Introduction and literature
WJXT News4Jax reported on March 16, 2018, that a man named Jeff Warren and his son on the same day visited Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge (north of St. Simons Island in Georgia, USA). On the barrier island they found a dead creature, which Warren reportedly first took for a seal but then thought about a resemblance to the Loch Ness Monster. He shared a picture with News4Jax, stating that the creature was about 4 to 5 feet long with two fins. It had little teeth about one-eight of an inch long (Schultz &Armbruster, 2018). “This isn’t a joke,” Warren wrote to several news outlets according to Savannah Morning News. “There was a heron and some seagulls pulling its guts out and eating them but they flew away when I get close” (Landers, 2018a). He took a picture and a video and went to Darien town where at Skipper’s Fish House he heard about the local legend of “Alty” or Altahama[-ha] (First Coast News (FCN), 2018). Unnamed wildlife experts whom he consulted, voiced the opinion it was a basking shark and provided a sketch of a shark’s head elongating as it decomposes (Landers, 2018b). His son, so Warren, thinks it is “the child of the legendary Altamaha-ha” (Landers, 2018b).
In search of identification several institutions and scientists have been contacted by the news-reporters. The [former] Director Dan Ashe of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pointed to the decomposition of some marine animals, where they can resemble a plesiosaur and refers to the basking shark as example (Leake, 2018). Associate professor Tara Cox of Savannah State University also mentioned this taphonomical process of some basking sharks (Landers, 2018a). Curator Chandral Audran of Tybee Island Marine Science Center, seconded by Mark Dodd of Georgia Department of Natural Resources, guessed it looks like a deep sea shark, like for example a frilled shark. Though she noted the lack of gill slits and that without a body they can’t be sure (Landers, 2018a). Dr Quinton White of the Marine Biology Institute at Jacksonville University said, the consensus at the University is that it is a fake (Powers, 2018), and Professor Ray Chandler of Georgia Southern University reported the same consensus from his University. Educator John Crawford of UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant thinks it is a clay model, partially because it looks so very much like the Altamaha-ha (Landers, 2018a). Georgia Department of Natural Resources created a high-resolution image and judged that the creature appears to be a hoax, created from papermaché or spray paint (Anderson, 2018).
Media evidence and identity
There is a single photography and a single video published so far. Both media show the creature from the same angle and its left side. The body is elongated, thick in the trunk region, and tapering to both ends with a long and thin neck and tail. The head is small, shows what seems like an eye and an upper and lower jaw with no teeth evident. A single pectoral fin and a large wound with gushing out intestines are visible. There are no other wounds or acknowledgeable signs of decomposition, what implies the dead creature looks nearly exact like a supposed living animal would have. While two species had been mentioned as examples, many took them wrongly for a positive identification:
Frilled shark (Campagno, Dando & Fowler, 2005; Hamlett, 1999)
The example of a frilled shark (Chlamydoselachus anguineus) is probably made from the general, elongated appearance of the creature and especially its tail. Actually, the evaluation in detail excludes this identification: the frilled shark has a flattened, conical head with long jaws and a mouth extending behind the eyes. In opposite the creature at Wolf Island has a short head, resembling vaguely a lizard, and a wrong mouth-eye-position. The tooth rows on both jaws of C. anguineus are grouped, widely spaced, numbering about 300, and therefore should be acknowledgeable even in a bad quality picture. From the six long and frilly looking (due to extended gill filaments) gill slits no one is visible on the creature. In comparison, the positon of the left pectoral fin is far too posteriorly in relation to the anterior end, while the fin itself is too big in relation to the pelvic fin and body in general. It shows a paddle-like shape instead of the short and more roundish fin of a frilled shark. The small dorsal fin of C. anguineus is far posterior, roughly after the broad and roundish pelvic- and opposite the anal fin. The form and position of the Wolf Island creature’s fins therefore aren’t matching a frilled shark; however, other shark species like for example a catshark (Scyliorhinidae) would do (M. Bühler, personal communication, March 21, 2018).
Some “sea monster” remains seem to reminisce from their external shape, often with a small head, a long thin neck, a large body with fins and a pointed tail at first sight like a representative of an extinct marine reptile. However, in all cases where sufficient material or data for identification was present, they turned out to be the carcass of a basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus). The so called “pseudoplesiosaur”-effect is the result of internal and external caused taphonomical processes. In idealized form, the lower jaw, the whole gill apparatus, the dorsal fin and the lower lobe of the tail fin decays and falls away, what finally leaves a small cranium, a more or less exposed vertebral column, pectoral and pelvic fins with a tapering tail as result (Dinsdale, 1966; Heuvelmans, 1968; Norman & Fraser, 1938). The basking shark suggestion depended on the state of decomposition to explain the obvious anatomical mismatch, but noticeable the creature is not heavily decayed and rotten with missing body parts and appropriate wounds, exposed bones, tissue, fibres etc. pp.
