Tag Archives: monster

A lot of “sea serpent sightings” could actually be whale boners

A sailor’s life is rough. You’re up against the weather, the sea, maybe even sea monsters — or so some sailors used to think. Since Ancient Greece, people have been describing sea monsters of various sorts, but according to one study, at least some of those monsters can be explained by something much more mundane: whale penises.

Copperplate engraving of Egede’s great sea monster. The Naturalist’s Library Sir William Jardine (publisher) Wm. Lizars (principal engraver). London & Edinburgh. Hans Egede (a Lutheran missionary) wrote that on 6 July 1734 his ship was off the Greenland coast. Those on board that day “saw a most terrible creature, resembling nothing they saw before.”.

In one of the more famous sea sighting reports, Danish Lutheran missionary Hans Egede wrote that on 6 July 1734, he and those on his ship saw a terrible sight — a “most terrible creature”, resembling nothing they had seen before. The monster, Egede reported, was longer than their whole ship.

“It had a long pointed snout and it blew [spouted] like a whale [it] had broad big flippers and the body seemed to be grown [covered] with carapace and [it] was very wrinkled and uneven [rough] on its skin; it was otherwise created below like a serpent and where it went under the water again threw itself backward and raised thereafter the tail up from the water a whole ship’s length from the body.”

Egede’s account is notable because he was an educated man and had described several whale encounters previously, and as a man who had seen some things in his life, he wouldn’t be one to be easily impressed. So what did Egede and his mates actually see?

Image credits: Paxton et al (2005).

Three researchers took on the challenge of answering that question. The lead author was Charles Paxton, a man familiar with unusual studies. A few years ago, Paxton was awarded the Ig Nobel award for a study on how amorous ostriches attempt to court humans in Britain — yes, really. The Ig Nobel award is offered to research “that cannot, or should not, be reproduced” and that “first makes you laugh, then makes you think”.

Paxton’s whale study was carried out in 2005, and the researchers looked at all the plausible actions that could fit the description. A key part of the description is the “serpent-like” description.

“Although whales are found, and can survive, without flukes (for example grey whales ), serpent-like or eel-like bodies are not usually associated with the rapid thrust that would be required to rear the whole body high out of the water,” Paxton writes.

So it seems like the monster couldn’t have been a whale. But it could have been a whale… part.

“There is an alternative explanation for the serpent-like tail. Many of the large baleen whales have long, snake-like penises. If the animal did indeed fall on its back then its ventral surface would have been uppermost and, if the whale was aroused, the usually retracted penis would have been visible.”

This seems compelling enough, but it still leaves up the matter of size for debate. Whale penises are indeed impressive, but could they have been bigger than the entire boat? Researchers suspect the answer is ‘no’, but there could be an explanation: multiple whales.

“The penises of the North Atlantic right whale and (Pacific) grey whale can be at least 1.8 meters long and 1.7 meters long respectively and could be taken by a naĂŻve witness for a tail. That the tail was seen at one point a ship’s length from the body suggests the presence of more than one male whale,” the study concludes.

To make the whale erection theory even more compelling, a separate incident from 1875 is even more likely to be a whale penis. Sailors aboard the merchant vessel Pauline reported seeing a “whitish pillar” amongst a pod of sperm whales “frantic with excitement” — a description that very well fits the whale penis theory.

Ultimately, we may never know what Egede saw, and probably not all sea serpent sightings are whale penises (though that would be an interesting study), but it seems to happen quite often, and it’s not uncommon for sea serpents to “appear” in the vicinity of whales, often even attached or “battling” a whale.

There’s even a theory that the Loch Ness monster is a whale penis, though there’s a big hole in that theory, in that Loch Ness is a lake and there are no whales in it. But otherwise, a lot of sea serpent sightings could actually be whale penises.

You can read the entire study here.

A Loch Ness monster was found on the bottom of the lake – but not the one you think of

Some 600 feet deep, at the bottom of the Loch Ness lake in Scotland, researchers have found the much famed monster… but it’s not the monster you’re thinking of. It’s only a prop from the 1970 movie The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

An underwater robot detected the Nessie model during a survey of parts of Loch Ness. Image via Kongsberg Maritime.

