Cadborosaurus willsi

Highlights from a discussion at

As part of another discussion, John Kirk made a comment on the fact that a photograph of a sea serpent(?) has been scientifically described by P.H. Leblond and E.L. Bousfield as Cadborosaurus willsi (Amphipacifica Volume 1 Supplement 1). This triggered me to ask :-

How is it that C. willsi is considered a reptile or a mammal? It was described from a photo that i have seen and is almost definately a rotted shark, or at least too rotted to be described properly. C. willsi must surely be considered nomen dubium.

To this, John Kirk replied:-

Leblond and Bousfield have classified this creature specifically as a reptile. I merely suggested that because it has some mammalian traits, I am personally unsure as to whether it is reptilian or a mammal. Leblond and Bousfield have gone for reptile. The specimen was described from 3 very sharp photos - two by G. V. Boorman and one by F. S. Huband and from the eyewitness testimony of James Wakelin who is still alive and well - and though there is slight dessication it is readily apparent that it is not a shark of any sort. Wakelin was well-acquainted with many aquatic animals as were many of the other eyewitnesses and they all described it as being an animal of unknown determination. Besides, sharks do not have 5-digit rear flippers. They have tails.

This led me to suggest:-

On the single photo I saw, 5-digit rear flippers were not discernible, which was what led to my theory that the specimen was a pseudoplesiosaur (rotted shark carcass which gives a false impression of having a long neck) like at Stronsa and Querqueville. The animal is definately not a basiliosaur or a plesiosaur (the two groups of animals most commonly associated with large marine cryptids). What I first took to be a tail, I now presume to be the pentadactyl rear flippers, so perhaps C. willsi is a giant seal.

Ben S. Roesch then suggested another identity:-

The carcass in the photo is really wierd looking. I used to think of it in highly favourable terms, just because it is so strange. The head and placement of the flippers just didn`t jive with a basking shark identity. Now I`m not so sure...The vertebrae of the Naden Harbour carcass scream I`M A BASKING SHARK! They are cylindrical, beaded and lack any processes that are typical of reptiles or mammals. They are even accompanied by dorsal and ventral tendons that are so apparent on the carcass at Hendry Island. The fact that the vertebrae are so similar to those of a shark make me very hesitant to call it anything but a basking shark. On the other hand, the head is totally strange, not looking much at all like that of a basking shark. The foreflippers are strange too. Finally the tail is bizarre. However, I think all these features can also be explained by a basking shark identity. The dog-like shape of the head may be an artifact of the apparent smashing and twisting of the anterior part of the basking shark, and the real head of the creature may include part of the mangled part. In the photo of the carcass taken at an angle, we can see that the head is relatively flat and smooth on the top - it reminds me greatly of a similar view of the top of a shark`s skull that I`ve seen. The pectoral flippers could be remains of the pectoral girdle and gill arches with rakers still attached...The appearence and lacement of the flippers fits with this idea. As for the tail, this can easily be explained as a shark if we look at the photo upside down. The tail fits pretty well with the upper caudal lobe of the shark (which contains vertebrae...); it is possible that the carcass had experienced twisting and other distortion, so that the tail appears to be naturally pointing downwards in plane with the body. It is possible that the twisting occured in the supposed neck region, making the head upright but the caudal fin and vertebrae upside the flippers could be apparently the right way up when the twisting occurred in front of them...easily explainable by the fact that the pectoral girdle and associated gill arches and rakers could be loose and moveable on the vertical axis...these structures would just flop into a new position...similar to their position before. My last point is to say that basking sharks have been the stomachs of sperm whales, and that sperm whales regularly eat smaller, benthic sharks.

This convinced me at the time that the carcass belonged not to a reptile or mammal but to a basking shark. Then John Kirk replied:- really need to read Amphipacifica to see the enlargements of the tail section, as well as to see the diagrams derived from them to see the whole basking shark hypothesis is way off base. This creature was in the belly of the whale for a matter of hours and therefore a basking shark would not have had time to be digested to the point where it assumed the size and proportions of the N. H. carcass...the whale may have eaten an already decomposing basking shark carcass, but...sperm whales...feed on live animals. The witnesses record that the animal was entire, undigested and in generally good condition. It was totally unlike other large deep-water prey animals such as 6-gilled sharks and giant squids regularly encountered by the flensers when searching sperm whale stomachs for ambergris. In the side-on view paratype of the 2 photos used to classify the N.H. carcass it is readily apparent that this is the head of an animal which has eye sockets in positions not known in sharks and that the skull construction is most definately that of a shark although there are some tenuous similarities...the structure of the foreflippers as reconstructed from the G.V. Boorman paratype photo is clearly not that of a shark.

John Kirk also responded to my suggestion that C. was a seal:-

Thereis a comparison drawing of a monk seal`s flipper in Amphipacifica and it bears no resemblance to the digitate structure of the flipper of Cadborosaurus willsi. However, it does strongly resemble, but does not correspond exactly with, the flipper structure of the plesiosaur. I think we have a reptile on our hands and not a shark or a seal.

