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Sea Monsters

There is nothing quite so frightening as the idea of a sea monster. Unlike T. rex and other giant dinosaurs, which went extinct, might sea monsters live on? Might they lurk beneath the leaden cloak of the oceans, breaching occasionally into view? Through the ages, serious mariners have returned to port with accounts of huge, snaky beasts baring teeth and trailing feathery manes, undulating through the waves or rearing like a horse. Stories about water serpents have slithered into many cultures. Three legends—from Scotland, North America, and China—are plumbed in [this article]. But what about the science of sea monsters?

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Tylosaurus attacks Cretoxyrhina mantelli, Western Interior Seaway
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Nessie: World-Famous Sea Monster

In fact, there was a time when they did exist. About 250 million years ago Earth's continents were gathered into one landmass, Pangaea. Shallow seas and the lack of significant marine predators created new niches for many reptiles that had developed on land. They wriggled into the water, swam, reproduced, and died, becoming the fossils on which the computer-generated art in this article is based. They remain, with good reason, the stuff of nightmares.

"You'll never see Nessie in this weather," my cabdriver says, shaking his head as we drive along the narrow road bordering Scotland's Loch Ness. "It's much too hot for him. He'll stay down deep in the loch, where it's cool."

Maybe so, but I stare long and hard at the loch's placid waters anyway. It's on days like this, others insist, that the loch's surface stillness is shattered, and a creature (him or her) —a large beast with a back shaped like an inverted boat—surfaces briefly, then dives to the depths again: Nessie, the world's most famous sea monster. So far, more than a thousand eyewitnesses claim to have seen the Loch Ness monster—or at least the waves it leaves behind when diving into its dark-water lair. But Nessie is only one of many water monsters. From the misty coasts of Scandinavia to the thick forests of the Congo to the plains of North America, nearly every culture seems to have its Nessie. And in many instances, the legendary monsters are linked to actual fossils of marine reptiles that ruled the seas from about 250 million to 65 million years ago.

The few times Nessie has supposedly been caught on film or by sonar soundings, it most closely resembles a plesiosaur, a long-necked, seagoing reptile that went extinct along with the terrestrial dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. That a plesiosaur would be alive today, plying the fresh waters of once glaciated Loch Ness, defies scientific reasoning.

"Some years ago I was on a boat one night. We were tied up, at the end of a mirror-calm day. And then the boat was rocked by three big waves. I was sure it must be Nessie swimming past," says Steve Feltham, a self-appointed one-man Nessie-watcher in his 40s. You might expect such a person to be a bit wild-eyed, but Feltham is anything but kooky. He'd been hooked on the Nessie legend as a kid and moved here in 1991 to dedicate himself to his project: "Nessie-Sery Independent Research." But the only apparent evidence of research is a pair of mounted binoculars, which he happily lets visitors peer through while answering their questions. Because most boil down to one—"Have you seen it yet?" —Feltham plans to rename his project: haveyouseenityet.com.

"If the site keeps half of them from asking me that bloody question …," he says, his voice trailing off.

Of his near Nessie encounter, Feltham says: "It wasn't Nessie. I've since learned that it's the aftermath of storms and the shape of the loch that cause those kinds of waves." He pauses. "But I still think there's something out there that's unexplained. I've seen other things and heard about things that I haven't figured out yet. That's why I stay."

Just then a young man and woman saunter up to Feltham's umbrella-shaded table. "Can we ask you a question?" the man says.

"Yes, of course," Feltham replies.

The couple eye him intently; they look worriedly hopeful, like children about to ask their elders if Santa Claus exists. "Have you seen it yet?"

"No," Feltham answers politely, as if this is the first time the question has been posed. "Not yet."

Feltham believes that a large fish—perhaps a catfish—is most likely the cause of many sightings (although he doesn't tell this to the couple). "I don't think they're monsters," he says. "Whatever they are, they're very timid animals; they're more afraid of us than we are of them."

That wasn't always the case. The first written account of the monster was in a seventh-century book on the life of the Irish saint Columba. One of his companions was swimming across the River Ness at the head of the loch when an "aquatic monster" surfaced and, "giving an awful roar," attacked "with its mouth wide open." The others were "stupefied with terror," but St. Columba coolly made the sign of the cross and commanded the beast to stop. It fled at once.

In those days people most likely imagined the Loch Ness monster as a sea serpent or a water kelpie, a diabolical beast with a horse's head—creatures said to lurk in the lakes and coastal waters of Scandinavia and Scotland. Nessie only morphed into a plesiosaur many years after the first fossil of a strange marine reptile was discovered in 1719 in a quarry in Nottinghamshire, England.

By the early 1800s fossil hunters had unearthed more plesiosaur skeletons as well as those of other ancient marine reptiles, including big-eyed, dolphin-shaped ichthyosaurs and the shorter necked pliosaurs with their massive jaws and huge, crushing teeth. Dinosaurs had yet to be scientifically recognized, and the huge sea monsters of the past—none of them dinosaurs—gripped the public's imagination, especially after artists began painting scenes of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and giant crocodiles writhing in combat. "Those paintings put a plesiosaur-like animal into the public mind," says Olivier Rieppel, a paleontologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, noting that nothing shaped like a plesiosaur swims in the oceans today.

