Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) are still on the track, and have been since 1992. But as if chasing unknown animals wasn't enough, we are involved in education, conservation, and good old-fashioned natural history! We already have three journals, the largest cryptozoological publishing house in the world, CFZtv, and the largest cryptozoological conference in the English-speaking world, but in January 2009 someone suggested that we started a daily online magazine! The CFZ bloggo is a collaborative effort by a coalition of members, friends, and supporters of the CFZ, and covers all the subjects with which we deal, with a smattering of music, high strangeness and surreal humour to make up the mix.

It is edited by CFZ Director Jon Downes, and subbed by the lovely Lizzy Bitakara'mire (formerly Clancy), scourge of improper syntax. The daily newsblog is edited by Corinna Downes, head administratrix of the CFZ, and the indexing is done by Lee Canty and Kathy Imbriani. There is regular news from the CFZ Mystery Cat study group, and regular fortean bird news from 'The Watcher of the Skies'. Regular bloggers include Dr Karl Shuker, Dale Drinnon, Richard Muirhead and Richard Freeman.The CFZ bloggo is updated daily, and there's nothing quite like it anywhere else. Come and join us...

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Monday, November 09, 2009

DALE DRINNON: The Master Otter

I had sent Jon some information about the Irish master otter on the grounds that the creature that was seen and filmed in the Killarney Lakes would have been about in the right size range for that sort of a creature. What is generally not noted about the category is that similar sightings are seen in North America, on both coasts, and in both freshwater and saltwater.

BTW, one of the types of sightings associated with giant otter types is the fact that they will come out on land and then sit back on their hind legs, making them stand up about as tall as a human being (more usually a small human being of course, but tradition exaggerates). You get that all along the Western coast of North America and you get that rarely in the "Master-otter" lake reports in Ireland and in Scotland. One of Costello's reports was a 'THING sitting up on a rock' evidently as tall as a human, only Costello seems to have missed the importance of that . That would more likely be one of the giant otter types than a long-necked sea lion. This is from In Search of Lake Monsters pages 181-182; Costello says it is like a seal, but it has a tail distinctly mentioned, and it resembled a monkey when sitting up and a crocodile when stretched out at length. The Irish reports specify a very reasonable length of 8 to 12 feet for it, probably only a little exaggerated, but the corresponding McDuff Morag sighting (p.150) and the 1923 sighting by Alfred Cruikshank ashore at Loch Ness (p122) guess the length as 20 feet; 20 feet seems a common exaggeration. In both of these cases, the creature was NOT reported as long-necked and in fact in both cases the animal had clawed, webbed feet and not flippers. And despite Costello, long tails.

Here is the new revised map for the theory. This version makes a discrimination between recent historical and legendary refernces to the giant otters (of the Holarctic sort) and the more current monster reports, meaning the actually recorded reports from the 1920s on, plus strongly suspected rumours in the same areas. There is traditional material from the Hudson's Bay area and what used to be Canada's NWT, but I don't think that comes as close as saying actual reports since the 1920s or so. And the Greenland traditions were evidently already of an extinct version at the time the tradition was recorded. The midwestern U.S. water panthers (Mishipizhiws) may well have persisted until colonial times but there is nothing to connect them to more recent monster reports. Almost all locations on this map are only tenative at this point, but there is some strong suspicion that some of the creatures have been video-taped in recent years.

The gist of the matter is rather simple: at one point, group member Dave F. was considering that Steller's reported sea ape was a giant otter and I did a comparison of the description with the Irish master otter, and found that the description of the pointed nose and pricked ears matched. I also found ample evidence for a cryptid called the sea wolf off the northwest coast area to Alaska, and thought that the descriptions matched better than Mackal's hypothetical eared-earless seal. So I made the construction that the two were possibly the same based on that, and other traditional reports filled in from Greenland, the Hudson's Bay area, the Mound-culture area of the USA, Iceland, Scandinavia, Far-Eastern Siberia and Japan. When I had done my water monsters survey and statistical analysis for the SITU in the late 1970s (with revisions up until the early 1980s), I had noted that there was a distinctive series of reports at Lochs Ness and Morar that did not conform to the pattern of a long-necked plesiosaur-like creature, that it had a shorter neck and clawed feet with webbed digits, and that it seemed to be the same as the Irish Master-otter going by Costello's In Search of Lake Monsters.

