Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Saturday, 27 December 2014

GIANT BLUE EELS OF THE GANGES - WORMING OUT A POSSIBLE EXPLANATION?



Reconstruction of the possible appearance of India's giant blue eels

The ancient chroniclers of natural history documented as factual a considerable number of extremely strange, mysterious creatures that are exceedingly implausible from a modern-day zoological standpoint.

Few of these, however, can surely be stranger, more mysterious, and certainly more implausible than the giant worm-like eels with vivid blue bodies that were soberly claimed by Ctesias, Solinus, Philostratus, Aelian, Pliny, and several other famous early scholars to dwell amid the dank riverbed ooze of the Ganges and other major rivers in India.

19th-Century engraving of common European eels Anguilla anguilla emerging from riverbed ooze

According to Gaius Iulius Solinus (a renowned Latin scholar and compiler who flourished during the 3rd Century AD), these amazing creatures were 30 ft long. However, their dimensions grew ever larger with repeated retellings by later writers, until they eventually acquired sufficient stature – up to 300 ft long now – to emerge from their muddy seclusion beneath the dark cloak of evening and prey upon oxen, camels, and even elephants!

Not surprisingly, this spectacular species of giant freshwater eel has never been brought to scientific attention. True, there are several species of very large sea-dwelling eels, including various morays, that are blue in colour. However, there are none known to science that are of comparable size and colour but which occur in rivers (interestingly, the longest moray of all, the slender giant moray Strophidon sathete, is known from the Ganges and is said to grow up to 13 ft long but is red-grey in colour, not blue). So unless the Ganges giant blue eel simply originated with sightings from Asia of sizeable blue marine eels whose correct provenance and dimensions were later documented incorrectly or confused by chroniclers in Europe, then in best angling traditions it is no doubt a classic case of "the one that got away"!

Giant blue moray eel photographed off Thailand (© Tropical Dive Club – click here to visit its website)

Having said that, however, in recent times I made an interesting discovery that may perhaps provide an alternative core of zoological truth from which the yarn of the giant blue, elephant-engulfing, worm-like Ganges eel was subsequently elaborated and exaggerated.

I discovered that Mount Kinabalu on the island of Borneo is home to a sizeable species of earthworm, measuring up to 28 in long when fully stretched out, which is iridescent blue in colour. Called the Kinabalu giant blue earthworm (but not confined to Borneo, as it also exists on several other nearby southeast Asian islands as well as New Guinea), it is known scientifically as Pheretima darnleiensis.

Kinabalu giant blue earthworm being swallowed by the Kinabalu giant red leech, a recently-discovered species (© BBC)

Moreover, it is such a familiar creature in this region of southern Asia that it is not beyond the realms of possibility that travellers journeying from here to India in bygone times mentioned this eyecatching worm there, and in so doing set the seeds for its transplanted mythification when chronicled in Europe.

Less likely but not impossible is that Asia once harboured a species of blue earthworm rivalling in size those famous giant species native respectively to South Africa and Africa. The largest in Australia is the Gippsland giant earthworm Megascolides australis, up to 10 ft long (occasionally more), with a blue-grey body, and to which Pheretima darnleiensis just so happens to be closely related. Moreover, Australia is also home to an extremely large species of bright Prussian-blue earthworm, Terriswalkeris terraereginae, which can grow up to 6.5 ft long, is native to the far north of Queensland, and secretes luminescent mucus. Consequently, sizeable blue earthworms existing in Australasia is by no means unprecedented.

Queensland giant blue earthworm Terriswalkeris terraereginae (reproduced widely online but original source unknown to me)

If recollections of a giant blue Asian earthworm or even the smaller Pheretima darnleiensis by travellers returning home in Europe became ever more embroidered and distorted with the passing of time, the result might well be a non-existent monster that was not so much a worm-like eel as just a worm, albeit one of unusual, memorable colouration and whose dimensions had become outrageously exaggerated down the generations of retellings.

Thus are legends born.

