, qui ſempiterno fruitur ævo allata ſuit.
An apparent reference to King Henry?
In hujus piſcis fabrica, Divinæ Providentiæ artificium animadvertendum eſt, qui altum fert caput, ut piſes proſpiciat, quibus nutriendus erat: ſed cùm diſtantia inter caput & aquam magna eſſet, ei os in ventre accommodavit, ut vicinius & accommodatius ad piſcandum eſſet, quod oculisjam eſſet aſſequutus. Illud quoque audivi, hunc piſcem in ventre axungiam ad medendum ſatis accommodatam & magni pretii habuiſſe. Hactenus Frater Ludovicus.
This appears to describe the mouth being in the “belly” and seems to imply that the blubber was valuable.
So far as I can gather from my very, very, very limited abilities with Latin, this sounds like an early, mangled description of a Sperm Whale. The Aliud Cete admirabile which follows is far more unambiguous, and Allen appeared to regard it as one of the very first illustrations. There are still of course some baffling details about the Cete Admirabilis formæ (the head being held up high, the size of the eyes, the unexplained octopus-nose in the sketch), but it seems that even in the early 1600’s it was viewed as being a bit off-kilter.
I’m afraid this will make very little sense without reading The Patriarchal Bear.
Let’s pretend in some alternate universe, C. H. Merriam did not Fail Taxonomy Forever and North America has scores of species of bears roaming around. It’s probably the universe next door to the Cryptozoologicon. One of the bears is something special; a small tremarctine from the Canadian Arctic, just one of two survivors from a once-mighty lineage. Unlike the bear of our universe — which was just an immature female Grizzly with low cusps on some of its teeth — this ‘Vetularctos inopinatus‘ actually has tremarctine traits such as a short and deep skull, large molars, lateral orbits, et cetera. And just because, let’s say this specimen was actually a large male that wandered a few hundred kilometers south from its normal distribution in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
But which tremarctine is it? Arctodus simus was present in eastern Beringia and may have had a competitive exclusive relationship with Brown Bears (Barnes et al. 2004). So perhaps Merriam’s Bear could be a dwarfed population of A. simus forced into a marginal habitat after the re-invasion of Brown Bears. But, eh, Surviving Arctodus is pretty played out. In our universe, the extant Spectacled Bear descended from the North American Tremarctos floridanus in the late Pleistocene or early Holocene (García-Rangel 2012, citing various); the biogeography of that split is still sufficiently mysterious for me to speculate, hey, why not have a sister species of the Spectacled Bear move north after the Last Glacial Maximum? Reclassifying ‘Vetularctos inopinatus‘ as Tremarctos inopinatus also opens up lots of interesting ecological possibilities.
Spectacled Bears are omnivores, mainly feeding on fruits and leaves, but they also have adaptations for preying on small prey (García-Rangel 2012, citing various). Feeding heavily on palms, bromeliads and fruits is probably going to be out of the question for Merriam’s Bear, unfortunately. Merriam’s Bear is also not much larger than Spectacled Bears — Merriam described the skull with a basal length of 26.8 cm, Spectacled Bears have a maximum total skull length of 26.3 cm (García-Rangel 2012, citing various) — so perhaps a large individual would be around the 200 kg mark. While still pretty big, this could make macropredation a rare affair and opens up the possibility of predation from Polar Bears, but less mass to support could make survival in a harsh landscape more plausible.
Could a bear even survive in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago? Barren Ground Grizzlies are typically thought to be absent from that area, but they have been recorded as far north as Melville Island; such vagrant bears have apparently fed on pinnipeds and (female and juvenile) polar bears, and could presumably eat sedges, caribou, and muskoxen as well (Doupé et al. 2007). Perhaps Merriam’s bear could feed heavily on hares and lemmings and have adaptations for taking a wide variety of the plants which still grow that far north. It still sounds like a pretty rough existence and I imagine Merriam’s Bear was one of the very last of its kind.
So, to be clear, this is all just speculative biology. I’m surprised that creating a plausible-ish scenario worked out as well as it did. It was certainly easier than for Bergman’s Bear, which doesn’t even exist in this bear-heavy alternate universe. Speaking of which, I should probably take a break from cryptid bears for a while.
