Wednesday, 1 April 2015

A very Kiwi conspiracy: in search of New Zealand's giant sea serpent

As a young child I probably overdid it on books in the boy's own fantastic facts genre, reading with breathless wonder about giant - and collectively extinct - megafauna such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Therefore it's probably not surprising that a few years' later I was captivated by Arthur C. Clarke's 1957 novel The Deep Range, featuring as it does a giant squid and a sea serpent, both very much alive. How seriously Clarke took such cryptozoology is unknown, although he clearly stated he considered it likely that the ocean depths harboured specimens up to twice the size of those known to science.

Of course it's easy to scoff at such notions, bombarded as we are with endless drivel about megalodon and mermaids, both from a myriad of websites and even worse, the docufiction masquerading as fact on allegedly science-themed television channels (I'm talking about you, Discovery!) As Carl Sagan was known to say, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Incidentally, if anyone has seen the clearly Photoshopped image of World War Two U-boats in front of the dorsal and tail fins of a megalodon, the total length of such an animal would be well over thirty metres. Most experts place the maximum length of this long-extinct species under twenty metres, so why do so many fakes over-egg the monster pudding?

I digress. One obvious difference between today and the pre-industrial past is that there used to be myriads of sightings regarding sea monsters of all shapes and sizes, but nowadays there are comparatively few, especially considering the number of vessels at sea today. Whilst there is a vast collection of fakery on the World Wide Web, much of this material appears to have been inspired by the BBC 2003 series Sea Monsters (and the various imitations that have since been broadcast) and the ease with which images can now be realistically manipulated.

As for scientifically-verifiable material of unknown marine giants, there is almost none - colossal squid aside. As Steven Spielberg summed up a quarter century after his canonical UFO movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with all the smartphone cameras about there should be documentary evidence galore. Likewise, enormous marine beasties should now be recorded on an ever-more frequent basis. After all, it's hardly as if giant sea serpents are being fished into extinction! Yet the lack of evidence implies that once again, the human penchant for perceiving patterns where none exist has caused the creation of myths, not the observation of genuine marine megafauna.

At least that's what I thought, until a couple of serendipitous events occurred. Early last year I noticed the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research's second-largest vessel MV Kaharoa docked in Viaduct Harbour in Auckland. It had just returned from a month's research expedition to the Kermadec Islands, about 900 kilometres north-east of New Zealand. What was interesting was that I later found out the Kaharoa had been on an identical trip the previous year, ostensibly to record the condition of the snapper stocks. Yet NIWA usually organises these missions every second year rather than annually. So why was the vessel returning to the Kermadecs a year early? Although a joint venture between France, Scotland and New Zealand, the funding has to originate either with public money or corporate grants. Therefore it's unlikely the decision for a 2014 mission was undertaken lightly.

MV Kaharoa

I'd forgotten this mildly diverting conundrum when many months later I was browsing the NIWA website and came across their Critter of the Week blog. It was fairly late at night and I'll confess to having imbibed several bottles of beer, but I was pretty astounded to see a fairly murky and obviously deep water image containing what appeared to be nothing less than a hairy-maned sea serpent, with a note stating it was estimated to be around  twenty metres in length. I quickly loaded some news channels, including the New Zealand Herald and the BBC's Science and Environment news home page, but without finding any references to such a beast. I then flicked to the main NIWA website, but again didn't come across anything related to the creature. I returned to the Critter of the Week blog, only to find the page was no longer there. How X-Files is that?

Of course I'd forgotten to screenshot the page or download the image, so there was no proof that I hadn't been hallucinating. Did I imagine it or just misinterpret a perfectly normal specimen? Or was the blog temporarily hacked by a nutter or conspiracy theorist, who added a spoof article? As I went through the options and discarded them, it gradually dawned on me that perhaps the Kaharoa's unexpected summer expedition had been organised with one particular purpose in mind: the search for an elusive giant spotted the previous year.

