Some of the beautiful creatures in our awe-inspiring state, captured as best I can manage on a smartphone that keeps running out of memory. Hope you enjoy them!
A few months ago, I wrote a post arguing for the likelihood that there is a big, unidentified animal living in the Congo Basin. (Future posts on the same topic are on the way) And while I tend to not hold my breath for the discovery of creatures like Sasquatch or Nessie, in this case the skeptics’ explanations are neither convincing nor parsimonious. The available evidence is best accounted for by a real animal rather than folklore.
This past week, not only has someone brought my attention to another massive, unidentified creature that’s likely to exist, but he has presented evidence that is, in a scientific sense, more compelling.
Max Hawthorne is the author of a horror novel called “Kronos Rising,” which I am reading and thoroughly enjoying. It has drawn many favorable comparisons to “Jaws,” involving a prehistoric reptile that terrorizes a seaside community.
But in one of those beautiful moments where life imitates art, Max’s extensive knowledge of marine creatures sheds light on an enigma that has stumped marine biologists for over a decade.
In 2003, something ate a 9-foot Great White shark off the coast of Australia. The shark had been tagged with a tracker that could measure temperature and depth. But what could it have been?
At first, most of the scientific community was supremely confident that there was nothing “sensational” to the event, and that the predator was simply a bigger Great White. The only problem was, that made no sense whatsoever given the available evidence.
I’ll let Max take over with a hypothesis he posted on Facebook (reproduced here with his permission), and then contribute some brief thoughts afterward.
SUPER PREDATOR – IT’S NOT WHAT THEY SAY IT IS by Max Hawthorne
I watched the documentary “Super Predator” recently. It’s the follow-up to last year’s “Hunt for the Super Predator.” I enjoyed both shows, but after having studied all the data, I find myself compelled to weigh in, because something’s not right.
Last year’s show (and I have no doubt they’ve set things up for a third episode for next year) ended with the premise that the creature that devoured a 3-meter great white shark (named “Shark Alpha” in the Bremer canyon off AU was simply a larger (i.e. 5-meter) great white. I thought this was rubbish. There was no definitive proof of the claim, and it was, IMHO, a fluff piece to quell the media storm and put people’s minds at ease.
In this year’s show, the filmmakers changed their story. Now they’ve presented the theory that a MUCH larger shark, i.e. a Carcharodon megalodon – one that inhabits the abyssal depths – was responsible for the attack on Shark Alpha. They backed this up with a photo of an 80-foot pygmy blue whale sporting a bite scar on its peduncle measuring a whopping 5 feet across. They also stated that the shark that unsuccessfully attacked the pygmy blue would have measured nearly 40 feet in length.
The facts dictate otherwise.
1- Per http://www.cwr.org.au/research/bluewhales.html, the pygmy blue measured 20-21 meters, i.e. a maximum of 69 feet.
2- Also, per the same site’s data, the bite on the whale’s tail measured a maximum of 1.2 meters across. That’s a smidgen less than 4 feet, not 5, indicating a shark around 32 feet long. A sub-adult Megalodon? Possibly. Or maybe just a really huge great white.
3- There is no indication that this pygmy blue whale was attacked in the Bremer canyon, so any insinuation that the shark that bit the whale is the same animal that devoured Shark Alpha is a stretch.
4- Per her satellite tag/tracker, Alpha’s body temperature, when attacked, was confirmed at 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Her body temperature, again per the tag, went from 46 to 78 degrees almost instantly after she was devoured.
5- White sharks have a body temperature that normally ranges from 10-14 degrees Fahrenheit above the surrounding water (the inside of the belly being the highest temp differential). Under extreme circumstances, the maximum differential has been listed at a difference of 25 degrees.
6- Based on body temperature alone, there is no way shark alpha was eaten by another great white. The temperature difference is too extreme. Moreover, if Megalodon is still alive, and has a body temperature anything like its relative, the great white, (a reasonable assumption), it would also fall within this range.
7- Megalodon was a shallow water predator. It makes no sense that it would loiter in the extreme deep where little food exists. Especially not when a banquet of whales waits at the surface.
8- The “Hunt for the Super Predator” special showed that the creature that ate Alpha remained at depths ranging from the surface to 300 feet immediately after feeding, and for the next 8 days, until the tracker/tag was excreted. This was ignored by the new show, assumedly as it would derail their “Abyssal Megalodon” theory. In fact, the “super predator’s” movements in the water column are, in actuality, similar to those of an Orca. It indicates an air breathing predator that does NOT live in the darkness of the abyss.