Barnes, I. et al. (2004) Dynamics of Pleistocene Population Extinctions in Beringian Brown Bears. Science 295 2267–2270. Available.
Doupé, J. et al. (2007) Most Northerly Observation of a Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos) in Canada: Photographic and DNA Evidence from Melville Island, Northwest Territories. Arctic 60(3) 271–276.
García-Rangel, S. (2012) Andean bear Tremarctos ornatus natural history and conservation. Mammal Review 42(2) 85–119.
In late June 1864, two Inuit hunters in the Mackenzie Basin killed what Mair & MacFarlane (1908) called a “Richardson’s Barren Ground Bear—Ursus richardsoni“. These days they’re known as ‘Barren Ground Bears’ and considered a subpopulation of Grizzly Bear, Ursus arctos horribilis (e.g. Edwards et al. 2008). Mair & MacFarlane (1908) mentioned no unusual morphology, size or coloration is regards to the bear, only describing how it nearly mauled one of the hunters. Then in 1918, C. H. Merriam described the specimen as a new species and genus, the Patriarchal Bear, Vetularctos inopinatus. Whaaaaat?!
Merriam (1918) specified the type specimen was collected on 24 June 1864 from Lac Rendez-vous, Northwest Territories, Canada¹. The preserved pelt was described as “buffy whitish” in general with brownish coloration at the extremities; this Grizzly from Denali and another from North Slope fit Merriam’s long, rambling description almost perfectly. Merriam described the skull as being small² and lacking almost any wear on the teeth, and so interpreted it as a near-adult female. I have no idea where “Patriarchal Bear” came from. Merriam (1918) noted the skull was overall “like that of Ursus” but felt the teeth were so unusual, he speculated the bear had a “rather ancient line of descent” and affiliations with Spectacled Bears and Arctotherium. Whaaaaaaat?!?!
C. H. Merriam does not appear to have figured or photographed his “Vetularctos inopinatus” anywhere. This really sucks. The whole description is a long, rambling qualitative description of differences that are probably laughably minuscule. Bear with me here, this is going to be like pulling teeth. Merriam felt the key reasons for attaching “Vetularctos” to those tremarctines were as follows: the lingual (“inner”) cusps on the first and second upper molars were reduced or suppressed; the second lower molar had both inner and outer cusps that were reduced or suppressed, and also lacked a re-entrant angle and notch on the outer side. This comparative illustration of bear teeth proved invaluable and — this sort of analysis is probably above my pay grade — despite Merriam’s wording, it seems that these differences are rather subtle. Damningly, Merriam (1918) states that aside from these traits, the teeth of the Patriarchal Bear and the tremarctines have “little in common”. I think it’s time to talk about Mr. C. H. Merriam.
C. H. Merriam was surely one of the most extreme taxonomic splitters ever. One of his publications was titled Descriptions of thirty apparently new grizzly and brown bears from North America, and this was early in his career. He eventually described 84 species of Brown Bears from North America (Hall 1984). Today there are three subspecies. Merriam’s approach to taxonomy is totally alien to what is accepted today. He also appeared to have no conception of balance of evidence or parsimony. His scenario was essentially that, on the basis of really subtle dental traits, a tremarctine converged almost perfectly with Brown Bears, enough so to totally fool hunters and naturalists. Oh, and it lived in the same area as Brown Bears. And was known from a single specimen. The problems with his scenario should have been incredibly obvious to anyone who bothered to read it. Oh, it would certainly be nice if the skull were re-examined — and preferably in a venue other than a questionably-edited cable TV show — but Merriam’s own description makes “slightly irregular Brown Bear” a good provisional identification. Even a Polar Bear hybrid is probably too exotic a hypothesis… but that’s really a story for another time.
Oh, and then cryptozoology comes in and things get stupid. Along with Bergman’s Bear, it’s not uncommon to see “MacFarlane’s” bear touted as, *gasp*, maybe a surviving Arctodus? I think every “mystery” bear inevitably turns into Arctodus in cryptozoological apocrypha. So who is to blame for this farce? I suspect it’s this 1946 article by George Goodwin; he takes Merriam’s bizarre phylogeny seriously, appears to think Tremarctos was an extinct giant (instead of… the opposite of that), concludes the Patriarchal Bear must have been a giant too, and then connects it to vague stories about big bears. Somebody down the line noticed that Tremarctos and Arctotherium were related to Arctodus and… that’s how cryptids are born. It’s all just fact-adverse, mystery-mongering bullshit about a non-mystery. And that’s why it’s so much fun.
