Scientists Identify Mysterious Fanged ‘Sea Monster’ Beached In Texas By Hurricane Harvey

This “sea monster” is an important reminder that we know more about the Moon, Mars, and even Saturn, than we know about the creatures inhabiting Earth’s oceans and sharing this planet with us

by GrrlScientist for Forbes | @GrrlScientist

What is this creature that was beached near Texas City, Texas, by Hurricane Harvey? (Credit: Preeti Desai.)

If you are a frequent user of Twitter, then you may have seen tweets about a mysterious lump of flesh that Preeti Desai, a science communicator with the Audubon Society, discovered washed up on the beach near the coastal town of Texas City, Texas. Although this marine creature resembled a large and poorly-made sausage, its mouth was well-stocked with pointy, menacing teeth.

“Okay, biology twitter, what the heck is this?? Found on a beach in Texas City, TX,” Ms. Desai tweeted on September 6.

One of the people who responded to this tweet was a friend of mine, Adam Summers, a professor at the University of Washington, where he shares his expertise on the biomechanics of fishes with students and other professionals.

“Well, @Frable has IDed this thing. It is an Ophichthid eel called a tusky eel (Aplatophis chauliodus),” Professor Summers tweeted the next day.

I contacted Twitter’s resident fish ID guru, Benjamin Frable, Collection Manager of Marine Vertebrates at Scripps Institution of Oceanographyat UCSD, and he kindly filled me in on this creature’s likely identity and shared the story about how he and his colleagues arrived at this ID.

“Adam [Summers] posted the pics on a facebook group of ichthyologists quizzing each other on identifications (nerdy, I know),” Mr. Frable replied in email.

“I recognized it pretty quickly as an eel. We get quite a lot of moray eel wash-ups here and they’re pretty horrifying-looking, too.”

After he learned that the fish was beached on the Texas coast, Mr. Frable suspected this could be a snake-eel, a member of a family of cylindrically-shaped burrowing fishes found in tropical seas with sandy or muddy floors. These fish live in burrows in both marine and brackish waters between 33–91 meters (100–300 feet) in depth, and dine on a variety of careless bony fishes and crustaceans.

“Apparently, the tongue of this fish is developed into a fleshly lure to attract prey to their horrible mouth!” Mr. Frable added, clearly finding delight in sharing the macabre details of this fish’s feeding habits.

A closer look at the brownish-red coloration of that strange creature that was beached near Texas City, Texas, by Hurricane Harvey. (A drinking straw provides scale.) (Credit: Preeti Desai)

Mr. Frable identified the fish based on its head shape and its color, which are distinctive to fishes in the genus, Aplatophis.

“What made this genus so weird to me is the head shape and large fangs. A lot of snake-eels have similarly point[ed] heads with eyes very far forward near the tip of the snout. This is because they tend to burrow in the sand with only their head sticking out,” Mr. Frable explained.

“The brown coloration also struck me, as many others are tan-ish or spotted. That being said, the [specimen] in the pictures could also be badly sunburnt.”

A closer look at that strange creature that was beached near Texas City, Texas, by Hurricane Harvey. Is its unusual color due to severe sunburn? (Credit: Preeti Desai)

Taken together, these clues led him to conclude this could be a fangtooth snake-eel, also known as a tusky eel, Aplatophis chauliodus, a marine species found along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, although, Mr. Frable added, he has only ever seen this particular species in a photograph.

“I posited [my ID] to the facebook group, got some agreement, then there was some back and forth and everyone generally agreed that [the identification] sounds good. However, with all the desiccation, decay and bloating, it is still tough to tell for sure.”

A closer look at that strange creature that was beached near Texas City, Texas, by Hurricane Harvey. In this photograph, you can clearly see lots of tiny, dark spots. (A drinking straw provides scale.) (Credit: Preeti Desai)

Some of the local fishermen also participated in this discussion. They, however, think this may be a different eel species, a species whose specific Latin name refers to its small spots.