When the movie was being filmed, a prop monster was developed. It had two humps and was 30 feet long. But the director, Billy Wilder, didn’t like the look of it.

“The director did not want the humps and asked that they be removed, despite warnings I suspect from the rest of the production that this would affect its buoyancy. And the inevitable happened. The model sank,” Adrian Shine, a Loch Ness expert, told the BBC.

A still from the movie, showing the prop.

Another of Kongsberg Maritime’s images of the lost Nessie model. Image via Kongsberg Maritime.

This time, VisitScotland and Loch Ness expert Adrian Shine used a sonar study to sweet the subsurface of the lake. Mr Shine added:

“We can confidently say that this is the model because of where it was found, the shape – there is the neck and no humps – and from the measurements.”

Other than this, they also found a sunken boat… and not much else. But Malcolm Roughead, chief executive of VisitScotland believes that no matter what science reveals, there will always be a sense of mystery shrouding the lake.

“We are excited to see the findings from this in-depth survey by Kongsberg , but no matter how state-of-the-art the equipment is, and no matter what it may reveal, there will always be a sense of mystery and the unknown around what really lies beneath Loch Ness.”

The jig is up: the Tully Monster was a vertebrate

Exactly six decades ago, an amateur fossil hunter called Francis Tully came across an usual find some 50 miles south of Chicago. The fossil belonged to a completely new species and looked like a oversized foot-long worm or snail. Since then, hundreds of other specimens have been found, yet despite the significant fossil records and the efforts of many scientists from around the world no one had ever accurately pinned it down the evolutionary tree. After many, many years, this perplexing creature known in popular culture as the Tully Monster has finally been properly described and earned its rightful place among its cousins: the lamprey.

This weird creature is called Tullimonstrum gregarium and nobody could tell where it fits in the evolutionary tree for decades. Credit: Sean McMahon / Yale University

The Tully Monster is quite famous. It’s the official fossil of the state of Illinois and it’s been often covered by the media as a mysterious creature given scientists weren’t able to figure it out. Its weird features were also appealing. Victoria McCoy at Yale University, lead author of the new study, was fascinated by the Tully Monster since she was a kid. Once she became a paleontologist, this interest lingered until McCoy eventually approached the  Field Museum and asked to examine some fossils of the ‘beast’. Boy, did she — about 1,200 specimens of Tullimonstrum gregarium were photographed from all angles, measured and thoroughly documented. Advanced imaging techniques were also used like the Advanced Photon Source, an electron accelerator and storage ring operated by the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.  It took many months to complete. It was all worth it, though.

At first, like everybody else, McCoy thought that maybe Tullimonstrum g. was a mollusk since there were some snail-like creatures that looked similar around the time the monster was around, some 350 million years ago. Closer inspection turned this thought upside down. The animal had a thin rod that ran from the hammerhead-shark like eyes to the back of the tail. Some have interpreted this as being the stomach, but McCoy and colleagues proved that this was actually a  notochord, a flexible rod that supports the backbone. The Tully Monster was in fact a vertebrate!

A 300-million-year-old Tully Monster fossil. Credit Nicole Karpus

A 300-million-year-old Tully Monster fossil. Credit: Nicole Karpus

The animal also had gills and a jointed snout lined with conical teeth. This suggests that the animal is related to the lamprey, an eel-like type of primitive fish which spends part of its life in marine and part in fresh water. The lamprey is distinguished by a blood-sucking toothed, funnel-like  mouth. The Tully Monster seems to show that the lamprey isn’t that primitive, given how different the two look. Instead, the lamprey likely went through many evolutionary stages in the course of the lineage’s 500 million years existence.

The sea lamprey.

The sea lamprey.

The Tully Monster spent most of its life in shallow seas and likely shared waters with small sea life like other fish, horseshoe crabs and amphibians. The eyes mounted on the external rod likely granted the monster a binocular vision, similar to the hammerhead shark, the researchers reported in their paper published in Nature.  Its snout allowed it to grasp food, which it would scrape with its tongue. The researchers don’t know yet what the animal liked for diner. “It could have been sticking this thing down worm burrows or grabbing things that pass by,” McCoy told The Atlantic. “But we don’t know a ton about it.”