I usually consider myself to be fairly sane, so let's consider the facts in lieu of hard evidence:
  1. NIWA excel at finding new creatures: they have reported 141 species unknown to science within the past three years;
  2. The Kermadecs are home to some very large animals for their type, including oversize oysters, the giant limpet Patella kermadecensis and the amphipod Alicella gigantea, which is ten times the size of most species in the same taxonomic order;
  3. NIWA scientists have been known to comment with surprise on how many deep water species have recently been discovered - even if a specimen hasn't actually been captured - for regions that they have repeatedly studied over some years;
  4. Expeditions are only just starting to explore the region between the depths of 2000 and 8000 metres;
  5. Although the Kermadecs are on the edge of a marine desert, a combination of hot water and minerals upwelling from hydrothermal vents and the seabird guano that provides nutrition for the near-surface phytoplankton, help to kick-start diverse food webs;
  6. There is an increasing quantity of meltwater from the Antarctic ice shelf, which being less dense than seawater may affect the depth of the thermocline, a region of highly variable temperature, which in turn could be altering the ecology of the region;
  7. MV Kaharoa was carrying baited Hadal-landers, ideal for recording deep sea fauna, whereas snapper usually live in the top two hundred metres.

Apart from my own close encounter of the fishy kind, has there been any other recent evidence of what could be termed a giant sea serpent in New Zealand waters? Just possibly. A Google Earth image of Oke Bay in the Bay of Islands shows the wake of something that has been estimated to be around twelve metres long. The wake doesn't fit the diagnostic appearance for great whales or of a boat engine. Therefore could this be proof of sea serpents in the area? I have to say it looks more like an image rendering glitch to me, but then I'm no expert. On the plus side, the most likely candidate for such a creature is the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne, which I discussed in a post five years ago and which authoritative sources suggest can attain a maximum length of eleven metres. So clearly, the Oke Bay image is within the realm of possibility. As for the lack of documentary evidence compared to earlier centuries, could it be that the vast amounts of noise pollution from ship's engines may keep the creatures far from standard shipping lanes?

Where does this leave the Critter of the Week content that so briefly slipped - presumably accidentally - onto the live site? One possible clue that led marine biologists back to the Kermadecs could be the 2012 Te Papa Tongarewa Museum report on a colossal squid dissection, which states that chunks of herring-type flesh were found in its stomach and caecum. The oarfish belongs to the herring family and so it is just possible that titanic struggles between squid and oarfish are occurring in the ocean deep even now. And where better for an expedition to search for an elusive monster without fear of interruption than these relatively remote islands?

Unfortunately this is all surmise, as NIWA have refused to respond to my queries. It may be a long shot, but if anyone has noticed Te Papa taking delivery of a lengthy, narrow cross-section tank, or very large vats of formalin, why not let me know? The truth is out there, somewhere...probably...

Thursday, 26 March 2015

A roaring success? The Walking with Dinosaurs Arena Spectacular

Surely these days everyone loves dinosaurs? After all, the original Jurassic Park movie made over a billion US dollars worldwide, enough to generate a plethora of merchandise and three sequels. In a less fictional vein, the BBC's television series' Walking with Dinosaurs broke viewing records - perhaps just as well, considering its equally record-breaking budget - and led to several TV spin-offs, including a 3D feature film aimed at very young children.

But it's rare for a television documentary (or should that be docudrama?) series to spawn a live show, which is exactly what happened in 2007. Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular has to date has been seen by a worldwide audience of over eight million. Again, this probably all to the good, considering the enormous expense involved in the production. So having seen the television series on DVD, my daughters were desperate to go to the live show here in Auckland. Due to the expense of the tickets I hummed and hawed but eventually bowed under pressure. This was nothing to do with my own interest in seeing the event, of course!

So was it worth it? The ninety minute show followed the chronological order of the series, from late Triassic to the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. My first impression wasn't particularly good, as the narrator Huxley (incidentally I'm not sure what Thomas Henry Huxley would make of the enterprise, considering he was even against opening the Natural History Museum to the general public) explained about dinosaur footprints whilst lights projected some very oversized examples of the same. I assume the scale was to allow visibility from the furthest rows, but even so it seemed a bit clumsy. In my book, there's a fine line between artistic licence and poor science communication.

