In which the Conakry Monster carcass leads to a digression on 'tubercle technology'


Yet another 'sea monster carcass' was brought to my attention recently (thanks Paul), and in the interests of tradition and of bringing it to a wider audience I thought I should include it here (I'm very late to the party: Cryptomundo discussed the case when it broke three years ago). Dubbed the 'Conakry Monster', it washed up on the coast of Guinea in May 2007. It was described as being a gigantic crocodile/lizard monster with an armoured back, fur, a long tail and 'four paws'! The blackened surface to the skin led some people to think that it might have been burnt... somehow.


The Russian news agency Pravda featured the photographs and dubbed the carcass a 'Hellish hairy sea monster'. They even said that "The scientists who examined the creature said that they had already seen such animals before, but they have no clue to their definition" [sic]. This blog article includes numerous comments where people claimed the carcass to be a rotting mammoth, monster turtle, mosasaur or other giant reptile. After the carcass 'mysteriously' disappeared, local people laid the blame on those sinister Americans (P. Glynn, pers. comm.). They must have taken it away in the dead of night, in a big helicopter or something. Huh - those pesky Americans, always doing cover-up ops on sea monster carcasses...


Anyway... at the risk of sounding like an intellectual snob or elitist, yet again I am bowled over by human idiocy. None of the people who wrote those comments in the media and on blog sites can ever have taken the time to watch TV documentaries, opened books, or become familiar with what we actually know about animal diversity. The carcass's real identity is glaringly obvious: it's a very decomposed baleen whale, as evidenced by what are obviously ventral throat/belly pleats (the carcass is clearly lying on its back). The blackish, 'burnt-looking' skin is common for decomposing whales: their skin often flakes off in small, friable bits that look something like thin plastic or even burnt paper. The good photo of one of the flippers [shown here] shows the characteristic long shape and bumpy edges of a Humpback Megaptera novaeangliae.

For as long as whales have been around, their decomposing bodies have been washing up on beaches. Newsflash: this still happens in the modern day.


There are a few other things worth noting while I'm here. Having mentioned humpback flippers.... why do humpbacks have such extraordinary flippers, when other balaenopterids do fine with much shorter, less bizarrely shaped organs? A lot of people have asked this question since Edel & Winn (1978) drew attention to humpback flipper morphology, and there are several studies on humpback flipper form and function (a real contrast to the case one normally encounters with such questions!).

i-80d6c1aa700b3bd6d7f0532b950fb6b1-Miklosovic-et-al-2004-megaptera-flipper-model-May-2010 copy.jpg

Fish & Battle (1995) showed that the shape of the flipper is hydrodynamic: the flipper is wing-like, with a blunt, rounded leading edge and highly tapered tailing edge, has a high aspect ratio, and compares well with structures designed for lift generation. The position of the leading edge lumps or tubercles were suggested by Fish & Battle (1995) to help control flow over the flipper and "maintain lift at high angles of attack". This all indicates that the flippers help improve performance, specifically the high manoeuvrability needed when the whales round up prey while feeding. Watts & Fish (2001) showed, using 3D simulations on a computer, that the tubercles increased lift, reduced drag and delayed stall, even at really low angles of attack, while Miklosovic et al. (2004) confirmed all of this in wind-tunnel experiments [using models like those shown here: image from Miklosovic et al. (2004)]. Unsurprisingly, it's been suggested that leading-edge tubercles like those seen on the flippers should be incorporated into such things as wind turbines, hydroelectric turbines, ceiling fans and even airplane wings (Watts & Fish 2001). This has since been termed 'tubercle technology' and a US patent was filed for its application in 2008. For more on the application of tubercle technology to man-made devices see the article here. It's a pretty fascinating topic.

I'm still waiting for the discovery of a fossil plesiosaur that has 'bumpy' fin edges. Incidentally, if you're wondering how well these models of whale flippers match the real things (where 'model' = both digital models and physical, synthetic models), that's been looked at too: see Weber et al. (2009). In basic terms, the models do seem to match the real things pretty well.