When asked whether or not the monster should be renamed, Carmen Soriano, a paleontologist at Argonne National Laboratory, put it bluntly: “No, because it’s still a monster,” she said. “It’s something really different from anything we have seen. It’s one of a kind. If you come back to this idea of a monster as anything strange, it’s still strange.”

A monster's eyes grab our gaze almost immediately, even when they're located on strange body parts like the hands of this Dungeons and Dragons rock golem. (c) Tom Foulsham

Scientist’s 12-year old son helps unravel gaze mystery: we’re wired to look for eyes, not faces

Alan Kingstone, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, has been debating with peers for many years what exactly comprise the gaze mechanisms. Do humans first look for the eyes or face when surveying another person or animal? Many scientists believed this is a question impossible to answer since the two are indistinguishable. Capitalizing on his 12-year old son’s brilliant idea of using monsters from Dungeons and Dragons as test canvas for his experiment, Kingstone proved that we’re indeed hot-wired to look for eyes, not faces, whether they’re thousands of them or positioned in unusual places like the hands of a monster. The findings could provide clues as to why some individuals, particularly those inflicted by autism, have a though time making eye contact.

 A monster's eyes grab our gaze almost immediately, even when they're located on strange body parts like the hands of this Dungeons and Dragons rock golem. (c)  Tom Foulsham

A monster’s eyes grab our gaze almost immediately, even when they’re located on strange body parts like the hands of this Dungeons and Dragons rock golem. (c) Tom Foulsham

In a past study of his from 1998, Kingstone showed that humans will typically look into the direction that other people are watching, in an automatic fashion. If you happen to see a small group of people or a huge crowd, all the same, looking in a particular direction, will find yourself directing your gaze towards that direction as well. This isn’t a behavior limited to humans either, since many animals have been found to share it. Sure, it’s a signal of interest, but what hints the direction: is it the people’s faces or their eyes? For humans, indeed, the two are one and the same direction-wise. However, humans use different parts of their brains to recognize eyes (superior temporal sulcus) and faces (fusiform face area), separately.

The scientist confessed his dilemma to his son, Julian Levy, over the dinner table once, and the latter quickly jumped to his aid. He believed discriminating between the ideas would be a lot easier if his father used the Monster Manual, a compendium of illustrated fabled characters from the world of Dungeons and Dragons. There a myriad of characters can be found, from humanoid, to complete abominations, some so twisted, like monsters with eyes in their hands or tentacles, that it instantly seemed to Kingstone as a perfect starting point.

We subconsciously look for eyes

Soon after, he enlisted 22 volunteers and instructed them to look at the corner of a computer screen before images of the monsters appeared. The volunteers were equipped with an  eye tracking system to follow  rapid eye movements as they browsed through the photos. Their findings showed that indifferent whether the graphic depicted a humanoid being or an utter monster, the viewers gazed first hit the center of the image. For humans and humanoids, their eyes then drifted vertically. Monsters, meanwhile, prompted sporadic eye movements. Still, in all cases people looking at the photos first searched for the eyes and, once they found them (on a head, hands, torsos, or otherwise), their gaze locked onto the eyes before moving to other body parts.

“If people are just targeting the centre of the head, like they target the centre of most objects, and getting the eyes for free, that’s one thing. But if they are actually seeking out eyes that’s another thing altogether,” Kingstone says.

Like stated earlier, different brain parts are responsible for recognizing eyes, and faces, respectively.

“Our conclusion that human gaze selection is mediated by a specialized brain mechanism, sensitive to the eyes rather than only the head, sheds light on individuals with autism who often fail to select the eyes of others,” the authors wrote. “[E]fforts to train individuals with autism to look at others in a typical manner should focus on the selection of the eyes of others rather than targeting the head alone.”

The findings were published in the journal Biology Letters, where Levy was also cited as an author  – and rightfully so, since he not only hinted towards the key idea that made this study possible, but also  trained himself to use the eye-tracker, ran the experiment, and coded all the data.


