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Myths and Legends
Basking Sharks have been responsible for a number of sea monster stories.
When a Basking Shark decomposes the entire gill apparatus falls away, taking with it the sharks’ characteristic jaws and leaving behind only its small cranium and exposed backbone, which have the appearance of a small head and long neck. The triangular dorsal fin also rots away, sometimes leaving behind the rays, which can look a little like a mane - especially when the fishs’ skin also decays, allowing the underlying muscle fibres and connective tissue to break up into hair-like growth.
Additionally, the end of the backbone only runs into the top fluke of the tail, which means that during decomposition the lower tail fluke falls off, leaving behind what looks like a long slender tail. The pectoral and sometimes the pelvic fins remain attached, but become distorted, so that they can (with a little imagination!) look like legs with feet and toes, and male sharks have a pair of leg-like copulatory organs called claspers, which would yield a third pair of legs. Suddenly, the Basking Shark has become a hairy six-legged sea serpent!
Due to the morphology of Basking Sharks and the manner in which they decompose, a number of occurrences of sea serpents being trawled or washed up on shore have been reported over the years. One of the most famous and heavily discussed was an incident in 1977 in New Zealand waters when a Japanese trawler pulled up what was thought to be a sea monster.
➤ Glen Kuban’s dissection of the story: Sea-monster or Shark? An Analysis of a Supposed Plesiosaur Carcass Netted in 1977
➤ Dr. Karl P. N. Shuker’s article: Bring me the Head of the Sea Serpent
➤ Blog by Dr. Darren Naish: Where are all the dead sea monsters?
➤ The Stronsay Beast!
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