Another blue moray eel, the Indopacific ribbon eel Rhinomuraena quaesita, emerging from sea-bottom (public domain)





Friday, 26 December 2014

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE BOTTLED SEA SERPENT – OR, WHEN IS A GIANT EEL LARVA NOT A GIANT EEL LARVA?



An anguilline Norwegian sea serpent (sea-orm) depicted on Swedish cleric Olaus Magnus's famous antiquarian maritime map of 1539, the Carta Marina

One of cryptozoology's most enigmatic episodes is undoubtedly the very curious (and confusing) case of the bottled sea serpent.

This had attracted particular attention in 1965, when sea monsters enjoyed a renaissance in scientific respectability - thanks to the publication that year of a now-classic tome by cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans, entitled Le Grand Serpent-de-Mer (a somewhat different English version, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, appeared in 1968, also incorporating a greatly condensed version of another of his books, dealing with the giant squid and alleged giant octopuses).

First edition of Le Grand Serpent-de-Mer (© Dr Bernard Heuvelmans/Plon Publishing)

Within his book, Heuvelmans proffered evidence for believing that 'the great sea serpent', one of cryptozoology's most celebrated creatures, might actually be a non-existent composite - i.e. it had been 'created' via the erroneous lumping together (by previous investigators) of eyewitness reports that in reality feature a number of totally different types of animal.

In short, there was no single, morphologically heterogeneous species wholly responsible for all sea serpent reports on record. Instead, there were several well-defined, separate species collectively responsible for those reports.

Heuvelmans's 'super eel' category of sea serpent (© Tim Morris)

Some of them, according to Heuvelmans, were species still unknown to science, and included various unusual seals and whales, a giant turtle, a marine crocodile-like reptile, and a giant-sized 'super eel'. If his hypothesis was correct, this would have profound ichthyological implications.

For as a result of a chance discovery made over 30 years earlier, it meant that at least one bona fide sea serpent had already been captured - a sea serpent whose remains, moreover, were preserved, bottled, and available for scientific scrutiny!

Common European eel Anguilla anguilla, 1837 painting

On 31 January 1930, the Danish research vessel Dana unexpectedly captured an exceptionally long eel larva (leptocephalus) at a depth of about 900 ft, west of the Agulhas Bank and south of the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. Whereas leptocephali of the common European eel Anguilla anguilla measure a mere 3 in long at most, and even those of the formidable conger eel Conger conger only reach 4 in, the Dana's remarkable specimen was a colossal 6 ft 1.5 in! This in itself was quite staggering, but its implications were even more astounding.

The Dana giant leptocephalus as a preserved, bottled specimen (© Prof. Jørgen Nielsen/Zoological Museum of Copenhagen/courtesy of Lars Thomas)

During their metamorphosis from leptocephalus to adult, true eels (anguillids) greatly increase their total length - the precise index of growth varying between species. In the common eel, the increase is generally eighteen-fold, producing adults measuring around 4.5 ft; in the conger, it can be as much as thirty-fold, yielding adults up to 10 ft.

19th-Century engraving of a conger eel

Consequently, as conceded by Dana ichthyologist Dr Anton Bruun, in the case of the Dana leptocephalus, which was already 6 ft long, there existed the incredible possibility that this would have metamorphosed into a monstrous adult measuring anything between 108-180 ft, with a length of 50 ft seemingly the very minimum (less than a nine-fold increase) that even the most prudent estimator might expect of such a larva! Needless to say, any species of eel attaining such stupendous lengths as these would make an excellent candidate for those sea serpents grouped within Heuvelmans's 'super eel' category.

Artistic representation of an adult super eel's possible appearance in life (© Thomas Finley)

After its capture, the Dana leptocephalus was preserved in alcohol and has since resided in a specimen bottle within the collections of Copenhagen University's Zoological Museum. Periodically, it has been taken out of its bottle to be examined, and as a result it has gradually shrunk, but it remained a notable riddle in need of an answer – especially when, as the years progressed, a few other inordinately long leptocephali were obtained.

In 1959, an anatomically similar but somewhat shorter specimen, collected on 16 July 1958 in shallow water at Westland, South Island, New Zealand, was described by ichthyologist Peter Castle as a new species, which he formally dubbed Leptocephalus giganteusand to which the Dana specimen was later assigned. 

