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What Was the New Zealand Monster?
Sea Creature Still A Mystery
|What Was the New Zealand Monster?
by John Koster
Unidentified animal caught in the net of fishing vessel off New Zealand.
(Taiyo Fishery Co./Michihiko Yano)
On April 25, 1977, the Japanese fishing ship Zuiyo Maru, trawling for mackerel off the coast of New Zealand, snagged a rotting corpse at a depth of 900 feet and hauled in the remains of a beast that no one anywhere seemed to be able to identify.
"It's not a fish, whale, or any other mammal," said Professor Yoshinori Imaizumi of Japan's National Science Museum, in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper story that broke the news to the world. "It's a reptile, and the sketch looks very like a plesiosaur. This was a precious and important discovery for human beings. It seems to show that these animals are not extinct after all."
For the benefit of those who have never studied paleontology or seen the movie version of The Land That Time Forgot, a plesiosaur is a marine reptile, a cousin of the dinosaurs which became extinct about 60,000,000 years ago, except in Hollywood and Japanese movies. Plesiosauri were probably fish-eaters "they had very good teeth," one scientist observes and were widely distributed over the world's oceans in the Mesozoic era, or age of the dinosaurs. To Japanese scientists who examined the available evidence left in the New Zealand monster's foul-smelling wake, the most likely candidate for identification seemed to be the plesiosaur.
Nonsense! shouted back the American and British scientific communities, and not a few people in Japan, where the New Zealand monster was front-page news for weeks. Rather than face the stinking carcass of a dinosaur apparently deceased not more than thirty days, paleontologists, mammalogists and marine biologists all over the world advanced their own theories -- it was a seal, a whale, a basking shark, ...but no theory, whether prehistoric mundane, was completely adequate to explain away the 4,000-pound, 32-foot body, which was examined, photographed five times, clipped for tissue samples, and then dumped back into the sea for fear it would contaminate the Zuiyo Maru's catch of fish.
With the monster's body lost, the focal point of the monster story became Michihiko Yano, the thirty-nine-year-old assistant production manager of Taiyo Fisheries Ltd. who measured and photographed the corpse before it was thrown over the side and disappeared, probably forever, into the mysterious depths. Everyone else forgot about the vile-smelling cadaver almost as soon as the stench lifted; but Yano, an intelligent man who had graduated from Yamaguchi Oceanological High School in 1957, made some effort to find out what sort of a creature the New Zealand monster had been - a quest that catapulted him into startling and rather unappreciated fame.
Yano first returned to Japan aboard a different ship on June 10 and asked his company darkroom to process the five color snapshots he had taken of the creature with a borrowed camera. Taiyo executives were fascinated by the strange beast and asked some local scientists what they made of the picture.
"It's not a turtle, nor a whale, nor a dolphin ... it's something we've never seen before," was the quick judgment.
Excited now, the Taiyo officials brought Yano before a second blue-ribbon panel of eminent marine scientists to try to ascertain what the strange beast had been. The panel discussion that took place admittedly sounds as if it were lifted from a budget- production monster movie produced for American drive-ins and daytime television, but everyone concerned was dead serious. Yano answered questions from Professors Ikuo Obata and Hiroshi Ozaki of Japan's National Science Museum and Professor Toshio Kasuya, of Tokyo University's Marine Research Center.
"It was caught in a trawl net," Yano explained. "The surface of the body was loose and had white fat. I could see flesh here and there, but it was dark red and was rotten. There were no internal organs. Judging from the condition of the red meat, we think it was alive until a month ago. The fat was pulling away in threads like tofu (soybean curd) and the deck turned white. It smelled terrible. The smell was not that of fish, but of an animal. At first I thought it was a whale. I reported, 'It's a rotten whale. What shall we do?' The captain (Akira Tanaka) ordered 'Pull it up as it is.' We wanted to release it in the sea outside the net basin ... It's common practice not to pick up the rotten dead body of a creature because the ships deal with food for human beings . . .
"The crewmen knew that if we picked it up, we'd have to clean and sanitize the decks. But we got it untangled from the net and pulled it out with ropes around the middle of the body. The rope wasn't well handled and it fell suddenly. So we lifted the neck and I took the pictures. Cameras are my hobby, but I didn't have my own camera, so I had to borrow one."
At this point, Yano added, there were eight men on deck, five on the bridge, and two working the net winch. The creature was seen by all of them and several others who heard the noise and looked out of curiosity. In all, it was observed by eighteen crewmen.