“There is another common snake-eel called the Snapper Eel, Echiophis punctifer, which this could also be, especially if it is sunburnt,” Mr. Frable said in email. “A bunch of ichthyologists discussed this on facebook, but the pendulum swung back towards tusky eel. But, fishermen from the region on Twitter are backing this as the candidate.”

At this point, this specimen’s identification still remains a matter of some debate, but it’s the best that could be inferred from the information available.

“The jaw and teeth are a bit diagnostic for the group and this species, but we’d need to see the teeth inside its mouth to be sure,” Mr. Frable said. “Also, being able to see the tail would be helpful.”

This sort of discussion is a normal part of the scientific process, especially in most zoological fields, where different people’s expertise is based upon a variety of different experiences.

“It’s really tough for us hairless apes to tell fishes apart, so there can be a lot back and forth on specimens, especially when they’re in poor condition,” Mr. Frable explained. He also pointed out that this fish is actually a zoologically known species, not some sort of cryptozoological sea monster, nor a misshapen mermaid, nor is it a species that is new to science.

This picture of a fangtooth snake-eel (Aplatophis chauliodus), or tusky snake-eel, looks much better than the beached specimen. (Credit: Cláudio L. S. Sampaio / Universidade Federal de Alagoas.)

“This just goes to highlight the need for specimen-based [natural history museum] collections — we can only get so far in figuring out the life around us from a picture,” Mr. Frable said.

As a molecular biologist, I, of course, had to ask if anyone is planning to do any DNA work to confirm the identity of this creature.

“The use of genetics could definitely help narrow down an identification,” Mr. Frable replied. “Even with decay, we could still extract DNA from the tissue and compare it against online databases of identified species.”

Unfortunately, this specimen was left in place on the beach so a DNA identification is not in its future.

What is that strange thing that was beached near Texas City, Texas, by Hurricane Harvey? (Credit: Preeti Desai)

How did Ms. Desai come across this creature in the first place?

It turns out that she was part of a group sent by the Audubon Society who were searching for birds and documenting damages to their habitats resulting from Hurricane Harvey (ref).

“Hurricane Harvey caused erosion to critically important nesting islands, which are already suffering from pollution and shrinking land mass due to rising sea levels linked to climate change,” Ms. Desai said in email. She also pointed out that America’s coastlines are the first line of defense against storms; that they protect our communities whilst also providing important habitat for birds and other wildlife.

“We ended up at the beach in Texas City to observe some of the birds that Audubon Texas is working to protect, such as Black Skimmers and Royal Terns. While looking at the birds, I noticed this a couple yards away. It was completely unexpected, not something that you’d expect to see on a beach,” Ms. Desai said.

“My main reaction was curiosity; I wanted to figure out what it was.”

So, Ms. Desai did what I, and many other people, would do under the circumstances: she took some photographs and tweeted them, asking for an ID.

For many people, especially those who follow a lot of scientists and researchers, Twitter is a rapid-response educational community that helps people to see the wonder in nature. And Ms. Desai’s tweets definitely achieved their intended goal: a species ID — as well as a large, but wholly unexpected, public discussion about a fish.

“[T]here is a TON of diversity out there,” Mr. Frable said. “That is what drives me and my scientific interests. I’ve been interested in fishes for almost 20 years, and still, almost weekly, I see a fish I’ve never seen before — that stops me in my tracks.”

“For me, it was just cool to come across this while I was out birding,” Ms. Desai said. “It really shows that you never know what you’ll come across when you’re out in nature!”

“The natural world is deeply complex and beautiful (in the case of our eel friend, maybe not necessarily beautiful), and I hope this inspires people to learn more about it,” Mr. Frable agreed.

NOTE: all images appear in this story with the explicit permission of their respective photographers.

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Originally published at Forbes on 16 September 2017.

PhD evolutionary ecology/ornithology. Psittacophile. scicomm Forbes, previously Guardian. always Ravenclaw. discarded scientist & writer, now an angry house elf