The holotype (type specimen) of Leptocephalus giganteus - full provenance details given above (© Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (P.002603)/Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence)

Interestingly, the Danish research vessel Galathea supposedly obtained a 6 ft leptocephalus during its voyages in the early 1950s, but no formal record of this (let alone the specimen itself) appears to exist. Even so, two specimens of L. giganteus certainly did exist, and the reality of the infamously elusive sea serpent, or at least one of its constituent members, seemed at last to have been fully endorsed. Inevitably, however, the truth proved very different.

In 1966, two much smaller specimens of L. giganteus were documented. Measuring just under 4 in and 11 in respectively, they had been sifted from the stomach contents of an Alepisaurus lancet fish captured in the western Atlantic. Except for their modest lengths, they corresponded very closely to the New Zealand example, and were carefully studied by Miami University ichthyologist Dr David G. Smith, in a bid to pinpoint conclusively the taxonomic affinities of L. giganteus in relation to the many other species of eel known to science.

An adult specimen of the snubnosed spiny eel Notacanthus chemnitzii, a typical notacanthid (public domain)

In March 1970, he exploded the sea serpent scenario for L. giganteus - by announcing that its two smaller specimens were the larvae of a notacanthid (spiny eel), not of an anguillid (true eel). This spelled doom for their species' claim to fame as (in its adult phase) a genuine sea serpent - because in stark contrast to the leptocephali of true eels, those of notacanthids do not greatly increase their length during metamorphosis from larva to adult.

Consequently, predictions that mature specimens of L. giganteus would measure over 100 ft were totally unfounded. Instead, when the unknown adult phase of this species was finally collected, it would be very little longer than the leptocephalus, i.e. a mere 6 ft or so.

An adult specimen of the froghead worm eel Coloconger raniceps, a typical short-tailed eel or colocongrid (public domain)

More recently, however, this reclassification of L. giganteus as a notacanthid has itself been challenged, so that nowadays it is popularly classed instead as a species of short-tailed eel (aka worm eel or colocongrid), within the family Colocongridae, housed in turn within Anguilliformes, the order of true eels. Accordingly, it has been renamed Coloconger giganteus (although some researchers still deem it to be a notacanthid).

In any event, just like the notacanthids, the short-tailed eels do not display a sizeable increase of length during larva-to-adult transformation. So the identification of C. (or L.) giganteus as a sea serpent remains null and void.

Konrad Gesner's version of Olaus Magnus's anguilline sea serpent, as included in Gesner's Historiae Animalium, 1558

Of course, there may indeed be eels of gigantic length still eluding scientific detection in the vastness of the oceans - giant anguillids, for example, that are compatible with Heuvelmans's concept of the 'super eel' category of sea serpent - but unlike C. (or L.) giganteus, these have yet to be captured, preserved, and bottled.

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and updated from my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (2012).








OARFISH ORIGINS AND A VERY (UN?)LIKELY SEA SERPENT

The giant oarfish Regalecus glesne (© John Norris Wood)

The beautiful artwork by John Norris Wood that opens this present ShukerNature blog article is the very first illustration of the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne that I ever saw. It appeared in a 96-issue part-work publication from the late 1960s that in Britain was entitled Purnell's Encyclopedia of Animal Life (and Funk and Wagnall's Wildlife Encyclopedia in the States), and which my parents bought me each week as a child. Such was this image's impact upon me that even today, whenever I read about Regalecus, it is Wood's picture that always comes immediately to mind. Hence it would have been unthinkable for me to blog about this remarkable species – one that has long fascinated me – without heading my account with his truly iconic illustration, which portrays to such stunning effect the spectacular appearance of one of the world's most extraordinary, enigmatic, and famously elusive animals.