¹ Merriam (1918) reported the type locality as “Rendezvous Lake, northeast of Fort Anderson, Mackenzie”. This website shows the location of the old fort.
² With a basal length of 26.8 cm. In comparison, the skull of “Ursus horribilis” described by Merriam (1918) was 35.1 cm in basal length, and hey, that name actually held up! One of them was bound to stick.
Edwards, M. et al. (2008) Using subpopulation structure for barren-ground grizzly bear management. Ursus 19(2) 91–104. Available.
Elliot, D. (1901) A Synopsis of the Mammals of North America and the adjacent seas. Available.
Hall, E. (1984) Geographic variation among Brown and Grizzly Bears (Ursus arctos) in North America. University of Kansas Museum of Natural History 13 1–16. Available.
Hillson, S. (2005) Teeth. Partially Available.
Mair, C. & MacFarlane, R. (1908) Through the Mackenzie Basin. Available.
Merriam, C. (1918) Review of the Grizzly and Big Brown Bears of North America (genus Ursus) with description of a new genus, Vetularctos. North American Fauna 41. Available.
I want to try something different on this rebooted The Lord Geekington. I have nothing new to add to my discussion on Bergman’s Bear and Hyper-Splitting, but I also didn’t feel like I was quite done with it. Also, I recently got a drawing tablet.
So what is supposed to be going on here? This is a dubious speculative creature, so I wanted the illustration to feel anachronistic and naive. Trying to put my own inexperience to good use, in other words. I attempted to imitate the old yellowing maps in Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, Medieval illustrations of bears, and Olaus Magnus all at once, although the result doesn’t really look much like any of those.
I exaggerated the short hair purportedly covering Bergman’s Bear to the point where this bear hardly seems to have any. Like my shrink-wrapped bear, this is really an excuse for showing off the freakishly long legs bears have underneath that fuzz. The wrinkles may look familiar to aficionados of hairless oddballs. The long snout is an exaggeration of the morphology Kamchatkan Brown Bears already have; I’m imagining a short-haired animal could look similarly bizarre, but just in case, I’m imagining this is an animal with particularly extreme morphology. This feature was also something of a protest against the prehistoric-survivor-mongering Arctodus¹ hypothesis.
Unlike the Cryptozoologicon, I’m not clever enough to come up with a scenario where this can be a distinct species². The best I can manage is that, let’s see, maybe there was a subpopulation of bears that was extremely adept at exploiting salmon — or maybe marine mammals? —and for some reason insulated themselves with more fat than fur. The longish snout I gave it sorta hints at this, although Bergman and Malaise made no mention of such a feature. But anyways, this purportedly distinct animal is just a relic from the era where people were interpreting one bear species as hundreds; there is absolutely no reason to take it seriously as a potentially unknown animal. Just thought I should mention that again.
¹ Although Arctodus didn’t actually have a short face. Or long legs. The popular image of these animals is nearly mythologized as a cryptid.
² Well, it was recently discovered that Cave Bears were living in far Eastern Siberia… of course they were small… and hundreds of kilometers away from Kamchatka… and thousands of years in the past. Such inconveniences don’t really stop avowed prehistoric survivorists though.
The basilosaurids are among the fossil animals I find most fascinating. Despite the suffix, this is a group of fossil whales in a very interesting phylogenetic position; they’re floating in between the points where whales became fully aquatic and the split between toothed and baleen whales. The phylogeny of this group has been undergoing major upheavals, so those used to simplified diagrams of whale evolution may find it surprising that Basilosauridae is a diverse side-branch rather than one or two transitional species. Discussing phylogeny can turn into an unreadable multi-paragraph slog, so I’ll try something different:
Okay, those are definitely paragraphs, but at least they’re small enough to be optional. So what is… The Third King? Some of its remains were previously known as Eocetus or “Eocetus” (long story) and they were classified as protocetids less derived than Babiacetus. In 2013, Gol’din & Zvonok argued the association with Eocetus was a mistake and moved the whales into Basilosauridae under the new name Basilotritus. That group now contains three lineages characterized by elongate vertebrae and large body size: Basilosaurus (“lizard king”), Basiloterus (“another king”) and now Basilotritus (“the third king”). I really hope this tradition continues¹.