Clay- or papermaché-modell
Markus Bühler in a comment to Landers (2018a) explained that the creature is an artificial fake model, made of a real sharks tail, chicken fence and papermaché (he excluded clay as it would show another surface-structure (M. Bühler, personal communication, March 21, 2018)): “quite close to it [the tail fins], you can even see the hexagonal structure of chicken wire from the underlying armature which was used for the rest of the body. It is only a composite, perhaps from paper maché or something similar, sculpted over a wire armature and combined with a real piece of a shark to make it appear more realistic, just like the real (fish-?) innards placed near the belly area. I´ve studdied various cases of alleged sea monsters which were really nothing but decomposed sharks, plus I´ve worked a lot of papermaché and made various models like ‘feejee mermaids’ myself, and it is – based on everything visible on the high resolution image – no decomposed shark but a gaff.”
Adding to this Hill (2018) sees several red flags for a hoax like the “limited video and photos taken from far away and positioned to hide details”, the “Observation taken directly to press” or that “the creature matches the Altie model nearly exactly in shape”. Firstcoastnews.com tried to contact Jeff Warren but failed. They report about a theory that author Taylor Brown could be involved due to his new book about the legendary sea monster (Anderson, 2018).
In summary, except of the tail which seems to be from a real shark, the basic anatomical problems of the creature remain consistent in comparison to elasmobranches and also other marine creatures. Considering additionally the general problems of the story itself, the most convincing solution is a papermaché model with underlying chicken fence structure and a few parts of real animals.
Thanks to Markus Bühler for explanations, discussion of anatomical details and providing pictures of his “Fejee mermaid” as well as Sharon Hill for her inquiry about my thoughts as starting point for this article.
Anderson, B. (2018). The legendary Altamaha monster wasn’t found in Waycross, Georgia; Here’s why it’s a hoax. Retrieved from http://www.firstcoastnews.com/mobile/article/news/the-legendary-altamaha-monster-wasnt-found-in-waycross-georgia-heres-why-its-a-hoax/77-533319231
Bühler, M. (2018). Fejee-mermaid made from chicken fence and papermaché). [Image]. Used with permission.
Campagno, L., Dando, M., & Fowler, S. (2005). Sharks of the world. Princeton, USA: Princeton University Press.
First Coast News. (2018). Mysterious ‘sea creature’ discovered on Wolf Island beach in South Georgia. Retrieved from http://www.firstcoastnews.com/article/news/local/mysterious-sea-creature-discovered-on-wolf-island-beach-in-south-georgia/77-529516932
Dinsdale, T. (1966). The Leviathans. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Hamlett, W. (Eds.). (1999). Sharks, Skates, and Rays. Baltimore, USA: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Heuvelmans, B. (1968). In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. New York: Hill and Wang.
Hill, S. (2018). Georgia river monster report is highly suspicious. Retrieved from http://sharonahill.com/2018/03/21/georgia-river-monster-report-is-highly-suspicious
Landers, M. (2018a). Scientists identify mysterious dead Coastal Georgia ‘sea monster’. Retrieved from http://www.savannahnow.com/news/20180319/scientists-identify-mysterious-dead-coastal-georgia-sea-monster
Landers, M. (2018b) Scientists try to identify mysterious dead ‘sea monster’. Retrieved from http://www.savannahnow.com/news 20180319/scientists-try-to-identify-mysterious-dead-sea-monster
Leake, D. (2018). Strange sea creature washes ashore on Georgia beach. Retrieved from http://www.actionnewsjax.com/news/local/strange-sea-creature-washes -ashore-on-georgia-beach/717534899
Nawojchik, R. (2003). Frill shark (Chlamydoselachus anguineus) caught off southern New England. [Image] Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frill_shark.jpg. Public Domain.
Norman, J., & Fraser, F. (1938). Giant fishes, whales and dolphins. New York, USA: W.W. Nortan & Co.
Powers, F. (2018). Mysterious Georgia sea creature a hoax? Retrieved from http://www.news4jax.com/news/mysterious-georgia-sea-creature-a-hoax
Schultz, M., Armbruster, T. (2018). Mysterious sea creature washes ashore in St. Simons Island. Retrieved from http://www.news4jax.com/news/weird-news/mysterious-sea -creature-washes-ashore-in-st-simons-island
Warren, J. (2018). [Image]. Retrieved from http://www.savannahnow.com/news/20180319/scientists-identify-mysterious-dead-coastal-georgia-sea-monster. Adapted for anatomical explanations.