Nessie got a boost in 1933 with the film King Kong, set in a land where dinosaurs roam and a long-necked creature surfaces from a lake not unlike Loch Ness. That same year a "prehistoric" animal was spied crossing a road near the loch. The next year the London Daily Mail published a photograph depicting a creature whose small, snaky head rides above the loch on a long neck: Nessie was now a certified plesiosaur.

That photograph and others have been proved to be hoaxes. But who cares? Every summer Loch Ness is packed with tourists. They come in busloads to Feltham's trailer, and one by one they ask him, "Have you seen it yet?"

"They want me to say I've seen a plesiosaur," says Feltham. "And they all hope to see it for themselves. It's just not likely to happen."

Unktehila: Monsters in Native America

In a small auditorium at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Kevin Locke, a Lakota Sioux storyteller from Standing Rock Reservation, gently strokes a braided strand of sweetgrass. Its power will help him bring forth good thoughts and feelings. Then he grips his ceremonial rattle, closes his eyes, and, as an attentive audience of Lakota Sioux children and visiting Boy Scouts listens, he sings a Lakota prayer used at the springtime Thunder Feast.

"Leciya tuwa makipanpelo. Wiyohpeyata Wakinyan Oyate kola makipanpelo."

The words rise and fall to the sound of Locke's rattle, and he gives it an extra flourish at the end, signaling the close.

"We sing this to welcome the Thunder Nation," Locke explains, referring to thunderstorms. "Maybe some of you have heard the word Wakinyan before and know its meaning?"

One slender Lakota boy raises his hand. "It's the name of our cat—he's orange like a Thunder Being."

Locke smiles broadly. "Good, good. That's right, Wakinyan are the Thunder Beings, forces with power, like the Thunder Birds. They come with the big cumulus clouds in the spring to the prairies. The Wakinyan bring the rain, hail, thunder, and lightning—all the things that renew life after the winter. But in the long ago days, before humans, the Wakinyan also used these things in a big battle. And that battle was with the evil water monsters, the Unktehila."

There were many different kinds of Unktehila, Locke continues, but most were like huge reptiles with scaly skin and horns; some were like giant lizards, and others were like serpents; some slithered on their bellies, and some had feet. "They ate each other and every other living thing, and so the Thunder Beings were given a divine mission to kill the Unktehila. That's when the Thunder Birds came with their thunder and lightning. They struck the water monsters with lightning bolts and boiled their lakes and streams until they dried up. After that most of the Unktehila died or were very diminished in size, so that all we have left today are some small snakes and lizards. But we know the giant Unktehila lived because our people found their bones in the Badlands and along the Missouri River."

Indeed, long before paleontologists arrived to excavate the fossils of marine reptiles, Native American peoples were carrying away enormous bones that lay exposed on the surface. For the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Kiowa (as well as many other tribes), the bones held special powers and could be used for healing or other rituals. And, as Locke explained, the bones were also "the physical manifestation of the evil forces the Unktehila represented."

Although Locke had learned about the Unktehila from his elders and had sung the prayers of the Thunder Feast many times, he'd never seen the kinds of fossils that likely inspired the stories. So we went to the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, where skeletons of a plesiosaur and mosasaur are on display. These and other marine reptiles had lived in the ocean that covered much of North America about 75 million years ago.

"Wow," he said, nodding appreciatively at the long-necked, fat-bodied plesiosaur. But it was the massive-jawed mosasaur that held his attention. "Now this one," he said, pausing to size up the 29-foot-long (9-meter-long) snaky animal, with its fierce array of teeth and double-hinged lower jaw joint that allowed it to swallow large kinds of prey (including other mosasaurs). "This one is an eating machine. If our people found one of these, I'm sure they would call it Unktehila."

And, Locke added, mosasaur-like creatures with toothy jaws and horns were often painted on the tepee covers of the Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Blackfeet. Some Native Americans had carved images of such creatures into the rocks above the Missouri River, and others had made one out of stones along the river's banks. "Everyone who sees these knows they're Unktehila."

Paleontologists often find bones of pterosaurs, flying reptiles, along with the mosasaurs. Adrienne Mayor, a folklorist, suggests that pterosaur and mosasaur remains may indeed have triggered the stories of the Thunder Birds and their battle with the water monsters.

Do the Lakota, like the people who wait for Nessie to surface, regard the Unktehila as still existing? Locke hesitated. "Well, the old Unktehila were killed by the Thunder Birds. That's what our stories say. Some people still fear large bodies of water, and they'll say prayers to protect themselves from Unktehila when crossing the Missouri River."

But, he went on, the power of the Unktehila lies more in what they symbolize than in any hard reality. "They were a negative force and had to be destroyed. That's what the Thunder Birds did for the world. And that's why it's important for us to keep these stories alive. Because there are still negative forces—many that are even more powerful than water monsters—in the world today. We have to fight against things like alcohol and depression and materialism. These are the new Unktehila. We can fight them with our songs and music."