Basilotritus is known from an astounding number of remains despite having been recognized for less than a year. Basilotritus wardii is known from the Early Bartonian of the United States and Basilotritus uheni — which has vertebrae about twice as large — is known from the Late Lutetian to Late Bartonian of Ukraine (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013). There are additional “Basilotritus sp.” from Germany and the Ukraine and in Peru there is a comparatively small species with moderately elongate vertebrae that appears to be a related genus (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013). It’s name had better start with Basil…
In addition to the large size and elongate vertebra, Basilotritus has two rather unusual diagnostic traits: vertebrae with a pock-marked texture and layered bony tissue on the neural spines (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013). The pock marks are the openings of vascular channels and are hypothesized to be related to the long-term growth of considerable bony tissue; the layers of bone are also apparently a result of this (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013). Basilotritus then has a condition known as pachyostosis, which could allow it to be a good, long-distance swimmer at the expensive of speed and maneuverability (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013). Pachyostosis is present in other basilosaurids, but apparently does not involve the vertebrae (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013).
There seems to have been something very strange happening with the growth and maturation of Basilotritus. The Basilotritus sp. pictured above has 5 growth layer groups — likely indicating an age of 5 years — and yet has unfused epiphyses on its cervical vertebrae, something that normally happens very early in the life of a whale (Gol’din et al. 2014). Gol’din et al. (2014) consider this a sign of paedomorphosis (along with the pachyostosis), although they are uncertain if Basilotritus rapidly reached a large size but didn’t reach skeletal maturity until later (like a baleen whale) or if it continued growing for nearly a couple decades (like an Orca).
It’s astounding that cetaceans reached huge sizes so early in their history. I suspect that basilosaurids “experimented” with different growth strategies for reaching huge sizes and exploiting new niches. Despite their apparently unusual growth strategy, the Basilotritus species converged on some Neoceti in regards to the number of lumbars (11–13, depending on species) and the elongation occurring in the posterior thoracics and lumbars (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013). In comparison, the huge Cynthiacetus was strange (non-elongate vertebrae, very numerous thoracics) and the leviathanic Basilosaurus was crazy weird (extreme elongation, numerous vertebrae, lumbar-like thoracics and caudals).
There’s more to Basilotritus than vertebrae; parts of ribs, innominate bones, sternum, scapula, hyoid, tympanic bulla and skull have been found (Gol’din & Zvonok 2013); but perhaps the most interesting are the teeth. This Basilotritus sp. from Ukraine has severely worn teeth, and in one molar the entire crown is almost worn off (Gol’din et al. 2014). This is the same individual as the previous picture, so it managed to do this in only 5 years, some of which it presumably spent nursing. A similar amount of wear occurs in Orcas that prey heavily on sharks, and it likely wasn’t a coincidence that this specimen of Basilotritus sp. was found with numerous shark teeth (Gol’din et al. 2014). Of course, it probably shouldn’t be assumed that all Basilotritus fed heavily on sharks, and perhaps like Orcas it was only practiced by one small sub-population for a small period of time.
So… fossil whales never cease to amaze. I can’t wait until this post is laughably outdated in a couple of years.
Gol’din, P. & Zvonok, E. (2013) Basilotritus uheni, a New Cetacean (Cetacea, Basilosauridae) from the Late Middle Eocene of Eastern Europe. Journal of Paleontology 87(2) 254–268.
Gol’din, P. et al. (2014) Basilotritus (Cetacea: Pelagiceti) from the Eocene of Nagornoye (Ukraine): New data on anatomy,ontogeny and feeding of early basilosaurids. Comptes Rendus Palevol. Doi : 10.1016/j.crpv.2013.11.002
Uhen, M. (1998) Middle to late Eocene basilosaurines and dorudontines. IN: The Emergence of Whales
¹ Basilosaurus drazindai is presently known from only one vertebrae with several significant differences from other Basilosaurus species as well as Basilotritus (Gol’din et al. 2013). Considering its age and the apparent close relationship between Basilosaurus and Dorudon, I think it’s very likely to be something… else. Other big, elongate vertebrae have been named “Platyosphys paulsonii“, “Platyosphys einori” and “Platyosphys sp.”, however they’re all lost or in poor condition and now considered nomen dubium (Gol’din et al. 2013). They could be members of the other Basil– lineages.
