We all enjoy a tall tale. Cultures with seafaring traditions are especially ripe in what seem like the tallest sea monster tales of all: hydra, kraken, sirens, scylla, leviathans, assorted serpents and mermaids. Usually the stories are never confirmed and deemed baseless. Then again, some of the tales are based on something. With our skeptical hats on, let's have a look at sea monsters both real and fanciful. We begin with a story that went viral just this week, about a supposed monster that revealed itself during a swim in the Thames River. ANessie-like
bump in the water, filmed from overhead, started it all. But you'll have to judge for yourself: Real or fake? Watch the video and readBen Radford's take
on the tale.'Thames Monster' Video: Hoax Or Mammal?
In keeping with our subject of monsters of the deep, we also learned this week that at leastsome whales
really can, and will, use their heads for ramming -- just as the fictional Moby Dick did, in the Herman Melville classic of the same name. Did whales perfect the head-butt long before people started banging heads?Real Moby Dick: Some Whales Ram With Their Heads
Sea monsters are truly global, of course. This one from Japan serves as the villain for the classic maiden in distress, who awaits rescue by her hero. The poor monsters are almost always cast as the bad guys. And so they usually end hacked to pieces; fish food. But is there any truth behind these sea serpent tales?Ancient Sea Monsters Were Black
Maybe it's the oarfish. It looks too monstrous to be true. It can grow many meters long, has strikingly bright silver scales, scarlet fins and some ornate headgear that more than explains why some call it a roosterfish. If only it were a reptile, it'd be a true sea serpent. Alas. It is a fish. A very weird and beautiful fish, but still a fish.Is the Loch Ness Monster Dead?
There are also other, newfound "sea serpents" our sea-going ancestors never imagined. This one was spotted by a satellite coiling off the south coast of Japan's Hokkaido island. What do we know about it? 1) It's arguably one of the largest organisms on Earth, 2) It swallows ships, engulfs islands and generally does what it wants, and 3) We're darned lucky it's made of plankton.Monster Goldfish Found in Lake Tahoe
Research into such massive blooms and the individual plankton cells that comprise them has revealed surprising cooperation among the microorganisms. They appear to operate like more than just floating individual cells. They live and die for the greater good, it seems. So they may be, in fact, a gigantic watery superorganism. Now that's a cool monster for you: You can swim in it and never know you've been in the belly of a beast.VIDEO: Why Squid Are Terror Monsters Of The Sea
Mermaids and mermen have always been the stuff of fantasy. Where did the fantasies come from? There are some standard answers to this question, which have always seemed rather inadequate. For instance ... (next slide, if you please) ...Mermaids Exist! And They Are Seismically Sensitive
The manatee has often been called the source of mermaid myths. It's a mammal, so it breathes air. But who would ever mistake a manatee for a sleek and beautiful mermaid? Could it be love-starved sailors with poor eyesight? There was no shortage of these fellows in the days before optometrists.Make Way For Manatees Month: Photos
Another possibility is that merfolk were inspired by fish with roughly human-looking faces, like this fellow. Some fish can look humanoid. That would be enough to get superstitious sailors started.First Face? Prehistoric Fish Was a Jaw-Dropper
How about giant, ship-destroying squid and octopi? These monsters were old hat even to the easily freaked-out. Most folks figured they were historical exaggerations. That's until some very large and unusual squids started washing up or being hauled in by marine biologists in recent years. Colossal squid are meters long, pretty amazing beasts. Still, they have never been known to lift ships out of the water. And since were on the topic of squids ...Giant Squid Photos
Do you remember when this one hit the headlines? It's not so gigantic, at four meters long, but it was observed 3,380 meters down in the Pacific Ocean near Oahu. It's pretty big to have gone unseen before its May 2001 discovery. So what else is out there? It's pretty clear marine biologists have only just begun discovering what lives in the deep sea. The more time they spend searching, the more they will find. But none would dispute that the nastiest sea monster to ever rise out of the sea is ... (drum roll please) ...
You might have guessed it: Human garbage. Yep. It's the ugliest, most alien-looking, fatal and pervasive monster in the seas. Garbage patches have been getting a lot of attention lately. These are areas on the seas where currents and winds tend to concentrate floating garbage.Life On The Ocean Floor Garbage Patch: Photos
A spectacularly well-preserved sea monster that once prowled the oceans during the Cambrian Period has been unearthed in China.
The 520-million-year-old creature, one of the first predators of its day, sported compound eyes, body armor and two spiky claws for grabbing prey.
The fossils of the new species were so well preserved that the nervous system and parts of the brain were still clearly defined. [Cambrian Creatures: Photos of Primitive Sea Life]
Before the Cambrian Period, which lasted between 543 million and 493 million years ago, most life resembled simple algae and stationary jellyfishlike creatures, but during the Cambrian explosion, a period of rapid evolution when biodiversity exploded, swimming sea creatures with compound eyes, jointed legs and hard exoskeletons emerged.
The period also saw the rise of an iconic group of shrimplike creatures known as anomalocaridids. These ancient sea monsters were the top predators of the Cambrian seas, and sported bladed body armor and a cone-shaped mouth made of concentric plates. Some of the biggest of these bizarre creatures could grow to be up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) long.
But most anomalocaridid specimens paleontologists found have been poorly preserved, making it difficult to know precisely where they fit in the tree of life, said study co-author Peiyun Cong, a researcher at Yunnan University in China.
Some scientists thought anomalocaridids belonged to a group that split off before the most recent common ancestor of all living arthropods, while others thought the animals were part of a group called chelicerates that includes spiders and scorpions. Still others thought anomalocaridids had converged upon similar features to those of modern arthropods but didn't evolve from the same lineage, Cong said in an email.
A spectacularly preserved creature, dubbed Peiyun Cong
In the last several years, the researchers unearthed three spectacularly preserved specimens of a new species of anomalocaridid in fossil sediments in China. The sediments had frozen these creatures in time so perfectly that the entire nervous system, as well as the gut and some muscles, were still visible.
The creature, dubbed Lyrarapax unguispinus, was about 6 inches (15 centimeters) long.
"The three known specimens may represent immature stages of the animal, so it might be larger," Cong wrote in an email to Live Science.
L. unguispinus had a tail that looked a bit like that of a lobster, and two giant pincers for grasping prey. As it grew, the creature molted, shedding its outer cuticle.
Based on its brain, which lacks some of the characteristic features found in chelicerates, the creature likely shared more similarities with a group known as velvet worms, Cong said.
Still, the new results can't pinpoint where on the tree of life these ancient sea monsters go, Cong said.
But no matter what group they belonged to, by the end of the Paleozoic Era, about 251 million years ago, the last anomalocaridids went extinct, Cong said.
More from LiveScience:
In Images: A Filter-Feeding Cambrian Creature
Image Gallery: 25 Amazing Ancient Beasts
Dangers in the Deep: 10 Scariest Sea Creatures