The myths and folklore behind Halloween’s most popular characters

The spooky Halloween is almost upon us, and the monsters are rubbing their hands, waiting to come out and create chaos and mayhem. But even though kids costume themselves and all, a lot has changed since the early days of Samhaim, the pagan festival from which Halloween originated. In ancient Ireland fairies roamed the streets, playing malicious tricks on everybody who dared to walk at night, witches concocted magic evil potions all around the world, and werewolves came out howling from the forests. But what is the truth behind these myths and legends ? We’ve gathered a bunch of myths and stories, and I’m gonna let you decide what the truth is; if you have the courage, that is…


The belief in vampires is as old as man itself, and throughout the years, many cultures have displayed a profound belief in such mythological creatures that feed on the life essence (usually blood) of other beings. Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Romans, even the Greeks – they all believed that when the sun comes down, white skinned phantomatical creatures with long teeth and a thirst for blood come out of their coffins, just waiting to suck the very life out of as much people as possible. Even in the English language, the word “vampire” exists since 1734, but it wasn’t until Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula that the archetypal sophisticated vampire was established.

Dracula, the movie

Dracula was believed to come from Transylvania, a region in Romania; he was a member of an ancient order, called the Order of the Dragon, and ruled Wallachia, a neighboring region as Vlad Dracul (Vlad the Devil). It is still not certain exactly why he is believed to be Dracula, but he was extremely cruel and he did have a thirst for blood – maybe in the literal way too.

Brad Pitt, in one of the most popular modern vampire stories

Other cultures have other vampires, but what’s interesting is that most rituals are actually the same. For example, identifying the coffin of a vampire in a graveyard required walking a virgin stallion through the graveyard; the horse was supposed to balk at the vampire’s tomb. Mirrors are also a good way to discover and ward vampires, because it is commonly believed that they have no reflection. Also, the methods of protection against vampires are pretty much the same: garlic is always good to have around. In some countries, during Halloween, huge piles of garlic are put in every window to prevent unwanted… guests. Staking is the best way to get rid of vampires, that we know of, but it’s also the hardest; vampires are known to be fast and extremely agile, so it’s best to do it during daytime, when they sleep.

Their favorite hang around places are graveyards and churches, but they can get around pretty much everywhere, and they can blend in perfectly when the sun comes down. You’d best keep an eye out for people with white skin and big teeth. There isn’t a special connection between vampires and Halloween, but if you go to the right places, you are bound to see at least a few.


Werewolves are nasty creatures; they were once humans, but now, they periodically or permanently change into antropomorphic animals, most commonly wolves. Lycantropes, as they are also called, become this way after being bitten by another werewolf, or after being placed under a powerful curse. They have the raw power and speed of the wolf, but they also have the intelligence and cunning of the man, which makes them some of the most powerful and feared monsters in the whole world.

In folklore, one of the most common signs of a werewolf is the joining of the eyebrows above the nose – this is the first sign of lycantropy. They were mentioned numerous times in European and African myths, especially in the huge forests in Russia. They were so feared, that people started to begin they wore the taint of the Devil himself, as writes Richard Verstegan (Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, 1628):

[werewolves] are certayne sorcerers, who having annoynted their bodies with an ointment which they make by the instinct of the devil, and putting on a certayne inchaunted girdle, does not only unto the view of others seem as wolves, but to their own thinking have both the shape and nature of wolves, so long as they wear the said girdle. And they do dispose themselves as very wolves, in worrying and killing, and most of humane creatures.

The ancient Greeks wrote some fascinating ideas about werewolves. For example, History’s father, Herodotus wrote that the Neuri, a tribe he places to the north-east of Scythia, were all transformed into wolves once every year for several days, and then changed back to their former shape – a shocking resemblance to other myths. Virgil, one of the most famous Roman poets wrote in a similar fashion. Other reputed people shared stories of werewolves; one of the most shocking was featured in the Satyricon:

“When I look for my buddy I see he’d stripped and piled his clothes by the roadside…He pees in a circle round his clothes and then, just like that, turns into a wolf!…after he turned into a wolf he started howling and then ran off into the woods.”

Werewolves are vulnerable to almost nothing. The only thing known to cause serious damage to them is silver. A silver blade, or a silver bullet will be deadly, but some reports claim that the mere touch of the metal will cause severe burns to the werewolf.