Engraving of a giant oarfish underwater, from The Royal Natural History (1896), edited by Dr Richard Lydekker

And the giant oarfish is indeed spectacular. What other fish can boast a silver-skinned, scaleless, laterally-compressed, ribbon-like body of illusively serpentiform appearance known to measure over 30 ft long (and with plausible if unconfirmed lengths of up to 50 ft also documented – see below); a blood-red erectile crest composed of the first few greatly-elongated rays of the dorsal fin and memorably compared to a Native American's head-dress by science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke; an equally erythristic but shorter-rayed remaining dorsal fin running the entire length of its body; a horse-like head with protrusible toothless jaws; and a pair of very long, oar-shaped pelvic fins that earn this singular species its most frequently-used common name?

Engraving of a beached giant oarfish, from A History of the Fishes of the British Islands (1862-1866)

The giant oarfish is the world's longest species of bony fish (Osteichthyes), but the question asked more than any other about this species is just how long is it? The most authoritative answer is as follows, quoted from Mark Carwardine's standard work on animal superlatives, published in 2007 by London's Natural History Museum and duly entitled Natural History Museum Animal Records, which is also the data source cited by Guinness World Records:

"A specimen seen swimming off Asbury Park, New Jersey, USA, by a team of scientists from the Sandy Hook Marine Laboratory on 18 July 1963, was estimated to measure 15 m (50 ft) in length. Although this is purely an estimate, it is noteworthy because it was seen by experienced observers who, at the time, were aboard the 26 m (85 ft) research vessel Challenger, which gave them a yard stick for measuring the fish's length. With regard to scientifically measured records, there are a number of oarfish exceeding 7 m (23 ft) in length; for example, in 1885, a specimen 7.6 m (25 ft) long, weighing 272 kg (600 lb), was caught by fishermen off Pemaquid Point, Maine, USA."

One of the scientists aboard Challenger when it had its close encounter with that mega-large giant oarfish in 1963 was Dr Lionel A. Walford from the Sandy Hook Marine Laboratory of the Bureau of Sports Fisheries and Wildlife. In a subsequent interview, Dr Walford evocatively recalled that it "resembled a transparent sea monster. It looked like so much jelly. I could see no bones, and no eyes or mouth. But there it was, undulating along, looking as if it were made of fluid glass".

Opah and giant oarfish, from Field Book of Giant Fishes (© G.P. Putnam, NY, 1949)

A near-legendary yet globally-distributed inhabitant of tropical and temperate mesopelagic waters from 660 ft to 3300 ft in depth, the giant oarfish is a member of the taxonomic order Lampriformes (aka Lampridiformes), whose other members include the ribbonfishes, dealfishes, opahs or moonfishes, crestfishes and bandfishes, taper-tails, thread-tails, and velifers.

Together with the oarfishes, they are collectively known as lamprids and constitute some 20 species in seven families. Most lamprids possess long, ribbon-shaped (taeniform) bodies, the remainder (most notably the opahs) are rounded, deep-bodied (bathysome); all are laterally flattened, and most have bright red fins, and often a very lengthy dorsal fin.

Engraving of a North Pacific crestfish Lophotus capellei (also known as the unicorn fish for obvious reasons), from The Royal Natural History (1896), edited by Dr Richard Lydekker

The giant oarfish is the only member of its genus, Regalecus, and, with a single exception, is the only member of its entire taxonomic family, Regalecidae. That lone exception is the streamer fish Agrostichthys parkeri, a lesser-known species that is superficially similar in basic appearance to Regalecus but much shorter in length (no more than 10 ft long), and also possessing far fewer gill-rakers (8-10, as compared with 40-58 in the giant oarfish).

Interestingly, the streamer fish is apparently electrogenic, as people handling specimens of it sometimes claim to have experienced a very mild electric shock. However, no such effect has apparently been reported in relation to the giant oarfish (which in view of its much greater length is probably just as well!).

The streamer fish Agrostichthys parkeri – the second, lesser-known, smaller species of oarfish

The streamer fish was formally described and named in 1904, when it was housed with the giant oarfish in the genus Regalecus as R. parkeri, but in 1924 it was reassigned to a separate, newly-created genus, Agrostichthys, in which it remains to this day. This mysterious species is currently known only from seven specimens, all collected in southern oceans.