9- This fact is backed up by Alpha’s behavior, immediately prior to her being consumed. Once attacked, she dove to nearly 2,000 feet at high speed before she was caught and killed. This indicates an attacker that was both fast and capable of deep dives, as well as being able to accurately track fleeing prey in complete darkness (echolocation, anyone?).
10- Retreating/emergency diving to extreme depths when threatened or attacked is a documented tactic white sharks employ when one of their number has been killed by Orcas. This raises the possibility that Shark Alpha may have instinctively tried to employ this same tactic in an attempt to flee what she recognized as a large, air-breathing carnivore.
11- Per the tracker/tag, the digestive process of the “super predator” took 8 days. A great white’s digestive tract takes 24-48 hours, from what I’ve read. Something else digested Alpha – something that dissolves its meal slowly – and based on my experience keeping large crocodilians and such, that would seem to indicate a reptile.
12- Lastly, adult leatherback sea turtles have been known to have core body temperatures 32 degrees Fahrenheit above the surrounding sea water. If the water temperature around shark alpha was 46 degrees and you add 32 to it, you get the EXACT 78 degree body temperature of the Super Predator. Of course, leatherbacks eat jellyfish, not 3-meter white sharks. But the interesting thing about them is that they ARE marine reptiles. This implies that the creature that ate Alpha may ALSO have been a marine reptile of some kind.
SUMMARY: THE EVIDENCE SUPPORTS MY HYPOTHESIS THAT SHARK ALPHA WAS EATEN BY A LARGE, AIR BREATHING ANIMAL: ONE THAT COULD NAVIGATE IN TOTAL DARKNESS, SURVIVE THE PRESSURES OF THE ABYSS, CATCH A FLEEING GREAT WHITE SWIMMING AT 30+ MPH & SWALLOW IT WHOLE, HAD A BODY TEMPERATURE 32 DEGREES HIGHER THAN THE SURROUNDING WATER, HABITUALLY STAYED NEAR THE SURFACE FOR 8+ DAYS AFTER EATING ITS MEAL, AND TOOK 8 DAYS TO DIGEST.
CONCLUSION: SHARK ALPHA WAS CONSUMED BY A HUGE MARINE REPTILE: DISCLUDING UNKNOWN SPECIES AND FOCUSING ON THE FOSSIL RECORD, POSSIBLE CANDIDATES INCLUDE EITHER A GIANT MOSASAUR OR A PLIOSAUR. GIVEN THE DEPTHS THE PREDATOR DESCENDED TO IN PURSUIT OF THE SHARK, AND THAT MOSASAURS WERE SHALLOW DIVING, COLD-BLOODED REPTILES LIKE THEIR MODERN RELATIVES, MONITOR LIZARDS, I’M BETTING ON THE LATTER.
Looks like KRONOS RISING may not be pure fiction after all 😉
Max Hawthorne, author
Well done, sir.
Keep in mind, whatever ate this Great White was too warm for another shark, and whales don’t get that cold. Orcas and Sperm Whales have a body temperature that corresponds with ours, and the digestive process of both whales and sharks takes far less than eight days.
But given the temperature and the amount of time the tracker spent in the predator’s body, an enormous marine reptile appears to be the most satisfactory candidate. Finding one of these creatures would settle the question of whether it is a living fossil like in Hawthorne’s book, or a new kind of animal altogether.
Max has also pointed out in my correspondence with him that predators tend to give a wide berth to bigger predators. This could help explain why we haven’t seen more of these animals, if they think large, noisy boats are simply bigger creatures they’d rather avoid. And if a reptile were to come up for air, it could easily be mistaken for a surfacing whale.
Even today, the ocean is surprising us far too profoundly for us to scoff at the notion of an unknown giant predator. Anecdotes of reptilian sea monsters go back thousands of years, but today’s skeptical community waves those off, because in their view, anecdotal evidence “doesn’t count.” I can’t tell you how refreshing and satisfying it is, to find that even the evidence they allow for is marshaling against the old orthodoxy. Our world is still full of surprises.
Here there be monsters.
Hey, guys. Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly say anything more on why fellow paleontology geeks need to loosen up on feathered dinosaurs, I had a couple of extra thoughts to contribute (or reiterate, in some cases). I don’t want to make a huge deal out of this again, except it seems others are bent on making a big deal out of the issue. I wonder if anyone else is going to call them out on it.