However, things improved with the arrival of the first beasts. Although it looked as if it was immediately heading in a Disneyesque direction when several cute herbivorous Plateosaurus hatched from a nest of eggs, this was quickly quelled when one hatchling was gobbled up by a Liliensternus. It was excellent to see Nature in warts and all mode - or should that be a literal 'red in tooth and claw' - considering that the audience largely consisted of pre-teen children and their parents? Talking of which, in some cases the roaring monsters and dramatic lighting proved too much, with a girl sitting near me spending more time cradled under her father's armpit rather than looking at the show. I was in general surprised by the lack of anthropomorphising elements that the 3D movie was criticised for, a brave move considering the target audience. Perhaps the major concession to the junior spectators was the young T. rex, whose weak attempts at imitating its far more powerful parent induced laughter from the audience.

In addition to describing the behaviour of the dinosaurs – and one pterosaur (a decent-enough marionette hung in front of poorly projected background footage, although my younger daughter initially thought it was a giant bat) Huxley also covered plate tectonics and the development of vegetation. At one point he even stuck his hand into a steaming pile of fresh herbivore poop to retrieve a dung beetle, leading to an explanation of food chains past and present. Both the inflatable growing ferns and a forest fire were particularly well done, as well as some simple yet charming butterflies made of what looked like coloured paper blown around by hidden fans. My children agreed that the only thing they didn't like were the skate platforms required to move the larger dinosaurs, although I found these less distracting than the marginally camouflaged operator legs in the smaller species. Interestingly, neither of my daughters asked how the larger species were controlled. I guess they've grown up in an age of electronic wonders and this was seen to be just another example of impressive technology.

Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular

So what about the educational element of the show? Edutainment can be a difficult balance as well as an appalling word. In addition to the lavish praise that it deserved, the original television series was criticised for presenting speculation as fact. In particular, the large size of some of the species has been questioned. However, the arena event did acknowledge some of the developments since the series was first broadcast fifteen years ago, such as by adding feathers (or proto-feathers) to the mother Tyrannosaurus and even more so to her juvenile.

Judging by the appreciative audience, many of the younger crowd members were already familiar with a wide range of dinolore. For example, as each animal starting entering the arena I could hear children as young as four or five shouting some of the names - and correctly. This created a pleasing contrast to many of the adult visitors to London's Natural History Museum, whom I recall not only failed to differentiate a sauropod from a T. rex but assumed that every large skeleton they saw must be a dinosaur (for example, the giant sloth Megatherium in the Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery).

But just how much of an interest in the giant beasts of the Mesozoic is likely to lead to a more detailed understanding of the wider world of palaeontology as the audience members grow older? Unfortunately, at times it was difficult to hear the narrator's details due to a combination of the sound effects and intense music, which whilst emotive and dramatic, had a tendency to drown out Huxley's description of the antediluvian scenes. Combined with the palpable excitement that most of the younger audience members were clearly experiencing, it's dubious just how much anyone learned during the show. The associated website does contain some educational material, although it makes such basic mistakes as listing the pterosaur Ornithocheirus in the list of dinosaurs.

You could suggest that dinosaurs have become just another part of the great consumerist machine, with any associated science a lucky by-product of flogging stuff. After all, dinosaur-related merchandise features highly in the range at many museum gift shops, even those with a marginal connection to the fauna, as discussed unfavourably several decades ago by evolutionary palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould. It could be argued that any attempt to introduce science-based knowledge to the general public is a good idea, but with the quality of special effects in this live-action show as well as in film and television it may be difficult for children brought up on this material to separate fact from fiction. It is undoubtedly an exciting time for dinosaur discoveries, but science is more than just a series of facts: without the rigour and understanding, the material is subject to the same whims of fashion as the rest of popular culture. If science is to be promoted as the most objective methodology our species has for understanding such fascinating subjects as ancient mega fauna, we need to ensure that audiences are given enough of the reasoning besides all the roaring.