I’m fascinated by erroneous beliefs — hence my coverage of cryptozoology — and I’ve become increasingly curious about why animals in old depictions are usually “wrong”. Not being an art critic or anthropologist, I’m baffled why people would illustrate animals in a way other than as accurately as possible. It appears my culture of viewing animals from a literal, scientific perspective is a quite recent phenomenon in human history.
This Late Helladic I blade from ~1500 BC unambiguously shows a dolphin, which has been interpreted to show a Striped Dolphin (Masseti 2008). I’m not really convinced the curved lines drawn on the figure represent the markings of that species¹ and I wonder if they could represent movement or waves. Other fairly realistic dolphins are seen in art from the Bronze Age (Fresco at Knossos) and Classical antiquity (youth playing the flute and riding a dolphin, various coins); however, some depictions from the ancient world are quite fanciful.
This figurine — from 330–310 BC Eretria, if Wikipedia is to be trusted — is still recognizably dolphin-like, but the body is unusually long and bendy (even the rostrum is curved) and the replication of fins (and… counter-dorsal fins?) is really curious. I wonder if, perhaps like the wavy patterns on the first example, this is an attempt to capture movement in a static work of art. Say, shouldn’t there be a cryptozoologist citing this as undeniable proof of a “Rhinoceros dolphin“? I’ll have to discuss the bewildering phenomenon of people taking these obviously stylized artworks literally another time.
In this mosaic of Eros riding a dolphin, the mount is so stylized it would be hard to tell it’s supposed to be a dolphin at all if there weren’t other depictions of the same scene. I would have guessed that this was a mythological creature based on a dolphin associated solely with deities, but several similar creatures are depicted independent of any gods. This particularly extreme style of depicting dolphins was surprisingly influential², as I’ll discuss later.
This 15th Century depiction of a “Delphinus” from a bestiary shares nothing with the older depictions aside from its name and aquatic nature. Other illustrations documented by the excellent website, The Medieval Bestiary, show dolphins as various generic fish. Van Duzer (2013) shows additional illustrations depicting dolphins as generic fish with human faces, but apex of illustrative eccentricity seems to have been reached here. Dolphins are most assuredly not blank-faced merfolk with either eyes or a mouth in their chests. So what the hell happened? According to Montagu (1962), knowledge about dolphins was almost completely lost at some point; it seems the only information remembered was their name and aquatic nature. Romero (2012) essentially concluded that Medieval people were backwards idiots; however, the approach of bestiaries seems dramatically different from natural history and I can’t help but wonder if there are illustrations from other sources depicting more natural dolphins, perhaps under different local names.
This 16th Century illustration looks nothing like works from the Medieval era and was inspired by Classical dolphins (Van Duzer 2013). These clearly look related to the type of dolphin used as Eros’ mount and they’re very well-rendered, but it’s still not exactly a naturalistic depiction of cetaceans.
Pierre Belon‘s 1551 is almost a contemporary of the map-monsters above, yet its style is remarkably modern. Belon actually bothered to dissect dolphins and noted anatomical structures such as hindlimbs, lungs, milk glands and hairs, yet failed to connect them to terrestrial mammals (Romero 2012). Monstrous depictions of cetaceans continued for long after Belon’s work, but this seems to be a good stopping point.
Egerton, F. (2003) A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 11: Emergence of Vertebrate Zoology During the 1500s. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 84(4) 206–212. Available.
Masseti, M. (2008) The Most Ancient Explorations of the Mediterranean. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 59(1) 1–18. Available.
Montagu, A. (1962) The History of the Dolphin IN: The Dolphin In History.
Romero, A. (2012) When Whales Became Mammals: The Scientific Journey of Cetaceans From Fish to Mammals in the History of Science. IN: New Approaches to the Study of Marine Mammals.
Van Duzer (2013) Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps.
¹ Aristotle apparently conflated Striped Dolphins with Bottlenose Dolphins and Short-Beaked Common Dolphins (Romero 2012), so it could be possible the ancient Greeks also lumped the familiar species of dolphins.
