Scientists say sea-monster legend is all washed up

April 15, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

Ever since the four-ton carcass washed onto a St. Augustine, Fla., beach in 1896, it has been cited as the only evidence for the existence of Octopus giganteus -- an octopus with a 200-foot embrace.

But now, scientists at the University of Maryland College Park say they have slain the old sea-monster legend. Their analysis of preserved tissue from the creature shows that it probably was just decomposed whale blubber.

Dr. Sidney K. Pierce, a UM expert in the cellular biochemistry of invertebrates, says he'd hoped to prove the big octopus was real.

"Everyone likes a sea monster, and I think an old, dead whale isn't very interesting," he said. "But the reality of it was that I sort of knew, deep in my heart, it was not going to come out that way."

While they were at it, the Maryland dragon-slayers have relegated the Bermuda Blob -- a similar but much smaller mass that washed ashore in Bermuda in 1988 -- to tissue from a large fish.

"It just floated around until all the digestible parts were digested," he said. "What washed into Bermuda is what was left over."

News that St. Augustine's famed "giant octopus" has been attacked by Maryland scientists has not been well-received in that north Florida city. "There are people still doubting that their research is right, and asking how, after 100 years can they determine it was whale fat," said Taryn Rodriguez-Boette, research library director at the St. Augustine Historical Society.

Dr. Joseph Gennaro, a retired University of Florida anatomy professor who argued in 1971 for the octopus theory, said he has "high regard" for the Maryland researchers. But he remains unswayed by their findings. "It's a nice piece of work, but the results are certainly inconclusive," he said. "The gist of their paper is that their monster is better than my monster."

Dr. Pierce and his colleagues did not set out to trash St. Augustine's monster. It was the Bermuda Blob that pulled them into the story.

The Blob was "a big chunk of sort of stringy-looking white tissue," he said. More than 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and a foot thick, "it literally was white as soap. It looked like tendons and cords and stuff hanging off of it. It was certainly unrecognizable."

Soon after it was discovered, a hunk of the Blob was sent from Bermuda to the famed College Park marine researcher, Dr. Eugenie Clark, who turned it over to Dr. Pierce.

"None of us are monster hunters," Dr. Pierce said. "She asked me if I had any idea what it might be." But as he puzzled over it, people kept bringing up the old giant octopus story from Florida.

That carcass was huge, Dr. Pierce said. "It took several horses and men, ropes and tackle to dig it out of the sand first, and then haul it out." The shapeless thing had no bones or recognizable organs. "Just stuff," Dr. Pierce said. And, like the Bermuda Blob, "it was pretty much just white."

Dr. DeWitt Webb, a physician and president of the St. Augustine Scientific Society in 1896, thought he saw a tentacle, and concluded it was the remains of a gigantic octopus. He wrote to Yale University invertebrate expert A. E. Verrill, who agreed, and the legend was born.

Dr. Verrill later reconsidered and pronounced the carcass a whale, but his recantation never caught up with the more sensational octopus story. Articles and books referring to St. Augustine's "giant octopus" have cropped up ever since, most recently in a textbook published in January.

In 1971 and 1986 researchers looked at the St. Augustine remains, a sample of which was preserved at the Smithsonian PTC Institution in Washington. Both studies led to conclusions that the creature was a giant octopus. But Dr. Pierce said he was not persuaded.

First, he said, there is no other evidence anywhere for the existence of a four-ton octopus. "There are a couple of species that are quite large, 50 kilos [110 pounds] or so," he said. "But not tons."

OC There are also giant squid, perhaps 55 feet long with tentacles

that span 32 feet. But not 200 feet.

Second, Dr. Pierce found the quality of the science done in the 1971 and 1986 papers inadequate. Hesitant to sound too critical, he said their results "were just very strange," and they were published in the popular press, not peer-reviewed journals.

Dr. Pierce and his colleagues are publishing their findings this month in the Biological Bulletin, a journal of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.

They studied a half-dollar-sized sample of the Florida creature obtained from Dr. Gennaro, who snipped it from the Smithsonian sample, which has since been lost.

Under an electron microscope, the Bermuda and Florida tissues were clearly composed almost entirely of collagen -- a protein found in tough connective tissues such as tendons, ligaments and skin. They looked "nothing like" samples of actual octopus or squid tissues, Dr. Pierce said. "On the other hand, whale blubber matched it exactly."

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