Moreover, due to its deep pelagic existence, the giant oarfish is also notably under-represented by physical specimens (despite its far bigger size), with most of those that have been documented consisting of specimens that have been beached after storms or found dying or dead in coastal shallows. Click here to see a short video containing a number of interesting photographs of recently-stranded giant oarfishes. (However, please note that this video's thumbnail image, which also appears just over halfway through the video (at 1:35 min), does NOT depict oarfishes. Whether by accident or design is unclear, but what it does depict is, to put it delicately, the very sizeable sexual organs of two whales!)

The 'Seaham sea serpent' – a dead 10-ft giant oarfish found washed up at Seaham, in County Durham, northern England, during 2009 (public domain)

Yet regardless of its evanescence, Regalecus has been known to science for a much greater time-span than Agrostichthys, having been officially described and named as long ago as the second half of the 18th Century, by the Norwegian biologist Peter Ascanius (1723-1803).

Intrigued to read this historic scientific account, I spent quite some time seeking it online, but finally succeeded in unearthing a copy of the description in question. Just a few lines long, it was published on page 5 in Part 2 of Ascanius's great work – Icones Rerum Naturalium, ou Figures Enluminées d'Histoire Naturelle du Nord, written primarily in French, but with species descriptions written in Latin. Part 2 was published in Copenhagen in 1772. And here it is:

Ascanius's description of the giant oarfish (click to enlarge for reading purposes)

Ascanius also included the following illustration of this dramatic species' type specimen:

The type specimen or holotype of the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne Ascanius 1772

As seen in his description, Ascanius formally named the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne, which is still accepted as its official binomial name, although during the years that have followed Ascanius's account, many other binomials have been applied to it, all of which are now deemed to be junior synonyms. Here is a full listing of them, as given in the giant oarfish's Wikipedia entry and crosschecked by me on various specialist ichthyological websites:

Table of binomial synonyms for the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne (Wikipedia) – click to enlarge

Incidentally, some researchers deem Regalecus russelii, named by the eminent French zoologist Baron Georges Cuvier in 1816, to be a valid second species, but most consider it to be conspecific with R. glesne. Ditto for Regalecus pacificus, named in 1878; and Regalecus kinoi, named in 1991.

For further details concerning the systematics of Regalecus, be sure to check out the following publication:

Tyson R. Roberts's major contribution to our knowledge of the giant oarfish

Regalecus signifies kinship to a king, and is derived from the giant oarfish's popular alternative name, 'king-of-the-herrings' (the name utilised as a common name for it by Ascanius in his description). That in turn is derived from a longstanding folk tradition that this gigantic species leads shoals of herrings to their spawning grounds.

A comparable folk-belief among the Macah people west of Canada's Strait of Juan de Fuca has earned a related fish, Trachipterus altivelis, a species of ribbonfish, the common name 'king-of-the-salmon'.

Trachypterus altivelis, the 'king-of-the-salmon' (public domain)

The giant oarfish's specific name, glesne, derives from the name of a farm at Glesvaer (aka Glesnaes), near to the major Norwegian city of Bergen, where this species' type specimen was found. As for the name 'oarfish', this originates from an early false assumption that this species swims by circular, rowing movements of its oar-shaped pelvic fins (scientists nowadays believe that these unusual fins are used for taste detection).

In reality, this elongate species' swimming movements are much more intriguing, and diverse, as it can swim holding its body horizontally and also holding it vertically. In horizontal mode, it moves by undulating its body-length dorsal fin while keeping its body straight (a mode of locomotion known as amiiform swimming - named after a primitive, unrelated North American freshwater fish called the bowfin Amia calva, whose own lengthy dorsal fin performs the same undulatory activity for swimming purposes).  In July 2008, while kayaking in Baja California, Mexico, on a trip organised by Un-Cruise Adventures, guests filmed two giant oarfishes exhibiting amiiform swimming in shallow water. The oarfishes were each around 15 ft long, and an excellent-quality video filmed of them by one of the guests can be viewed here.

