The oceans are packed with creatures so fantastically bizarre that it’s hard to believe they are legit Earthlings. Every once in a while, the sea belches one of these animals onto a beach or coastline, often sparking internet hunts to figure out just what the heck it is.
The latest example is a dead oddball that washed up on the shores of Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia. The carcass was discovered by beach visitor Jeff Warren, whose photos and video of it went viral, causing a storm of speculation about the taxonomic identity of the animal. Because the remains were not recovered, and subsequently vanished, these visuals are all we have to go on.
According to multiple marine biologists, including UC Santa Barbara professor Douglas McCauley, the dead animal looks like it might have been some kind of deep sea critter, perhaps a frilled shark, though it’s not a clear match (over email, McCauley told me that the pectoral fins seemed too long for a frilled shark, and he’d need a closer view of the strange creature’s head to be sure).
Some people preferred to give the carcass a cryptozoological origin story, due to the animal’s likeness to a legendary creature called Altamaha-ha, which is Georgia’s riff on the Loch Ness monster. The resemblance to the cryptid has resulted in experts cautioning that the whole thing could have been a hoax.
Without the carcass, we may never know where this poor disemboweled animal fit on the tree of life, or even if it was just a ruse some local prankster cooked up. That raises the question: What should you do if you come across an unidentifiable beached sea creature?
Well, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), if it’s still alive and in distress, the best thing you can do is alert the local animal stranding network so that a wildlife expert can assist it.
If it’s dead, then document the carcass by taking pictures or video, as Warren did with the Georgia creature. If the animal is recognizably mammalian, alert your local stranding network or marine fisheries service, as there are strict laws in the US about interactions with marine mammals. Even if it’s not a mammal, it’s good to get an expert involved to help identify the creature. Either way, make sure you have lots of good photos of key anatomical parts.
“If your beast has a head and teeth,” McCauley said, “spend extra time getting shots of it. Teeth provide some of the best clues as to what an animal eats and what species it is. Set up a proper photo shoot for your beast. A crumpled ball of beast is hard to ID. Spread it out. Take photos of its back—then flip it to get some shots of the beast’s belly.”
“I realize not everyone is up for barehand wrangling a decomposing oarfish,” he added. “Go paleolithic and set your beast up for the shoot using a stick of driftwood.”
Likewise, McCauley said that dead marine animals are often swallowed back into the ocean or scavenged, so nudge the animal above the high tide line or to another location, if that’s possible. If the animal is small, it can be dropped into a plastic bag to be frozen for later study, or if it’s too large for that, you could try seeing if there’s any small sample that could be removed from it. Be sure to use gloves and disinfect your hands to prevent the spread of any bacteria from the animal.
In terms of figuring out what the animal is, you’re going to need an expert—a marine biologist, someone from your local natural history museum or university, or fishing vessel crews, who are “vast repositories of local knowledge on what is common in your ocean backyard and what is weird,” McCauley said. You can also try out your own sea sleuthing skills by reverse image searching your pictures to see if they turn up a comparable animal online.
In any case, don’t keep the find to yourself. It may turn out to be an important specimen for researchers, given how little we know about the ocean world. Beached marine specimens have led to the discovery of new whale species, insights into fish parasitology, and interesting finds about the pooping habits of turtles.
“The amazing thing about the oceans,” McCauley told me, “is that weird shit does actually wash up every now and then that can represent meaningful scientist discoveries.”
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