Not really a unified angry rant so much as it is a couple of thoughts bundled together. And I’m trying to be charitable and composed here. Honest.
Sometimes it’s hard to be charitable with other paleontology enthusiasts when they make such a big deal out of “OMG why aren’t the ignorant masses accepting feathered dinos?! We’re shoving the facts down their throats as hard as we can! Facts! Science! Argh!”
Maybe that’s the problem? Perhaps we can afford to back off from the battering ram? Entice people with the awesome fact that some dinosaurs had feathers (as XKCD does, quite admirably). Facts coupled with charity and grace will generate a greater impact. The problem isn’t that science is making dinosaurs less cool. The problem is that those with facts on their side are addressing the subject in such an adversarial manner that they alienate everyone else.
There’s a lot of derisive humor at the expense of outdated raptor depictions. Oh, so scaly raptors would have been pathetic and ill-equipped for survival…because they lacked feathers? A large, warm-blooded archosaur needs plumage (crocodiles and Carnotaurus notwithstanding), or else it’ll keel over and die? The muscles, intelligence, claws, pack hunting, etc. all count for naught? All righty then. Let me know when the cloned raptors are stalking you in Jurassic Park’s kitchen and immediately collapse because this essential tool of survival is not available for their use. Stupid geneticists. What do they know?
Not everyone who’s less than ecstatic about feathered dinosaurs is anti-science, or a stick in the mud, or someone who’s overtly nostalgic for the scaly movie monsters of yore. Sometimes people’s aesthetic tastes (mine, for example) just lean more toward scaly raptors. I know they’re inaccurate. I am not contesting that. And if I ever design a painting of a Raptor for a museum exhibit, you can bet your Dinosaur Revolution DVDs it will have plumage in plenitude.
For crying out loud, I’m editing (well, I’m supposed to be editing) a fantasy novel that has dinosaurs in it, and I’m putting feathers on the appropriate species to keep the animals as accurate as possible. A fantasy novel!
But sometimes, people simply find the Jurassic Park Raptors awesome or frightening. Those people are neither lame, nor out of date, nor anti-progress. It’s a testament to the excellent work of Stan Winston and his animatronics crew, Steven Spielberg, and the CGI crew in bringing the movie’s versions of Velociraptor to life. Talking down to someone for appreciating a good movie monster doesn’t make you pro-science. It makes you look like a condescending jerk.
The transition to feathered raptors being considered “cool” by the public will take time. Patience is required, but it’ll happen eventually. Here’s what I want to know: why is it so important that a Deinonychus with feathers be considered “cool” right now? What cosmic fate balances on the public’s awareness of the sort of body covering an extinct animal had? Normally I want animals to be accurately portrayed, or as accurate as possible. But I don’t scream for a boycott of adventure movies when the hero comes face-to-face with a “poisonous” jungle snake, and I can see it’s a harmless kingsnake or garter snake. I take the movie with a grain of salt, and enjoy it all the more when Indiana Jones encounters a real, live cobra.
One large Tyrannosaur we know had feathers — Yutyrannus — doesn’t automatically mean all large Tyrannosaurs had feathers, too. The region where most of the known feathered dinosaurs lived — China and Mongolia — was, if I remember correctly, a colder region at the time, which would be conducive to feathered dinosaurs, at least when the feathers are being used as insulation against the cold (Note: please correct me on this and show your sources if I’m wrong!).
[Additional note: Yutyrannus is much more closely related to the other feathered Tyrannosaur we know of — Dilong — than it is to T. rex, so strutting around and pretending this is “proof” that T. rex had feathers is overreaching with the available evidence.]
T. rex and other large Tyrannosaurs, on the other hand, seem to have inhabited warmer climates, where they might not have needed any such insulation. Nothing to do with feathers that are used for display, of course. Tyrannosaurus rex may very well have had feathers anyway. I grant that. But it’s a plausible scenario, for the time being. Not knowledge. Until we can confirm it through physical fossil evidence, please don’t tell me we “know” T. rex had feathers. I don’t dread a discovery of T. rex having feathers, but I worry that it’ll be abused as another cudgel, wielded by OCD dino-nerds against those Ignorant Masses they love to rail against.
So Jurassic Park IV isn’t going to put feathers on its raptors. Yes, I know it’s a huge fricking deal. Museums will have to close their doors. Paleoartists will be forced at gunpoint to strip their paintings and sketches of every quill and feather, because that’s how much people hate scientific accuracy. People will riot in the streets. Fossils will be smashed.