Matt Bille then suggested:-

The N.H. carcass doen not at first glance resemble a decomposing basking shark. I`m not saying that it`s impossible, but Ican`t figure out the timeline. If it had been inside the whale for a long time, I would have expected it to be further digested and broken into pieces...I don`t know of any cases of sharks eating carrion...the damn thing doesn`t look to me like the reptile Leblond thinks it is. presumably the men stretched out the N.H. carcass before photographing so I doubt the neck is much longer than is shown in the photo (there must be some damage though, since the front section of the animal doesn`t look like a match to anything, shark, reptile or mammal). There are no reptiles which swim by vertical undulation, and the highly inefficient mechanism Leblond and Bousfield postulate in their paper wouldn`t produce an animal capable of moving at the reported high speeds. Finally, the habitat makes no sense for a reptile. The only marine reptile that ventures so far north is the leatherback turtle, and this animal has the opposite shape to the N.H. carcass, a very solid body efficient at conserving the heat preserved by muscular movement or gained by basking at the surface. Such a reptile as the N.H. animal would have to bask a great deal wouldn`t move very fast in the best of circumstances. One suspects that orcas would eat it into extinction. if this is a previously unknown species, I can`t think of it being a reptile. A long, slender, vertically undulating mammal may be able to survive in that habitat and fit most of the good eyewitness reports, although it would still have a tough time competing with the faster, more competitive orcas. The morphology doesn`t really match any known mammal, but it is closer to an archaeocete than to anything else. Second choice, to be correct, would be a highly evolved pinniped. The shark explanation, to be correct, would have to involve a highly unlikely string of events and very unusual damage to a generally intact carcass, but I don`t think it has been totally disproven yet. Ben`s comment on the shark-like vertebrae needs an answer.

John Kirk then replied to this:-

The neck is not fully elongated in the picture as the witnesses described damage to it probably caused by the jaws of the sperm whale clamping down and breaking the neck vertebrae...may be in fact slightly longer than we can see in any of the 3 photos. Animals reported to be similar to C. do not undulate when they swim. This is what some inland aquatic enigmas do, but C. does not undulate as such but rather gives the unobservant this impression. The body is contracted so that humps appear above the surface, but the great majority of eyewitnesses who have paid attention to it`s locomotory methods note that these humps remain equidistant, are constant at the same height and that the means of propulsion appears to be the tail region. Matt is right about the leatherback turtle being the only major reptile in frigid northern waters, but we don`t know how this animal may have adapted itself (there are 65 million years if we use the extinction of the dinosaurs timeframe and coelocanth reference) for it to have changed habitat from warm to cold waters...The rear flippers are very similar to, in construction, those of the plesiosaur. As the creature is serpentine and has plesiosaur-like rear flippers, it can certainly be posited that it may be of reptilian origin...Leblond and Bousfield were very conservative in describing the objects that we take for vertebrae. They cautiously (and wisely IMHO)opted to describe these as tubercles. Magnification of these images does not help in solving what these ridges are...Sharks would not be able to show the vertical flexure seen in the N.H. carcass because of their particular vertebraeic structure and constructs.

Loren Coleman then added:-

Is it simple discussing a sea serpent? If a mammal, as Bernard Heuvelmans clearly points out, if it has 2 legs it is a basiliosaur, and if it has 4 legs it is a pinniped, correct? Oudemans`s Megophias has 4 legs and is a giant long necked seal. When are fins really legs and when are legs really fins? Perhaps Cadborosaurus should be more properly referred to as Megophias?

I then replied:-

Basiliosaurs had 4 flippers and a long tail although the rear pair were rudimentary. C. clearly has 2 large hind flippers as in seals. The observer of an elongate would find it hard to tell between 2 hind flippers and a pair of flukes as inferred for basiliosaurs. Only now that C. is sufficiently known can we tell that the hind flippers are present rather than flukes as are inferred in the basiliosaurs. There are, of course, more than one species of sea serpent. The elongate sea serpent alleged to have been captured at Sundmoer was described as having 4 legs (presumably 4 limbs and a long tail as opposed to 4 legs the hind legs adapted into flippers as in seals) so it is wise not to oversimplify the situation with aquatic cryptids. The sightings of this Norwegian sea serpent seem to decline with the decline of the great auk, interestingly, and seems extinct now. Megophias was clearly based upon more than one species of cryptid. In any case, M. was not described from a clear enough photograph or from preserved material. C. however is a valid taxon (if still perhaps best treated as n.d.) and should only refer to a specific type of elongate sea serpent.