One more thing, having started all of this on a whale carcass. Those of you who recall 2008's 'Sea monster week' might remember my article on the 1969 Tecolutla monster of Veracruz, Mexico [the carcass is shown here]. As discussed in that article, Rafael A. Lara Palmeros (1994) showed that the carcass was a Sei whale Balaenoptera borealis, and demonstrated this beyond any doubt by publishing a photo of the carcass's skull. So, yet again, a freaky monster described as combining all kinds of weirdness turned out to be decomposing whale. The reason that I'm bringing this to attention again is that a few comments have recently been appended to the article in which the commenters have asserted that the carcass really was armour-plated, really did more reptilian than cetacean, etc. etc. I don't believe any of this and think it's all due to misinterpretation, but, whatever, I thought it might be interesting to bring this opinion to attention. I will say again that the photos published by Palmeros (1994) demonstrate, beyond doubt, that the carcass was of a baleen whale.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on sea monster carcasses see...

And for previous Tet Zoo articles on cetacean anatomy see...

Refs - -

Edel, R. K. & Winn, H. E. 1978. Observations on underwater locomotion and flipper movement of the humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae. Marine Biology 48, 279-287.

Fish, F., & Battle, J. (1995). Hydrodynamic design of the humpback whale flipper Journal of Morphology, 225 (1), 51-60 DOI: 10.1002/jmor.1052250105

Miklosovic, D. S., Murray, M. M., Howle, L. E. & Fish, F. E. 2004. Leading-edge tubercles delay stall on humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae flippers. Physics of Fluids 16 (5), L39-L42.

Palmeros, R. A. L. 1994. A marine monster in Tecolutla, Mexico? Info Journal 71, 24-26.

Watts, P. & Fish, F. E. 2001. The influence of passive, leading edge tubercles on wing performance. In: Proceedings of the Twelfth International Symposium on Unmanned Untethered Submersible Technology. Autonomous Undersea Systems Institute, Durham New Hampshire.

Weber, P. W., Murray, M. M., Howle, L. E. & Fish, F. E. 2009. Comparison of real and idealized cetacean flippers. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics 4, 046001. doi: 10.1088/1748-3182/4/4/046001

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By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 30 May 2010 #permalink

"yet again I am bowled over by human idiocy."

Well, most media folks probably know what the real animals behind the "monster carcasses" are, but it just sells more stories to say that they're unidentified. And the general public, who tend to have a very limited understanding of science, eat it all up.

If this is, essentially, highly advanced flipper technology well suited for a baleen whale (or at least for the stockier species), then we have the question that pops up so often in the natural world: why was it evolved only once, by a single species?

If this is, essentially, highly advanced flipper technology well suited for a baleen whale (or at least for the stockier species), then we have the question that pops up so often in the natural world: why was it evolved only once, by a single species?

The other stockies have little need for high speed or manoeuvrability?

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 30 May 2010 #permalink

There is also another photo of this carcass which shows it in strait line from lateral view. It shows much better what kind of animal it is. Have you ever noticed how many photos of "monsters" are made in really unfortunate perspectives? For example the last "monster" which was nothing but a dead mink. There were even several photos, but why no photos which show the whole carcass in lateral view? So many photos would be much more easy to identify if people would make better photos. We live in the time of digital photography, so it should be really no problem to make several photos from different angles. I once wrote about this in an article for "Der Fährtenleser" in which I gave several advices how to photograph animals and carcasses. Whenever possible there should be a size comparison for example, and there should be always photos of the whole animal and not only photos from strange angles. In the medias photos of animals made from really stupid perspectives and forced perspectives are sadly very common. I ask me always why. If for example an unusually large specimen of a hammerhead shark (a recent case)is caught, I wanna see the whole shark in comparison with something, for example with the guy which caught it. I don´t want to see a bloody photo which shows nearly nothing but the (partial) head in forced perspective and two thirds of the angler.

Im certainly no expert on such things but the first thing I thought on seeing the photo was dead humpback, followed by the bloke on the right looks photodhopped in (I think its just the effect of the flash though).

PS sorry I didn't make the talk On Thursday, I eneded up having to work late.

"It was described as being a gigantic crocodile/lizard monster with an armoured back, fur, a long tail and 'four paws'! "

How many times has this description come up in past reports of "sea monster" carcass? (A lot). Further support for the argument that the vast majority of them are decomposed whales (or other described sea creatures). Not that we had much doubt about that.