² It appears this creature or a similar one provided the model for the face of my favorite monster, the Cetacean Centipede/Scolopendre Cetacee.
According to cryptozoological legend, on the Kamchatka peninsula there lived a bear with short black fur which surpassed all others in size. The last specimen was collected in the 1920s, but there are rumors they persist in areas closed off by the military (Bille 1995). The Internet expanded on the legend by lumping Bergman’s bear with other mysterious Kamchatkan bears¹ and so now it is rumored to be a surviving Arctodus simus. Does it really matter if your Prehistoric Survivor is on the wrong continent, a cryptid has just got to be one, right?
Unfortunately, as a Joy-Dampening Hyperskeptic I did the unthinkable and consulted the original source. It turns out that the stories floating around, particularly those online, are hopelessly confused. The evidence of a distinct species or even subspecies is astoundingly weak. So, basically, it’s all bullshit. Here’s why!
Sten Bergman was part of a 1920–22 Swedish expedition to Kamchatka and had considerable field experience with bears, seeing them daily on some parts of the peninsula. His friend René Malaise² stayed on the peninsula for nine years, and so Bergman (1936) relies heavily on his observations as well. Bergman reported that in Ust-Kamchatsk in 1920, he was shown a black, short-furred pelt which was far larger than any other bear skin he had ever seen. He felt it was unusual since the Kamchatkan bears he observed were typically light brown (but highly variable) and always long-furred. Somewhere along the line, hunters informed Bergman that the largest bears were always black. His friend Malaise reported seeing the skull of a huge black bear which was evidently not particularly old. I’m curious as to how he knew about the fur color. Malaise also reported finding tracks 37 cm long and 25 cm wide (14.6″ x 9.8″), although no connection to black fur is mentioned. Bergman (1936) summed up the matter by stating:
There is much, then, that speaks for the existence in Kamchatka of a quite black, gigantic bear, in addition to the ordinary brown type; but this question must remain an open one.
So not only did Bergman not name a new species³, he wasn’t entirely sold on the concept! Upon scrutiny, this cryptid totally falls apart. The number of accounts is exceedingly small and second-hand. The documentation of the specimens and anecdotes is quite vague. No physical specimens were kept, no measurements taken, and no detailed morphology was noted. If there really was a second bear on Kamchatka, shouldn’t there be some immediately noticeable morphological and ecological differences? Why would the only individuals observed be large (presumed) males? Isn’t it awfully convenient for this purported form to be totally absent as soon as modern observers came around. Google images reveals a lot of bear hunting happening on this peninsula, which is nowhere near as isolated as the cryptozoological legends claims.
The greatest failure of “Bergman’s Bear” as a cryptid is that the peninsula is already home to a huge subspecies of bear! Data on the Kamchatka Brown Bear (Ursus arctos beringianus) are hard to come by, but Revenko (1994) notably refers to them as some of the largest bears in Russia. Kistchinski (1972) claims that “extremely big bears” were common in the past, but wiped out due to overharvesting. Wood (1982) cites sources claiming weights as high as 685 kg (1510 lbs), however these appear to be poorly documented. Wood (1982) was of the unusual opinion that these large bears were an extinct subspecies, which is a far less likely explanation that the effects of heavy hunting.
In regards to the unusually coat, judging from photographs of the bears, there are a lot of variations and color ranges from light to dark and it appears to fur can be short or long in individuals. Despite his field experience, I’m skeptical of Bergman’s claim of the short coat being a highly distinctive trait. Some of the large bears taken by hunters do indeed seem to have fairly short, dark fur, so perhaps Bergman somehow failed to observe the full range of variation for the species.
So even if there was a pattern of very large individuals having short, dark fur, what does that actually mean? Species do not consist solely of very large (presumed) males, so if there was a genuinely unknown species or subspecies of bear, surely people would have been noticing females and cubs that looked a bit different as well. So the most likely explanation is that, if the described condition is accurate, it occurred within a species. Perhaps very large or old males of this species just have short dark fur for some reason (maybe hormones or… something). Perhaps in some areas, this phenotype gave an advantage in certain environments and allowed some males to grow to their fullest potential. But, since the sample size is extremely small and reliant on second-hand account and anecdotes, the most likely explanation is that there is no pattern at all.