Ben S. Roesch then made some further notes on the N.H. carcass:-

I find it hard to believe that the N.H. carcass was hardly digested...It`s as skinny as a toothpick. Where are the internal organs, muscles and other tissues, the ribs and the prominent vertebrae with typical tetrapod processes? No known vertebrate animal has a fineness ratio (body length divided by body height) that extreme. Frankly, the thing doesn`t make biological sense if we are to believe that it was hardly digested. No reptile or mammal would be able to survive is waters as cold as off B.C. with a body plan like that. Conservation of heat would be impossible. The only reptiles that live in waters approaching the temperature of the region are Galapagos marine iguanas, but these are sluggish, semi-aquatic algavores...All mammals in cold water have lots of blubber or tons of oily fur, yet neither of these features are apparent on the N.H. carcass. Unless, of course, it was digested. If the animal was plumper in life with a layer of blubber, then perhaps through digestion it lost most of it`s flesh and organs...leaving remnants of the skeleton...if it is a mammal or a reptile, where are the ribs, musculature and the tetrapod vertebrae?...for that matter, even if it was digested, these structures should still have been visible to a certain extent, particularly the vertebrae...flippers that seem to have the remnants of ceratotrichia attached just scream of a highly decomposed basking shark. The N.H. carcass has such an unprecedented body form that I can`t imagine it being a real animal without some sort of digestion taking place.

Chris Orrick then commented on the theory that C. is a seal:-

Within this discussion there has ben some mention that C. willsi mignt be some form of unknown pinniped. That hardly seems likely. All members of the suborder Pinnipeda must return to land to bear and to wean their young. It is, in fact, part of the defining features of the suborder itself. Add to that, all species of pinniped spend at least 25% of their lives either hauled out on the shore or on highly visible ice packs. Should C. willsi ever be proven to exist, one thing it is unlikely to be clasified as is a pinniped.

John Kirk then refuted the above:-

On two specific occasions, an animal similar to the N.H.carcass was seen on land with a very small 16 to 24 inch long baby specimen. I am not saying that C. is a pinniped, far from it, but it would seem that it gives birth viviparously and on shore. Both these events took place in the last 7 years.

I also answered this criticism:-

In saying this, you have argued that whales are not descended from terrestrial animals. Several times land animals have adapted to a completely aquatic way of life, so why not a pinniped? Pinnipeds are already aquatic and members of the group display the rather elongate neck and body and also the two rear flippers.

Ben S. Roesch added the following:-

I calculated the fineness ratio of the N.H. carcass as 36, but I now realize my statement of there being no vertebrate that fine is erroneous. Sea snakes, for example, have the same fineness ratio. These comments do not, however, take away from my observation that no creature that fine could survive in the cold waters off the B.C. coast. There is a reason that sea snakes can only live in tropical waters. Basically, if it were a mammal, it would have to have a metabolism like a rocket and thus be eating non-stop, but even then, I doubt an animal that thin could deal with -10 degrees celsius waters. If it was a reptile, it would either be dead or extremely slow moving like the Galapagos marine iguanas which are not even fully aquatic and ned to get out of the water frequently to warm up. In my opinion, the N.H. carcass an a sea serpent is not biologically feasible.

John Kirk then replied to this:-

The trouble is that it was feasible because it existed...the photo...How it lived with it`s morphology is a mystery unto itself.

Ben S. Roesh replied:-

Because I think the N.H. carcass is biologically unfeasible, I believe that it does not represent a sea serpent specimen. It is easy to say that it has some unknown physiology, but when it comes down to it all living things are regulated by temperature. A vertebrate with that little body mass relative to surface area could not exist in cold waters, as it would lose heat so fast as to make essential processes totally inefficient...I noted something else about the vertebrae - I`m pretty sure I can make out the demarcation between a few of them in the paratype photo and they are spaced as those of a basking shark. They are not numerous enough to suggest the vertcal undulation of the body suggested by Bousfield and Leblond...I will not totally rule out an alternative suggestion, including that it is in fact a sea serpent, because the head and tail are pretty wierd.

Darren Naish then made the comment:-

The object in the N.H. photos appears to be a highly unusual and apparently new type of vertebrate animal. However a series of B.C. postcards issued in the 1930s depicted superficially similar objects which purportedly represented sea serpent carcasses. Karl Shuker has brought these to widespread attention...The photo was taken on the rocky shoreline within the littoral zone at Camp Fircom. After close examination of this photo...I am utterly convinced that they are not animal carcasses at all but actually represent a montage of beach debris. The thick and sturdy stem of a plant serves as a body, what appears to be a rock poses as the head, a mussel shell is an eye socket and bits of flotsam imitate fins. A second photo depicts the same assrtment of debris arranged in a different posture and on a different bit of beach...the upshot is that some people in the 1930s were clearly in the habit of manufacturing fake sea serpent carcasses. Were they inspired by the N.H. specimen, or was it itself actually a product of trickery? The bizarre and problematic appearence of the N.H. carcass makes this option a possibility and one that has to be considered before it can be assumed that C. willsi represents an animal...Leblond and Bousfield pointed to similarities in the hindlimb of the N.H. carcass and those of several sauropterygians...the way in which they distorted and mislabelled a plesiosaur flipper was downright confusing. The implication that a supposed similarity in the construction of the hindlimbs of the N.H. carcass and the figured sauropterygians...thoroughly unconvincing as al tetrapods have the same hindlimb elements...a plesiomorphic character state...purported homology of the N.H. structure and a tetrapod hindlimb is very unconvincing as a large dose of personal interpretation is required.

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