Maybe it's not a coincidence that the humback's flippers are both knobby and long?
They are proportionally MUCH longer (and greater in length/chord ratio) than those of any other cetacean I can think of: so, controlling them has got to be harder. So there would, I'd guess, be more selectional pressure for improvements in their hydrodynamic design: the other rorquals, with short flippers, just aren't facing the same sort of problems of flipper control.

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 30 May 2010 #permalink

So what about the accounts of it "disappearing"? Was it accidentally carried off by researchers or carcass pirates or something? Or did it just wash back out to sea?


In the medias photos of animals made from really stupid perspectives and forced perspectives are sadly very common. I ask me always why.

That's because there are specific rules for how to photograph cryptozoology-related objects; please see Matt Wedel's handy list for details.

I agree with Neil - I'm not a trained Zoologist, but my immediate reaction on seeing the photo (which I believe someone had labelled as a "Giant Sea Turtle"....) was to think it was a dead Baleen Whale lying on its back.

Another photo allegedly showed a giant tusked Carcass - again, it was easy for even me to see it was a decaying Whale whose upper mandible had split in two and torn out of the flesh.

Some times ago when I thought about the shape of the humpback flippers, I asked me if the strange tubercles could possibly have any sensory use. Was it ever examined if this knobs have an enlarged nervous system, or if they are for example used to "touch" other humpbacks?

Interestingly Robert there are people out there for which it was not so obvious to see what the "Ataka Carcass" really was. For example one article states that "The supporters of this âunknown creatureâ theory have stated that it seems both foolish and arrogant to assume that amateur (or professional) marine biologists can ascertain from a single, grainy, black and white photo what top Egyptian scientists were not able to while studying samples of the carcass in question; namely that the Ataka specimen is nothing more than a slightly decayed example of a common whale with its baleen exposed."

I've recently wrote an article about this carcass (…) and during my research learned that the "Egyptian scientists" in contrary HAVE identified the carcass only few days after the first press articles. Beside that it is also possible to determine the species - with the help of a picture with a higher resolution (which someone can find in cryptozoological literature) - thanks to three elongated ridges leading from the mouth up to the blowholes.

So as in many other cases we find an inadequate level of knowledge and research which has lead to a "cryptozoological mystery" until today where no mystery is at all since 1950.

So what about the accounts of it "disappearing"? Was it accidentally carried off by researchers or carcass pirates or something? Or did it just wash back out to sea?

Washed back into the sea seems quite possible, depending on tides and weather.
I'd guess the carcass would have been getting pretty ripe so it wouldn't surprise me if some public spirited person had disposed of it: dragged it out to sea or buried it. Plus there's the chance that it would explode if just left to rot.

Some carcasses are pretty strange looking, but really this wasn't one of them. I couldn't have guessed the species from the main photo but if it wasn't an upside-down baleen whale, someone sure did a good job of making it look like one.

I'd rather NOT say "upside down baleen whale." Upside down rorqual (=balaenopterid) is more specific, and what the obvious throat ridges in the top photo support. Other baleen whales (right whales. grey whale) don't have these, and so wouldn't be so instantly recognizable.

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 31 May 2010 #permalink

Allen: I'll go ahead and go and further Darren's identification of this thing as a humpback (Megaptera) - I suspected that even before I saw the picture of the tubercled foreflippers; few other balaenopterids of that size have skin that is that dark (then again, it is dried a bit...)

I once did some maceration work while volunteering at a museum. I've concluded, based on that memorable experience, that there isn't much public understanding of what can actually happen to a carcass, and that even formal, clinical discussion can come up short. A major conclusion I came to that I think is counterintuitive to most is that, after bone, skin is the most durable part of a carcass. People who don't know this might assume that an intact integument means the body is still in the shape of a living animal.

My personal interests run toward Forteana and cryptozoology. Something I would say in apologetic is that "mystery carcasses" should get serious attention. There are a number of cetaceans still known very poorly, and the discovery of new species is not inconceivable. So, granting that a carcass is a dead whale, it would still behoove researchers to check on what kind it may be.