One thing I love about cryptozoology is that, when done right, it’s a good way to discuss real concepts in zoology. I think belief in Bergman’s bear is a failure to realize that the scientific literature is riddled with purportedly distinct species. This doesn’t mean that each of those purported species is a mystery beast hiding from modern observers. In actuality, they’re just variants. Bears seem unusually prone to this type of apophenia; for Brown Bears (Ursus arctos) in North America, no fewer than 96 species were proposed — 86 by one C. H. Merriam — and in the Old World an additional 271 names were granted (Hall 1984). It is surreal to read works written by people who earnestly believe North America has dozens of species of bear which sometimes overlap considerably in range but do not interbreed (e.g. Mills 1919). These animals are still real, and heck, it could be possible that there really are geographical variations in traits like claw length and coat color; the problem is, these are just exceedingly minor traits which are unsuitable for determining species status. Describing new species is more rigorous today — for the most part — and it really helps when there are numerous morphological traits backed up with molecular evidence. The notion that Bergman’s Bear is a distinct entity is a failure to understand variation, how species vary, and the extremely low threshold for what early observers considered a distinct species or “type”.
Bergman, S. (1936) Observations on the Kamchatkan Bear. Journal of Mammalogy 17(2) 115–120.
Bille, M. (1995) Rumors of Existence.
Hall, E. (1984) Geographic variation among Brown and Grizzly Bears (Ursus arctos) in North America. University of Kansas Museum of Natural History 13 1–16. Available.
Haywood, A. (2010) Siberia: A Cultural History.
Kistchinski, A. (1972) Life history of the brown bear (Ursus arctos L.) in northeast Siberia. IN: Bears, their biology and management. Available.
Mills, E. (1919) The Grizzly: Our Greatest Wild Animal. Available.
Revenko, I. (1992) Brown Bear (Ursus arctos piscator) reaction to humans on Kamchatka. Int. Conf. Bear Res. and Manage. 9(1) 107-108. Available.
Shuker, K. (1997) From Flying Toads to Snakes with Wings.
Wood, G. (1982) The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats.
¹ The Иркуйем (Irkuyem/Irkuiem/Irquiem) is described as being an enormous white bear standing four and a half feet (1.37 m) at the withers, weighing a ton and has a small head, long limbs, narrow body and… brace yourselves… an unusual gait involving putting its forelegs out first followed by its hindlegs, making it look like a giant caterpillar (Shuker 1997). This could be based on garbled reports of Polar Bears, but since most of the information appears to have come from Pravda, I think it could be safely regarded as useless nonsense.
One surprisingly influential Cryptozoology.com article claims “Kainyn-Kutho” is another synonym meaning “God-Bear”… but I don’t understand how that translation works. Perhaps relevantly, Siberia: A Cultural History states that Kamchatkan Brown Bears are usually given supernatural or god-like qualities.
² See Vårgal and Taeger (2011) for a fascinating overview of his life and photographs from the Kamchatkan expedition. He had some eccentric opinions about Atlantis and a reputation as an “odd character” but he seems to be a generally well-regarded figure aside from that.
³ A distressingly high number of sources are under the impression that Bergman gave his bear the scientific name Ursus arctos piscator. This is completely and utterly WRONG. This name existed 81 years before Bergman ever used it — and it is still used as a synonym for Kamchatkan bears today.
It’s time to start blogging again.
Somewhere in my Biological Marginalia phase, I lost my passion for blogging; the articles became increasingly serious, complicated and difficult to finish, until I just stopped writing entirely. It felt like I was putting on an act of being a Serious Science Blogger, which is ridiculous since I’m not getting paid for this. I started a tumblr of the same name — which I intend to keep using — and I started having fun again, but found myself wanting to write articles that are more in-depth and with a feeling of permanence. So in the quest for balance I probably will continue to cover Serious Science, but I want to wallow in things like speculative biology, animals in culture and my attempt at learning digital art (of animals). I have no idea where this is heading, hopefully this won’t evolve into Time Cube-esque ramblings.
I feel that I should at least share something biological. I saw a dead Basking Shark once, one of the highlights of my life so far. I was particularly struck by how large the eyes and teeth were, compared to what I had imagined before. I should probably discuss this further (when I recover the original photos from a dead hard drive).