When the discussion got to this point, I mentioned that the master otter had the "Greyhound"-like head mentioned in later lake monster reports such as at Glenderry Lough, and in fact that the 1527 report by Sir Duncan Campbell (Costello's version of this differs somewhat in the wording). The Irish reports specify something ordinarily in the range of six to twelve feet long but there is another series of such reports that estimates the size range as double that. The 1923 land sighting at Loch Ness by Alfred Cruikshank is one of the short-necked creatures supposedly in the realm of 20-24 feet long, but seen only briefly in bad lighting at night and Costello assumes that the length must have been doubled. The similar creature seen through clear water at Loch Morar might also have had its length misjudged if it had not actually have been sitting on the bottom. And Costello's composite creature has a large ear seen in several sightings, sometimes flopped down (at Loch Ness in 1954, according to In Search of Lake Monsters p.81) and at Lake Storsjon. Costello himself suggests that there might be both a giant seal and a giant otter involved - citing Burton's theory - but eventually settles on the seal. There could very well actually be two separate creatures that his composite runs together, one a type of otter that has the ears and the other the more usual longer-necked creature.

At the Frontiers-of-Zoology group, mention was made of the fossil giant otter Megalenhydris and it was suggested as a candidate. The species is represented by fragmentary remains in an ambiguous context at Corsica: it could have been saltwater or freshwater, late-Pleistocene or more recent: it is permissible to say ALL of these are possible. It was a giant otter larger than the present giant otter in South America, with a similar flattened tail, and I said there was a good chance that it represented Burton's giant otter (NOT that such a creature would account for the rarer reports of a plesiosaurian or eel-like creature, either one of which Burton had also supported earlier). Unfortunately, the parts of the face that would have been diagnostic for the reports are missing from the skull, and things like pricked ears and a pointed nose do not preserve anyway.

It is only fair to say that after Dave was satisfied with this much of the theory, he withdrew his suggestion that the Steller sighting involved a giant otter and began working on the suggestion that it was merely an ordinary river otter washed out to sea.

There is actually quite a bit more of this at the FOZ and actually I was trying to market the suggestion of a book on the matter, but nothing ever came of it.

I also include some of the photos from the group in the sea wolves and sea apes photo album, concerning giant unknown otters, possible surviving Megalenhydris. This includes my reconstruction from the sightings as I mentioned last time, the one that Karl Shuker had seen. Unfortunately the skull material left cannot determine if the fossil genus had the characteristic pointed snout and upstanding ears, and so the identification must remain open to some doubt. If the reports are any indication, it is both amphibious and able to tolerate both saltwater and fresh, it is basically a fish- and shellfish-eater but will sometimes attack land animals (including humans) - possibly as males defending their territory.

The fossil Megalenhydris is tantalisingly incomplete but it was a giant otter larger than the current South American giant otter; but from the remains (one individual, an incomplete skeleton) we do not know for certain if it was Pleistocene or recent, marine or freshwater; possibly it was all of these.

There are also other reports of possibly unknown giant otters in the tropics but the feeling at FOZ is that these reports would not be referring to creatures closely related to the master-otters.


Retrieverman said...

On Newfoundland, Sir Humphrey Gilbert described a strange "fyshe like a greyhound" that may have been of a similar animal, although it may have been a sea mink.

Retrieverman said...

BTW, can someone tell me how to pronounce this word: dobhar-chĂș?

I'm too Germanic to pronounce anything properly in Irish or Gaelic.

Darren Naish said...

Gary Cunningham pronounces it something like 'doo-var koo'. And on Megalenhydris, I take it you've seen this article.

shiva said...

I have often wondered why people propose bizarre and unlikely identities (like Ambulocetus, or even some sort of crocodilian) for the dobhar-cu, when surely a much more logical explanation for a cryptid described as a giant otter is... a giant otter...

Not sure about Megalenhydris tho, as IIRC it was confined to the Mediterranean and probably needed a warmer climate than that of most areas dobhar-cu type cryptids are reported from. I wonder if perhaps an Atlantic species of sea-otter (Enhydra) - which is heavier, although not longer due to its short tail, than Pteronura, making it the heaviest mustelid - might have existed.

Another possibility could have been an OOP otariid. There was a (Steller's?) sea lion who somehow ended up in Cornwall for several years, IIRC. As otariids resemble land carnivores, especially in locomotion, a lot more than phocid seals do, they could possibly be thought of as more akin to otters by people used only to phocid seals...