Convinced that the creature was unusual, Yano measured parts of it. The head, he said, was 45 centimeters long, the neck 1.5 meters, and the four fins were 1 meter long, while the body from the head to the base of the tail measured 6 meters. He noted carefully that the well-developed vertebratae were about 45 centimeters long and 15 centimeters thick.
"How about the size of the front and back fins," Obata asked.
"I don't think there was much difference," Yano said. "If I try to remember, I think the front was bigger . . . I regret you can't see this well from the picture," he added, "but the most interesting part is the back fin. From seeing only these pictures, it's possible this could look like a rotten seal. In the Antarctic they have the southern elephant seal, which grows to 3.5 meters but the size doesn't fit."
"If this had been a seal, the tail would be too long," Kasuya said.
"If this had been a reptile, the number of bones around the neck should be greater, according to the drawing," Ozaki put in, referring to a simple sketch with measurements that Yano had drawn after his return to Japan some two months after actually examining the creature.
A journalist covering the panel had a question of his own perhaps inspired by the monster movies that thrilled or bored so many youngsters in the 1950s and 1960s.
"What about the theory that a prehistoric creature, entombed in a glacier during the Ice Age, was melted out and started to float? Was it moving in the sea, or was it at the bottom of the ocean?"
"I don't know," Yano answered. "It was picked up in the trawl net. In the ship, many of the crewmen thought it was a turtle whose shell had peeled off."
Then the reporter asked the ominous question could the New Zealand monster have been a dinosaur?
"It's easier to survive in the sea than on land," Obata replied cautiously. "One theory is that the creature is a mammal, and the other is that it is a long-necked monster (in other words, a plesiosaur). And there are many points that don't fit the mammal theory. Within my knowledge, it looks like a plesiosaur. But I can't say for sure unless I have the skull and vertebrae to examine."
"I refuse to accept this Nessie theory," Ozaki disagreed, using the name humorously applied to the Loch Ness Monster of Scotland, goal of both Japanese and Anglo-American expeditions. "If it really exists, I want to see its head. If it's not a sea monster, it could be either a mammal or a fish, but I don't think it's a fish.
"If it were a shark, the spine would be smaller," Kasuva concurred. "And the neck itself is too long as shown in the picture. I think we can exclude the fish theory."
"It must be either a mammal or a reptile," Obata said. "But with the materials we have, we can't judge which one."
"If it's a reptile, it looks like a plesiosaur," Ozaki said. "The Plesiosauri had fins in the front and back, and the neck and tail weren't too terribly long."
Obata enlarged on this for the benefit of the reporters. "During prehistoric times, there were two types of seagoing dinosaurs, one with a big head and a short neck (the mosasaur), and the other with a small head and long neck. But this creature has a small head and the number of neck bones (based on the sketch) is so much less...
"If this is a long-necked monster, it may be a new kind," Zaki suggested. "It's possible it has evolved over 70,000,000 years."
"There's one thing I can't believe," Kasuya said thoughtfully. "We've been whaling in that area for the past hundred years. I'm puzzled that there were no witnesses until now."
"When an animal dies and rots, it looks like something else, even though we're used to seeing the creature when it's alive," Zaki posited.
The journalist, still perhaps thinking of the nostalgic movie monsters of his boyhood, kept injecting the frozen-body theory. "There's a theory that it was frozen eons ago in the Antarctic and drifted out after being unfrozen."
"Mammals can be found in ice," Obata explained, "but the plesiosaur prospered during the era when the environment was warm and congenial."
"How about the idea that it was mummified in the bottom of the deep sea and at low temperatures, and then started to float?" the reporter persisted.
"There are living creatures even at the bottom of the ocean, and it could have been eaten by them," Kasuya disagreed, meaning that the creature's flesh couldn't have survived 70,000,000 years.
"From the data we have collected, we seem to be able to come only this far and no further," Obata said in summation. "There are plenty of unknown things left in the sea."
The three scientists urged Yano to encourage Taiyo Fisheries Ltd. to recover the creature, but Yano, good company man that he was, was frank enough to admit that this would be unlikely.
"We are making an effort to recapture it," he said. "But through my experience, I can tell you that we usually can't even retrieve the trawl net when we drop it in the ocean by mistake. I wonder if we can find it again."
This temperate discussion, despite the rather sensational subject and the inescapable resemblance to any one of a dozen science-fiction movies, wasn't quoted in the foreign press. What western newspapers did pick up was the surprisingly intense public reaction to the finding of the creature.