And that's why Kevin Locke sings about sea monsters for the children: To remind them of their heritage and to tell them about the ancient battle fought to bring goodness into the world.

Hai Long: China's Good Luck Monsters

"This is Lurking Dragon Hill," explains our guide, Cen Zhuxian, as Jiang Dayong, a paleontologist at the University of Peking, and I hike up a steep, cobbled trail above the city of Xingyi in China's southern Guizhou Province. Surrounded by countryside as green as seaweed, we stop just shy of the top of one of the rounded hills that rise above the rice paddies and cornfields. "It was here that the local people used to find their small dragons. They didn't know they were fossils, but they liked them because the dragon is a sign of good luck."

In a shallow pit along the hillside several workers are busy excavating more of those little dragon fossils: 12- to 14-inch-long (30- to 36-centimeter-long) marine reptiles called Keichousaurus hui. The Guizhou dragons, as they're popularly known, with their pear-shaped bodies and sinuous necks, look like miniature Nessies. But for centuries the local people regarded them as dragons whose spirits could travel between heaven and earth.

No one knows when the Chinese belief in dragons began, but it extends back thousands of years. With serpentlike scaly bodies, horses' heads, and blazing rabbit eyes, the dragons inhabited ponds and rivers and could fly on bat wings to the heavens in spiraling waterspouts. If times were hard and drought stalked the land, people gave them offerings, asking them to breathe out mists and clouds and their heavenly rain.

Some Chinese dragons are considered evil, such as the Chien Tang River monster and the seagoing, red-maned Shan, but overall they're benevolent, embodying fecundity and good fortune. In the distant past some dragons were transformed into Sea Dragon Kings, Hai Long Wang, who lived in the oceans and protected seafarers. Not surprisingly, early Chinese rulers embraced the dragon as a symbol of imperial power, putting its image on everything from their thrones and royal robes to the country's flag.

And not surprisingly, the farmers of Lurking Dragon Hill weren't worried by the small creatures they'd found. In fact they used the fossilbearing stones to build the walls of their homes.

"They thought this mountain was very special," says Cen Zhuxian, as we watch the workers dig. "And so 150 years ago, 45 farmers here collected a thousand silver coins to buy and preserve Lurking Dragon Hill."

More than a hundred years would pass before scientists recognized what the farmers already knew: This mountain was worth saving. In 1957 a professor from Beijing visited Xingyi, and the farmers showed him their dragons. He took the fossils to Young Chung-chien, one of China's first paleontologists, at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing.

"Professor Young knew they were very important," says Jiang Dayong.

Until then, most of the prehistoric seagoing reptiles had been unearthed in the U.S., England, Scandinavia, and elsewhere in Europe. The Lurking Dragon Hill fossils, the first such fossils found in China, were so abundant and well preserved that they promised to answer many puzzling questions about these long-extinct reptiles. Most important, Jiang says, was to find out how they had left their terrestrial homes to find a new life in the ocean.

"We know that many species made this journey," says Jiang, explaining that many of the marine reptiles clearly evolved from different land-based ancestors. In the past decade, he continues, researchers "have found complete skeletons of many species in Guizhou Province; some are very early types, close to the time of the transition from land to sea."

Jiang had shown me one such specimen in his university office. It was an early species of ichthyosaur, recently unearthed at a site near Xingyi. I'd seen full-fledged ichthyosaurs before, but this creature looked like something assembled from a Dr. Seuss storybook. It had a python's slinky torso, a penguin's flippers, and a lizard's skinny tail. Its snout was narrow, like the long beak of a heron, and it had a heron's large eye sockets too. It was as curiously wonderful a beast—and as monstrous—as anything Seuss had ever concocted.

"We're looking for more creatures like this," Jiang told me.

At Lurking Dragon Hill, scientists and their farmer-helpers keep up the search. One team of researchers studying Keichousaurus fossils has discovered that those small creatures did not come ashore to lay eggs, as sea turtles do, but gave birth in the water to living young—a necessary first step to becoming a seagoing plesiosaur. This and other discoveries from around the world have sparked a renaissance in the study of the still little-understood marine reptiles.

"It's because the preservation is so perfect that we can see these things [embryos]," says Jiang, as a worker pulls aside a tarp to reveal an astonishingly perfect Keichousaurus: every rib and vertebra visible, every delicate finger, the slender nasal passages. It's as if the animal had been skinned on a dissecting table. The worker gestures at another tarp covering an expanse of the hillside.

"He says there are 68 more of these fossils beneath the tarp," Jiang translates. "They're all lying close together on one slab, and the workers are going to make an outdoor museum for their visitors."

With such a stunning exhibit in place, local people dream that the government will declare Lurking Dragon Hill a national geological park. Then more tour buses will stop here, and people from all over the world will pay to see the dragons the farmers found and protected.

"They have always brought us good luck," the worker says, turning back to his excavation. Like benevolent Chinese dragons, they're passing their good fortune on to their finders.

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