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Representation of the Gourock sea serpent carcase, based upon a sketch by eyewitness Charles Rankin (Dr Karl Shuker)
The history of cryptozoology is embarrassingly well-supplied with classic cases of lost opportunities, and the long-running saga of the sea serpents has provided quite a number of these over the years. One of the most notable examples took place on the shores of Gourock, on Scotland’s River Clyde. This was where, in summer 1942, an intriguing (if odiferous!) carcase was stranded that was closely observed by council officer Charles Rankin.
Measuring 27-28 ft long, it had a lengthy neck, a relatively small flattened head with sharp muzzle and prominent eyebrow ridges, large pointed teeth in each jaw, rather large laterally-sited eyes, a long rectangular tail that seemed to have been vertical in life, and two pairs of ‘L’-shaped flippers (of which the front pair were the larger, and the back pair the broader). Curiously, its body did not appear to contain any bones other than its spinal column, but its smooth skin bore many 6-in-long, bristle-like ‘hairs’ – resembing steel knitting needles in form and thickness but more flexible.
Rankin was naturally very curious to learn what this strange creature could be, whose remains resembled those of a huge lizard in his opinion; but as World War II was well underway and this locality had been classed as a restricted area, he was not permitted to take any photographs of it, and scientists who might otherwise have shown an interest were presumably occupied with wartime work. Consequently, this mystery beast’s carcase was summarily disposed of – hacked into pieces and buried in the grounds of the municipal incinerator, but which have since been converted into a football pitch. All that remained to verify its onetime existence was one of its strange ‘knitting needle’ bristles, which Rankin had pulled out of a flipper and kept in his desk, where it eventually shrivelled until it resembled a coiled spring.
Great white shark – was this, or some similar canivorous shark species, the identity of the Gourock sea serpent?
When considered collectively, features such these bristles (readily recalling the ceratotrichia – cartilaginous fibres – of shark fin rays), the carcase’s lizard-like shape, vertical tail (characteristic of fishes), lack of body bones, and smooth skin suggest a decomposing shark as a plausible identity (i.e. adopting the deceptive ‘pseudoplesiosaur’ form so frequently reported for rotting basking sharks).
Yet the large pointed teeth argue against this traditional basking shark explanation in favour of one of the large carnivorous species. However, if Rankin’s estimate of its size was accurate, it must have been a veritable monster of a specimen – the world’s largest known species of carnivorous shark, the notorious great white shark Carcharodon carcharias, rarely exceeds 20 ft.
If only some taxonomically-significant portion of the Gourock sea serpent’s body could have been retained for formal examination – in particular its skull, a flipper, or at least some teeth. Instead, they have presumably been pounded ever deeper into the earth by the studs of a succession of soccer teams – oblivious to the cryptozoological treasure trove lying forgotten beneath their feet.
Diagram revealing how a decomposing basking shark (top) transforms into a deceptively plesiosaurian carcase, known as a pseudoplesiosaur (centre), with a genuine plesiosaur (bottom) for comparison (Markus Bühler)
Incidentally, it hardly need be said that the local council would definitely not be best pleased if anyone should attempt to dig up the grounds in search of this creature’s remains without having first received permission to do so!!