Model of a giant oarfish suspended vertically in the Sant Hall of Oceans at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (© Tim Evanson/Wikipedia)

As he exclusively documented in the June 1997 of the British magazine BBC Wildlife, during a recent dive off Nassau in the Bahamas Brian Skerry was fortunate enough not only to encounter a living giant oarfish at close range but also to photograph it – and he was amazed to observe it holding its long thin body not horizontally but totally upright and perfectly rigid, with its pelvic rays splayed out to its sides to yield a cruciform outline, while seemingly propelling itself entirely via movements of its dorsal fin. Until then, no-one had suspected that this serpentine species could orient itself and move through the water in a perpendicular fashion. Ichthyologists now believe that the giant oarfish specifically adopts this vertical or columnar stance when searching for prey. Click here to view a video obtained via ROV (remote-operated vehicle) by Serpent Project scientists in 2010 of a very big giant oarfish, measuring between 16 ft and 32 ft long, swimming underwater both horizontally and vertically in the Gulf of Mexico. It is the first film of this species swimming in its natural, mesopelagic zone habitat, rather than in shallow water.

Any self-respecting cryptozoological enthusiast will tell you that the giant oarfish is a popular mainstream explanation for sightings and reports of at least some alleged sea serpents – and after all, with its enormous length and extremely elongate form, this is surely little wonder. On 22 January 1860 (not 1880, as given in some accounts), for instance, a dying Regalecus measuring 16 ft 7 in long but less than 1 ft wide was discovered washed ashore at Hungary Bay on Bermuda's Hamilton Island by George Trimingham and a relative as they strolled along the beach there, and was duly labelled as a dead sea serpent by a Captain Hawtaigne in a letter published in The Zoologist (even though his description of it left no doubt whatsoever that it was a giant oarfish). Happily, the creature's true identity was swiftly confirmed when its carcase was examined thoroughly soon afterwards by Bermuda-based naturalist J. Matthew Jones.

Engraving of Bermuda's Hungary Bay giant oarfish, sketched by W.D. Munro for 3 March 1860 issue of Harper's Weekly (public domain)

Moreover, in a letter to The Times newspaper of London,  which was published by it on 15 June 1877, British zoologist Dr Andrew Smith voiced what remains today a popular consensus among the scientific community when he confidently asserted:

"I am, as a zoologist, fully convinced that very many of the reported appearances of sea-serpents are explicable on the supposition that giant tape-fish [i.e. giant oarfishes] – of the existence of which no reasonable doubt can be entertained – have been seen."

Consequently, it may come as something of a surprise to discover that Dr Bernard Heuvelmans, the Father of Cryptozoology himself, no less, was scathing about the idea of giant oarfishes being mistaken for sea serpents in his standard work In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents (1968). He pointed out that this species' very large, unique, bright-red crest would readily identify it for what it truly was – a giant oarfish, thereby unequivocally differentiating it from any serpentine cryptid.

Heuvelmans also claimed that the biggest specimen of giant oarfish ever accurately measured was only just over 21 ft in length. This may – or may not – be the specimen depicted in the following photograph (there is some controversy concerning this):

A giant oarfish on the beach at Newport, Orange County, California, in 1907 (public domain)

He discounted all reports of longer specimens as exaggerations, adding uncompromisingly: "It seems that the only reason why there has been an attempt to stretch the maximum size of the [giant] oarfish, is in order to explain the sea-serpent by an animal known to science".

These seem harsh criticisms. In fairness, however, I must point out that they were written before confirmed specimens exceeding 21 ft were discovered (except, that is, for the 25-ft Pemaquid Point individual of 1885, which, oddly, Heuvelmans does not mention at all in his book), and also before films of living oarfishes were obtained – films which show that the vivid red crest is actually nowhere near as conspicuous when the fish is swimming as Heuvelmans had apparently assumed it would be.

Moreover, if observers who are not familiar with this species should see a giant oarfish when it is swimming in horizontal, amiiform mode (as exemplified by the above-linked video filmed by the Un-Cruise Adventure tourist in 2008), or even if found stranded ashore (as with the Bermuda specimen), it is easy to understand why they might indeed be wondering if they had encountered a veritable sea serpent from the deep - possibly even a maned one, as the giant oarfish's long, low dorsal fin might well explain sightings of elongate sea serpents sporting manes.

