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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Octopus? mermaid? Mythical sea monsters may have been whales that behaved strangely

Mysterious whale behavior recently observed by scientists could explain seemingly fantastic historical accounts of sea monsters, according to a study.

Researchers found evidence that humans may have been documenting the strange behavior for centuries, around 2,000 years ago.

The study published in the journal Science of marine mammals, describes how ancient and medieval peoples might have observed this behavior. Previous reports indicate that the creature was understood to be some type of whale. However, these descriptions are often exaggerated or embellished with surrealistic details.

But in recent centuries, these older accounts may have been misinterpreted as depicting fantastic sea creatures like the octopus and even mermaids.

Whale behavior refers to a feeding strategy first documented by modern scientists in the 2000s. It has been seen in two whale species on opposite sides of the world.

In this strategy, whales lurk motionless at the water’s surface with their mouths wide open. They then patiently wait for schools of fish to swim into the water between their jaws before slamming them down. The fish enter the pharynx in the mistaken belief that they have found a safe place to protect themselves from predators.

This behavior has been observed in humpback whales in the Northeast Pacific and has been termed “trap feeding.” Scientists also documented very similar but possibly different behavior in Bryde’s whales in the Gulf of Thailand. They called it “tread water feeding”.

John McCarthy, a marine archaeologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and author of the study, said news week: “The first observations of this whale feeding strategy were made in 2011 by marine biologists working off Vancouver Island, Canada, but this was not reported until 2018 as a novel behavior called trap feeding.”

“In 2017, another team in Thailand reported near-identical behavior in another whale species, calling it treadle feeding,” McCarthy said. “It is not known whether these behaviors are identical or just very similar. However, given that they are on opposite sides of the world and in two different species, this suggests that the behavior is relatively widespread among cetaceans and used in different environments. “

Why this behavior has only been documented by scientists in recent years is still a mystery. However, researchers have speculated that increased surveillance of whales or changing environmental conditions could be possible explanations.

The inspiration for the latest study came while McCarthy was reading about Icelandic mythology. He noticed strange similarities between historical writings and the recently observed feeding phenomenon.

“I’ve worked on shipwreck sites in Iceland and the North Atlantic and have always been interested in the maritime history of the region,” McCarthy said. “I was casually reading about Icelandic mythology and came across a reference to a sea monster that caught fish in its mouth by remaining still at the water’s surface and luring them to dive in before closing its mouth to catch them .”

“It reminded me of a video I saw online that showed a whale being fed in the same way,” McCarthy added. “After discussing the idea with experts in medieval literature, they encountered increasing amounts of data that seemed to support the theory that the two concepts were linked.”

McCarthy and his colleagues found previously unidentified but “striking” parallels between the features of recently observed feeding strategies and a marine creature described in ancient and medieval sources.

“This creature was known in ancient and medieval times as ‘Aspidochelone,’ and in Norse and later times as ‘Hafgufa,'” McCarthy said. “It was generally thought of as mythical or fantastic, but was performed alongside mostly real creatures that are now being described by science. It may actually be a fairly accurate description of a rarely observed whale feeding strategy.”

The Hafgufa tradition can be traced back to the Aspidochelone creature, which first appeared in the physiologist—an ancient manuscript originally written in Greek. The manuscript was compiled by an unknown author in Alexandria, Egypt and is thought to date from the second century.

The physiologist compiled information on creatures – real and fantastic – from early natural historians. It was later translated into several languages, including Icelandic around the year 1200.

Historical accounts of the Hafgufa/Aspidochelon creature from ancient times through the 17th century appear to treat the animal as a type of whale. But from this century, misunderstandings of previous descriptions of the creature begin to appear. These later scholars seem to confuse the Hafgufa with fantastical creatures like the kraken and even mermaids.

“After [the 17th century]Writers became more confused about the creature for some reason, and some writers said it was another name for the mythical kraken and therefore a species of giant squid,” McCarthy said. “In fact, the octopus is a relatively modern invention, much younger in time than the Hafgufa/Aspidochelon.

“The Hafgufa has also been depicted as a giant tortoise or a generic Godzilla-like creature in more recent art, and there has been a lot of confusion about these 18th-century writers,” McCarthy added.

“A recent video game called God of War even depicted the Hafgufa as a giant jellyfish. However, we have found that the earliest sources were clear and consistent over a remarkably long period of time to describe the creature as a type of great whale.

According to McCarthy, when new descriptive details emerge in Norse accounts from the Middle Ages, they resemble the appearance of whales eating traps. They describe the creature’s mouth as two rocks sticking out of the water.

The results of the latest study suggest that this feeding strategy existed in the distant past and is not a new phenomenon.

“If there is a real connection between these phenomena, it suggests that the historical descriptions may be more reliable and contain more information about the ancient seas than we previously gave them credit for,” McCarthy said. “It could also inspire some new research directions for marine biologists, who can further investigate how old these ‘novel’ behaviors really are.”

“There is still a lot to learn about whale behavior. It’s an exciting time in marine biology, with new technologies like drones being used to sample whale breath as they surface,” McCarthy said.

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