"I thought at first it was an imaginary creature," one Japanese man-in-the-street said. "I danced when I read in the newspaper that it was still alive!" A university professor said that the creature was as important as the pithecanthropus, one of the fossilized ape-men thought to be a missing link. Another sage remarked that the monster was the sort of discovery that appealed equally to scholars and children. Toy companies began plans for wind-up mechanical monster skeletons, the camera company that made Yano's borrowed camera revamped their whole advertising campaign around his monster photographs, and an estimated twenty Japanese, thirty Russian, and eight South Korean fishing ships received instructions to go forth and find the body.
This kind of excitement was hard to comprehend, considering the fragmentary information and impractical nature of the discovery. But the Japanese have always had a fanciful streak and a love of the romantic, the mysterious and the grotesque.
The same defiance of existing knowledge and conventional wisdom that made the New Zealand monster a sort of hero to the Japanese public made it a fearsome dragon to academics around the world, and they set out to slay it with the magic sword of academic scorn.
"It's baloney," said Dr. Bobby Schaeffer, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. "Every ten years or so, something is found, usually in the Pacific, and people think it's a dinosaur. And it always turns out to be a basking shark, or an adolescent whale. When sharks find a dead whale, they have a merry old time, and the half-eaten corpse looks like a dinosaur skeleton."
British scientists, even more distant, were much less impressed. While the colony of true believers around Loch Ness hailed the discovery as proof that Nessie had living relatives, most academics scoffed at the very idea. Dr. Alwyne Wheeler, of London's Natural History Museum, said the corpse was probably a shark. "Sharks are cartilaginous fish," he explained in the New Scientist, July 28, 1977. "When they start to decompose after death, the head and gills are first to drop from the body . . . Greater experts than the Japanese fishermen have been foiled by the similarity of shark remains to a plesiosaur."
Dr. Wheeler, of course, was almost certainly unaware of the panel discussion in which Yano described measuring the head and the vertebratae, which convinced the Japanese scientists, not mere humble fishermen, that the New Zealand monster was no shark. But the weight of disbelief among scientists elsewhere impressed even the Japanese.
Besides taking pictures of the creature, Yano had snipped some tissue samples of fibrous material from one of the fins for analysis. As soon as he returned, tests began on these specimens. About a week after the news of the monster first broke on July 21, the early reports came in.
Using a method known as ion-exchange chromatography to determine the amino-acid structure of the protein in the fibrous strands Yano had given him, Dr. Shigeru Kimura, a biochemist at the Tokyo University school of fisheries, found that for every 1,000 units of amino acids in the monster tissue, 40 were of a type called tyrosine. The amino-acid structure of a blue shark's fin averaged 44 units of tyrosine per 1,000 of amino acids which, Kimura said, represented a remarkable correlation.
"Among fish, it is known that only sharks and rays have the type of protein called elastoidin," Dr. Kimura said. "But as for reptiles, I do not think there is relevant data, even abroad." He added that the protein could not have come from a mammal's skin or hair. Thus, chemically, the monster may have been either a fish or, possibly, a reptile, but not a mammal.
No sooner had this discovery appeared in the press than new feedback came in from abroad. A Scottish zoologist, Dr. Alan Fraser-Brunner, aquarium curator at the Edinburgh Zoo, blasted the Nessie theory. He said the body was "at once recognizable to a zoologist as that of a dead sea lion ... that the estimate of length and weight must be an exaggeration, and that . . . "as seems to be the rule with 'monsters' we are left with no evidence except an indistinct photograph, but it is clear enough to show that the animal was mammalian. Nothing about it resembles a plesiosaur, which was a reptile."
Dr. Fraser-Brunner's analysis and the Japanese chemical analysis must have crossed in the mail. Since the chemical content of the fibrous sample ruled out any possibility of mammalian origin, one would have thought that his assertion that the creature had been a seal would have prompted amusement. Instead, several Japanese, mostly laymen, agreed with him. Others took the position that the creature was a shark, ignoring Yano's description of a clearly defined spinal column, the absence of any dorsal fin, and the small size of the examined head, none of which fit the morphological features of a shark.
The Latin root of the word 'monster' means 'supernatural warning,' while the German word unvieh means 'not a creature.' Supernatural, the New Zealand creature definitely was not, but it was quite clearly not a creature that anyone could readily identify.
"Even if the tissue contains the same protein as the shark's, it is rash to say that the monster is a shark," said Professor Tokio Shikama, a paleontologist at Yokohama National University. "The finding is not enough to refute a speculation that the monster is a plesiosaur."
In the end, everybody's individual preconceptions won out. Those who were prepared to believe in living plesiosauri were convinced or nearly so, while those who refused to believe found nothing to change their minds. For the open-minded skeptics, or for those who were just plain curious, the New Zealand monster remains one of the most tantalizing enigmas of the sea.