It’s a movie, guys. A movie that includes “Genetically engineered theme park monsters” in the words of Alan Grant. Dinosaurs that can change sex thanks to frog DNA being used to patch up their degraded genomes. Maybe they look a little different than the creatures from prehistory? It seems the OCD dino-nerd crowd is just hurt that the Jurassic Park franchise isn’t catering to their demands.
If I read one more of Brian Switek’s tantrums on this subject, I’ll need to visit my physician and request some blood pressure medication. I know, I’ve complained about him before. My apologies; I ought to be better than picking on one person. But I don’t like it when someone sneers at others who appreciate dinosaurs in a different way than he does, and I hate it when his fans join in with outright insults and ill will.
I am excited about paleontological discoveries. I’m grateful that there are surprises around every corner, that a new discovery can change our view of these animals completely upside down. But a smarter-than-thou attitude ruins the fun for everybody.
EDIT: I’m not sure if it’s Brian or me who’s doing the most whining, but I know one thing for certain: This has got to stop.
I’ve made the decision to begin a new series on my blog. My fantasy series-in-progress, The Wolfglen Legacy, is going to take place in a detailed world I have been building for the last several years. And I think this would be an excellent place to start introducing my readers to bits and pieces of that world (if you’re interested, of course), even though it’s going to be a while before the books themselves are ready.
What I like about this idea is its versatility. This is a chance to give you anything from cuisine to animals to weapons to a nation’s history, revealing it in detail. Magic systems, politics, natural history, whatever. My plan is to try and give one entry per week.
And with that, I will start with an entry I posted on deviantart.com.
The Tyrant Dragon
The largest known species of dragon that is capable of flight. Like roughly half of all dragons, it is able to breathe fire by using hydrogen gas from its flight lungs.* Easily recognizable by a green body with stripes of black or dark brown, and the presence of four wings rather than two, that extra pair endowed to them by the Founders when this dragon species was created. The wings are colored red with splashes of green on the fringes. Females have a darker red on the membranes, almost like wine or dried blood.
This dragon is rare, but almost universally respected, hated, or feared, depending on whom you ask. Tyrants tend to be much more violent than other dragon species, territorial in the extreme. The mating season occurs in the springtime once every three years. During this period, three or four males congregate in an open space like a prairie or grassland, and collect a small heap of prey animals to display for a local female. The male with the most notable quarry (and the most impressive display of his spread-out wings) wins, and the losers will have to find other females over which to compete. After eating the male’s victims, the female will stay with him for protection and the extra food he can provide. When a month has gone by, the female lays three to five blue eggs in a warm and secluded spot, each one about the size of a human head. The eggs are then abandoned by the parents until they hatch in late summer, and the young creatures will begin hunting mere hours after hatching.
Aside from its great size and extra set of wings, the species is also renowned for what is known as Tyrant’s Madness, a period of heightened aggression when the creature’s wings have been severely injured. Through some unknown mechanism or instinct, the tyrant knows if and when any of its wings have been so extensively injured that they will never heal enough to let the reptile fly again. Once this boundary has been crossed, the animal lands (if it was already airborne) and reaches around with its lengthy neck to bite its own wings off, one at a time. It then becomes a multi-ton berserker, breathing flame and attacking anything within reach until it is almost exhausted. The animal then spends the remainder of its life roaming on the ground, subsisting on whatever it is fast enough to catch.
Few militaries have been sufficiently stupid, crazy, or desperate to use a tyrant dragon in their campaigns (assuming they can capture and tame a juvenile), but the ones who succeed force the enemy’s tactics to change. When flying dragons are part of a battle, usually the opposing force will try to bring the animals down or destroy their wings any way they can: fire bombs, broad-head arrows and crossbow bolts, nets launched from catapults, etc. But thanks to the threat of Tyrant’s Madness, any military force going against this dragon will most likely try instead to kill the animal or exhaust it, rather than risk injury to the wings and having the creature become a far deadlier force on the ground, where more of their own soldiers would be targets for the tyrant’s rage.
* Flight lungs are actually a set of bladders carrying bacteria which produce hydrogen and other lighter-than-air gases to help make the dragon’s body lighter and easier to carry in flight. However, in the fire-breathing species, the gas mixture can be quickly exhausted for producing flame, and the now-heavier animal will find it more difficult, even impossible to fly a distance, until the gas has been replenished.