First UK edition of In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents (© Dr Bernard Heuvelmans/Rupert Hart-Davis)

One type of sea monster that Heuvelmans did feel certain was linked directly to the giant oarfish, conversely, was a specific type of marine serpent dragon that featured in a famous story from classical Greek mythology.

During the Trojan War, Laocoön, a priest of Poseidon, voiced his suspicion that the wooden horse of Troy given by the Greeks was some sort of trick, not to be trusted, and begged for it to be destroyed. In response, the Greeks' divine supporter, the goddess Athena, sent two enormous limbless sea dragons with blood-red crests through the waters until they reached Laocoön, whereupon they emerged and killed him, as well as his two sons.

'Laocoön and His Sons' – marble statue, c.200 BC (public domain)

Heuvelmans's linking of these crested sea dragons with the giant oarfish seems reasonable, as the story may well have been inspired at least in part by a Mediterranean stranding of one or more giant oarfishes, whose striking appearance would no doubt have stayed long in the memories of those who witnessed them.

Nor are sea serpents and marine dragons the only legendary beasts that have been associated with the giant oarfish either. So too have Asia's ancient snake deities, the nagas, as I noted in my book Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013):

"Allegedly seized from the Mekong River by the American Army in Laos on 27 June 1973 during the Vietnam War, a supposed queen naga or nagini is depicted in a famous much-reproduced photograph that is often seen displayed as a curio in tourist bars, restaurants, markets, and guest-houses around Thailand. However, the creature in question is visibly recognisable as a dead [giant] oarfish, held up for display by a number of men.

"Moreover, it is now known that this oarfish specimen, measuring 25.5 ft long, was actually found not in Asia at all, but off the coast of Coronado Island, near San Diego, California, by some US Navy SEAL trainees in late 1996, and those are the men who are holding it."

The famous photograph of a supposed nagini, clearly a giant oarfish (public domain)

There are also two little-known Icelandic sea monsters that may have been inspired by reports of the giant oarfish, judging from their bright red dorsal crests. For although this species is not generally found in Arctic waters, it is known from Scandinavian coasts further south (its holotype being one notable example).

These monsters are the red-maned hrosshvalur or horse-whale and the aptly-named raudkembingur or red-crest. Both appeared on a set of Icelandic postage stamps depicting eight of this country's mythological monsters, issued on 19 March 2009 (click here for more details).

The red-maned hrosshvalur or horse-whale at top-left and the raudkembingur or red-crest at bottom-right, as portrayed on Icelandic postage stamps

Incidentally, although the giant oarfish was not formally recognised by science until Ascanius's description of it in 1772, the myth of Laocoön's destruction is not the only evidence that this mysterious, little-seen, yet instantly-recognisable species had been known long before then.

Direct confirmation of this comes from the fact that a preserved giant oarfish was present in the cabinet of curiosities displayed at Palazzo Gravina in Naples, Italy, by Ferrante Imperato, a Neapolitan apothecary. He referred to this specimen as Spada marina ('sea sword') in his Dell'Historia Naturale (1599) – which contains a plate depicting his cabinet of curiosities with the giant oarfish clearly visible upon one of the walls:

Ferrante Imperato's cabinet of curiosities, featuring a giant oarfish (arrowed in red) – click to enlarge (BIG image!)

I'll leave the final words on the giant oarfish to the late Arthur C. Clarke, one of whose characters in his classic sea monster-featuring science-fiction novel The Deep Range (1957) voiced the following, very fitting description and equally telling cryptozoological sentiment:

"...but the really spectacular one is the oarfish – Regalecus glesne. That's got a face like a horse, a crest of brilliant red quills like an Indian brave's headdress – and a snakelike body which may be seventy feet long. Since we know that these things exist, how do you expect us to be surprised at anything the sea can produce?"

Amen to that!

Beautiful colour engraving of a giant oarfish, with a close-up of its surprisingly equine head and protrusible toothless jaws