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 usually baseless.
Then again, some of the tales are based on something, or so we are learning as marine scientists plumb the depths and discover some pretty weird creatures. The bottom line: There really are bizarre, unexpected, totally startling monsters found in the seas. And the very worst of these is the most unexpected.
Sea monsters are truly global. 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?
Credit: NOAA/ Bloodydecks.com
Improbable, But True
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.
Largest Serpent of All
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.
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.
The Hokey Hybrids
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) ...
Credit: Getty Images
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.
Credit: beats me
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.
The Kraken Strikes
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 ...
Spider + Bat + Squid = Sea Monster
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) ...
Deadliest Sea Monster Ever
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.
Viking graves in Norway contain a grisly tribute: slaves who were beheaded and buried along with their masters, new research suggests.
In Flakstad, Norway, remains from 10 ancient people were buried in multiple graves, with two to three bodies in some graves and some bodies decapitated. Now, an analysis reveals the beheaded victims ate a very different diet from the people with whom they were buried.
"We propose that the people buried in double and triple burials might have come from very different strata of society, and that slaves could have been offered as grave gifts in these burials," study co-author Elise Naumann, an archaeologist at the University of Oslo in Norway, wrote in an email.
From about the 790s until about A.D. 1100, the Vikings were fierce, sea-faring raiders and often took slaves as booty. But this vicious lifestyle wasn't a full-time job. In everyday life, many Vikings were actually farmers, relying on slaves, or thralls, for agricultural work. Though some thralls were treated well, many were forced to endure backbreaking physical labor, Naumann said. Women were often used as sex slaves, and any children who resulted could either be considered the master's children or treated as slaves themselves. (Fierce Fighters: 7 Secrets of Viking Seamen)
The Viking burials were first discovered in the early 1980s, but only partially excavated at the time. The ancient graves were partly damaged by modern farming and contained just a few grave artifacts, such as an amber bead, some animal bones and a few knives. At the time, archaeologists noticed that four of the bodies were beheaded whereas the rest were intact.
That led many to conclude that the decapitated bodies were those of slaves sacrificed and buried with their masters.
To bolster that notion, Naumann and her colleagues analyzed the skeletons' mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on through the maternal line. The team found that bodies buried together were most likely not related, at least on the maternal side.
Next, they analyzed the ratio of carbon and nitrogen isotopes, or elements with different molecular weights, in the bones of the ancient Scandinavians.
Because food that comes from the sea or the land contains different proportions of heavy and light isotopes of carbon and nitrogen, the concentration of these chemicals in bones can reveal the dietary history of a people.
Results showed the beheaded people ate more fish protein, whereas the others ate land-based protein sources, such as meat and dairy products. That suggests the people buried together came from very different strata of society.
Naumann proposes the beheaded victims were slaves who were sacrificed as gifts to be offered in death on behalf of their masters. Though such human sacrifice was uncommon in Viking society, it wasn't unknown.
"There are other examples of sacrifice in burials, where individuals had tied hands and feet and were sometimes beheaded, or in other ways treated in ways that indicates sacrifice," Naumann said. "It is assumed that such persons were grave gifts, and would follow their masters in death. One historical account from Ibn Fadlan (an Arab traveler who chronicled his journeys) describes how a slave woman volunteered to follow her master — a Viking chieftain — in the grave."
The find will be detailed in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.
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