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The Story

Here is a photograph I took of the beach where, in 1808, the Stronsay Monster washed ashore. The stone bar it was draped over prior to this is also visible. It is a rather remote location on the island of Stronsay in Orkney, off the North of Scotland. The beach has steep cliffs flanking it. To reach this beach you have to drive out to a large wind turbine which is sited on farm land and then hike over the heather for bit, best to ask around for a guide really.

the beach where the stronsay monster washed ashore with the stone bar in the sea visible (image belongs to yvonne simpson)

The carcass of the creature now referred to as the Stronsay Monster washed ashore on Stronsay during a storm in the winter of 1808. It was initially discovered draped over a submerged rock by Mr John Peace while he was out fishing. He raised a flipper with his boathook and broke off some of the bristles that fringed the fin. He then decided to wait until it washed ashore to examine it in more detail. Unbeknown to him, George Sherer was watching his activity from the shore and he also decided to wait for the carcass. A fierce storm later deposited the carcass on the shore and it was thoroughly examined by John Peace, George Sherer and Thomas Fotheringhame. Some time later it was also examined by Michael Folsetter.

Due to the strange appearance of the carcass, the story was reported in the national press and created a great deal of interest with the public and members of natural history societies. Unfortunately the same stormy weather that revealed the creature's remains prevented access to the island for some time. This meant that naturalists from the Edinburgh Wernerian Society and the London Royal Society could not reach the island before the carcass was broken up by the action of the tide and weather. The witnesses described the features and measurements of the carcass to Dr Barclay and Mr Petrie of the Edinburgh Wernerian Society, and Mr Petrie made a sketch of the creature using chalk on a table which he later re-drew in a way that was heavily criticised by the original eyewitnesses when they were asked to provide testimony under oath. John Peace and George Sherar had removed some 'bristles', vertebrae and the skull and these remains were made available for examination. Dr Barclay of the Wernerian Society and Mr (later Sir) Everard Home of the Royal Society were able to examine these remains. Due to the interest in the case, the witnesses gave testimonies before the local magistrate in Orkney. 

the sketch of the stronsay monster, kindly shared with me by the orkney museum, which was made long after the creature was broken by the sea and which the witnesses disagreed with

The innacurate sketch made by Mr Petrie on behalf of the Wernerian Society which the eye-witnesses disagreed with (Sketch is held in the Orkney Museum)

What follows is a summary of the picture and witness descriptions: The creature was 55 feet long (excluding the missing part of the tail) and was oval in cross-section. The width of the body [presumably at the thickest part] was four feet. The creature had a small head; long neck; thin body and three pairs of appendages. The skin was grey and had no scales; the eyes were no larger than a seal's and a mane extended from the head to within two and a half feet of the tail; the bones were gristly with only the backbone and skull solid. There were no nipples nor visible reproductive organs. The belly had burst open and the stomach, which Peace initually mistook for a penis, contained a red liquid.

The witnesses corrected innacuracies in the sketch in their testimonies. They suggested the following corrections: The appendages were not jointed, looking more like a goose wing with no feathers; the hollow between the snout and the upper part of the skull was not as deep as in the picture and the appendages were nearer to the ridge of the back, with the front pair being larger than drawn.  This is where the experts started to disagree. Dr Barclay went back to Edinburgh and reported that an entirely new species had been discovered. It was given the name Halsydrus pontoppidini, meaning Pontoppidan's Water Snake of the Sea, in honour of the Norwegian Bishop who gathered sea monster reports in the eighteenth century. Mr Everard Home returned to London and, although he had not seen the remains, stated that the carcass had not measured 55 feet (16.8 metres) at all. He thought 35 feet was much more realistic and invented this measurment to fit his theory that the carcass was a decayed basking shark. 

sir everard home of the royal society of london

Sir Everard Home of the Royal Society of London, basking shark expert of the time

To decide what this creature may have been we must use the above clues to rule out possibilities. The skeleton was made of cartilage, not bone, and this rules out all bony fish, reptiles (including extinct plesiosaurs), mammals (including whales and seals). Examples of creatures found in Orkney which could not be a match for the Stonsay Monster:

example of a rare fin whale, washed up on the island of hoy in orkney

Example of a rare Fin whale, washed ashore on Hoy in Orkney.  

walrus, a rare visitor to orkneyA

A rare visitor to Orkney, the walrus

an oarfish, these can grow to great lengths and this specimen washed ashore in orkney and preserved by the orkney marine life aquarium

An oarfish, these grow to great lengths and this specimen washed up in Orkney

This leaves us with the sharks, rays, chimera fish and the unknown. The rays and chimera fish can be discounted because they are the wrong shape. This leaves only the sharks (including unknown shark species) or the unknown. 

crown with a large basking shark specimen

Historical example of a large dead basking shark 

live basking shark (commonly seen around orkney)

A live basking shark.  These are commonly seen off Orkney.  

