Mysterious Island: the Basilosaurus is extinct—right?

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By Jim Watson

We return you once again to the Mysteries of the Deep and another little gem I discovered while perusing vintage copies of the Catalina Islander. This one comes from the Jan. 14, 1925, edition of this very paper and involves a remarkable catch a fisherman made while surf fishing near Portuguese Bend in San Pedro.

“Strange Sea Freak Has Alligator Head, Body of Swordfish, Web Feet” says the headline of the short news article all the way back on page 9 of that issue.

By Jim Watson

We return you once again to the Mysteries of the Deep and another little gem I discovered while perusing vintage copies of the Catalina Islander. This one comes from the Jan. 14, 1925, edition of this very paper and involves a remarkable catch a fisherman made while surf fishing near Portuguese Bend in San Pedro.

“Strange Sea Freak Has Alligator Head, Body of Swordfish, Web Feet” says the headline of the short news article all the way back on page 9 of that issue.

“What fishermen today were proclaiming the strangest freak of nature ever brought out of the depths of the briny was being exhibited at Los Angeles harbor by J.W. Forester,” it says.

This “freak” was described as being a four-foot-long “mammal,” bearing—as the headline says—an alligator-like head, a swordfish-ish body and webbed feet “similar to a duck’s.” Though he had the assistance of several other campers from the nearby campground where he was staying, the landing of this beast nearly cost Forester his arm when the creature “suddenly opened its huge jaws and snapped at him,” according to the article.

Was this “sea freak” some kind of living fossil? The pre-history books are littered with all manner of fearsome predators that once roamed the oceans. They ranged from the toothy Liopleurodon and the Greyhound bus-sized Kronosaurus (both denizens of the Age of Dinosaurs) to the massive Basilosaurus.

Basilosaurus was not, as the name implies, a giant prehistoric Italian herb. In fact, it wasn’t even a reptile as the name also implies, but rather an air-breathing carnivorous mammal that averaged nearly 60-feet in length.

The problem with these creatures is that not only did they have flippers rather than webbed feet, but the most recent specimens—namely Basilosaurus—became extinct more than 30 million years ago.

Or did they?

The discovery of “living fossils” is not unheard of. Known in biology as Lazarus Taxa (named for Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus in the Gospel of John), there are numerous examples of the discovery of living creatures that were previously thought to be extinct. The most famous example of this phenomenon would probably be the Coelacanth, a species of fish that was thought to have become extinct 65 million years ago until 1938 when (surprise!) one was caught off the coast of South Africa.

Could it be that Forester had somehow caught an evolutionarily modified descendent of one of these prehistoric beasts? Could this creature have been the progeny of Basilosaurus of Liopleurodon, now sprouting webbed feet in an evolutionary attempt to become a land-living mammal?

And if so, did Forester catch the very last one in existence, or could there be more of them out there? You know what they say about Liopleurodons: for every one you see…

I exchanged emails with Dr. Christopher Lowe, a zoologist and biological sciences professor at CSU, Long Beach, who replied: “Can’t imagine what critter that was,” and theorized that Forester and his pals may have been in violation of the Volstead Act by illegally “sipping homemade hooch.”

Of course, this could be just a whopper of a fish tale. Fishermen have certainly been known to spin such yarns. However such stories rarely involve the risky component of claiming there were many other witnesses. Normally such conspiracies take place entirely on board someone’s boat rather than a beach where it is freely claimed that many others saw the fish in question. Having the mythical event take place at sea allows for fewer witnesses and allows for the fish to “get away.”

But as noted earlier, Forester claimed he had help bringing the beast in from others in the campground and in the last paragraph of the article we are told that he is “awaiting its classification by experts” and that he intends to “turn the monster over to some museum or zoo.”

Perhaps the remains of our legendary creature, mammal or whatever it was, lie in a dusty box in the basement of the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, awaiting re-discovery.

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