Werewolves like to hand around forests and farms, they cry out like wolves and are drawn by fullmoon. However, Halloween seems to draw them out more than a fullmoon, and at times, they even come out in packs, striking their victims without giving them any hope whatsoever.


Basically speaking, witches are people who practice witchcraft – and they love Halloween more than any other day of the year. Witchcraft was given a really awkward reputation during the dark ages, when Christianity ruled Europe, and when they ruled witchcraft as a criminal offense that should be punished by death. Speaking of it, there was quite a special way in which it was usually determined if somebody (usually women) was a witch. They tied her to some logs and/or rocks, and if she floated, she was a witch and had to die. If she sunk, and died, she wasn’t a witch, and… well, that’s that.

Witchcraft was common absolutely everywhere in the world. You’ve got shamans, voodoo people, warlocks and even necromancers, in one variation or another on every continent in every corner of the world. There are in fact so many types of alleged witches that it is practically impossible to catalogue them all; there are even stories (though not very many) of good witches, that use spells and potions to benefit others. Most however, are malitious at least, or evil at worst.

Halloween and witches are connected at every level. At first, Samhain (the celebration that originated Halloween) marks the end of the third and final harvest, but also the time when the Crone goddess mourns the death of the old God. It is the time when all the dead souls return to her cauldron of life and death, awaiting to be reincarnated. It is these souls that make the witches’ powers tenfold in the night of Halloween, so this is why they have very special plans for tonight. The Witches greatest Sabbath is scheduled for Halloween night, and even though you may not see witches that often, that’s because they like to stay hidden, waiting and plotting in the dark, waiting for the day they will finally be able to take their rightful place in the world.


“Fairy” has different etymologies and different meanings in different languages. Despite today’s common belief that fairies are good natured and helpful (a belief largely promoted by Peter Pan), folklore tells us a somewhat different story. Usually, they are some sort of demons or undead beings, while in other stories they are elementals or air spirits.

Still, fairies are not evil, but rather malitious. A fairy will never try to throw the world in darkness, but may steal a baby every now and then, but usually they just known for their mischief and malice, playing everyday planks on people. Cold iron is the most common protection against fairies, which could come quite in handy, because in most legends they are not the small benevolent winged beings you might know, but would be rather a large, glowing figure.

As with many other mythological creatures, they are drawn in large numbers on Halloween, so usual light pranks may turn into a big ordeal on Samhain. There is however another belief, that fairies gather on Halloween to protect people from other malevolent spirites, such as witches or goblins. Either way, their intent and wishes are not yet clear, and maybe this Halloween will show us more clearly what fairies are like.


Yeah, we know zombies. They may be slow, but they’re hard to stop, and they’re nasty. Halloween draws out more zombies than ever. It’s not quite clear if they come out because of all the spiritual energy of the day, of they are somehow summoned by witches or other spellcasters, but one thing’s for sure: zombies are the centerpiece of Halloween.

There aren’t many old legends and folklore about zombies, except for Haitian and other cultures that practiced voodoo. There have been many studies regarding the phenomenon, including medical research, the most famous of which was conducted by Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist, but zombies have gotten a lot of attention in modern culture, and this Halloween we’ll be definitely hearing a lot from them.


Demons are the top of the piramid when it comes to evil. They are at the core of every evil doing, and are responsible for every major plan concocted by supernatural creatures. Present in every mythology, as well as Christianity or Islamism, demons can rarely enter our plain of existence though.

However, Halloween is the time to be a demon. It is said that during this day, portals open that bound every plain of existance, so demons can enter freely in our world, given the right conditions. These conditions usually have to be fulfilled by lesser evils.

The legends and folklore about demons are so many you can’t fully characterize demons; some say they are fallen angels, some say they are evil powerful spirits, while others claim they are just energy, without a body of their own, waiting for one to possess. Either way, the word around the demon world is that they’re planning something big this Halloween, so best keep an eye out.

[These are just myths and folklore, tied together by figments of my immagination. Hope you had fun reading this post, I definitely did writing it. And have a happy bloody Halloween !]