The Stronsay Beast was 55 feet long – the only two shark species in the world to even come close are the Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximum) which is found around Orkney and the Whale Shark (Rhiniodon typus) which is found in tropical waters (although a sighting of a whale shark has been reported since this article was written, on 18/5/2012 by wildlife spotters on a boat tour by Orkan Adventures). The largest verified whale shark measurement is 41.5 feet; this shark species has a very wide head and, even if decayed, would not have matched the dimensions of the Stronsay Monster. This leaves only the Basking Shark or an unknown species as candidates.

a whale shark with its very distinctive spots and wide mouth

A whale shark, the largest known living shark species, with its distinctive spots and wide mouth.  

Decayed basking sharks are often mistaken for sea monsters because their large gill apparatus rots away leaving the appearance of a long, thin neck and  the fins then look like flippers – very plesiosaur-like. The theory that the Stronsay Monster was a basking shark hinges upon the carcass being decayed. The mane and bristles can then be accounted for as frayed muscles. The third pair of appendages could be the claspers of a male shark and the long neck could be the backbone with the braincase as a small head. However, the witnesses did not say it was a skull, they described a head with eyes, blow holes and skin. They touched the skin and described a throat. The Basking shark is a filter feeder and its stomach does contain red liquid due to the krill content; and the Stronsay Monster did have red liquid in its stomach. However, the largest verified basking shark was 11.5m whereas the Stronsay Monster was measured to be 16.5m.

how a basking shark can decau to look like a sea monster/pseudo-plesiosaur shape

How a basking shark can decau to look like a sea monster/pseudo-plesiosaur shape

Sharks do not stop growing; the rate at which they grow merely decreases. They lay down growth rings in their vertebrae in much the same way as a tree. The Stronsay Monster's vertebrae and bristles are held in the Edinburgh Museum and they could be tested to discover if the creature was an extremely old (and therefore large) specimen of shark. The remains have been stored in chemicals which destroy DNA. The vertebrae could also be compared to those of the whale shark and the basking shark. Some have speculated that the creature was a very old/mutated basking shark (but only if it was decayed) to account for the size; some have even suggested it could have had a mutation making it unusually long for a basking shark but even then there are the problems discussed earlier with such an identification.

Is it possible that these were the remains of a shark species unknown to science? New shark species are being discovered frequently and even large species have remained unknown until relatively recently. The Megamouth shark (Meachasma pelagios), which grows to lengths of up to 17 feet and is also a filter feeder, remained undiscovered until 1976 because it lives in deep oceanic waters. Such deepwater species are often only described to science when they are found dead. Here I give examples of shark species discovered recently or seen alive for the first time recently to demonstrate such discoveries are being made frequently (those mentioned are not candidates for the Stronsay Monster).  

the megamouth shark

The megamouth shark, discovered in 1979

frilled shark

The frilled shark, another deep water shark species first seen alive in 2004 with unusual features shared with prehistoric sharks

Alternatively, could this have been the remains of a type of sea creature completely unknown to science? Cartilagenous creatures only become fossilised in very rare cases so the most likely fossil evidence for such a creature would have been teeth, if it had any. If such a creature had a common ancestor with sharks then it could have a cartilagenous skeleton too. There have certainly been sightings of sea creatures with long necks and small heads around Orkney – Bill Hutchison, with his father and cousin, saw such a creature in 1946. There are other reports of a creature of similar appearance around Orkney and worldwide.  

In order to conclusively identify a shark species on the basis of parts only, DNA testing of flesh and comparison to a database of shark DNA would be required if the skin or teeth was not available for examination. The denticles of the skin could be compared to basking shark skin if the framed piece of skin from the Stronsay Monster should ever be found (my appeals as to its whereabouts have not been successful). Without the teeth or skin and without DNA testing it is not possible to say that the Stronsay Monster was a basking shark, decayed or otherwise, without dismissing facts from the witness testimony such as the length. 

I am not the first to suggest the Stronsay Monster could be an unknown shark species (or unknown species). I did search for a laboratory with the expertise to test the remains and approached the Guy Harvey Research Institute. They hold a database of shark DNA which they use to forensically examine items which may be illegally harvested shark material e.g. shark fin soup. Prof. Shivja of the Guy Harvey Research Institute kindly agreed to test the remains if a sample could be obtained but my proposals to the National Library and National Museum were refused. I do not propose to do the analysis myself now as I have finished my investigation and have other interests now but I have been making my research and suggestions available to those who wish to continue with the efforts to obtain permission to test the remains.

The vertebrae and a 'bristle' are now held in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh but these are currently reported misplaced by the Museum. The skull stayed in London until it was destroyed in the Blitz. Some other 'bristles' are held in the John Murray archive of the National Library of Scotland and were rediscovered and brought to my attention in response to an appeal on my previous website by Dr Stephen Potts. The ink drawing made by Mr Petrie is held in the Orkney Museum and they kindly shared it with me prior to my Orkney Science Festival lecture in 2001. A framed piece of skin, which may have belonged to the Stronsay Monster, has been lost but was in Tankerness House, Orkney.

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