The super-otter (Hyperhydra egedei; French: super-loutre) is a Heuvelmans type of sea serpent, reported from the coasts of Norway until 1848. Based on twenty-eight sightings, of which he considered thirteen certain and fifteen probable, Bernard Heuvelmans described the super-otter as a very large, flexible marine mammal similar to a seal or an otter, with four distinct limbs and a tapering tail. He believed it lived in the icy Arctic waters, moving south into the Norwegian Sea in the Summer.
Although Heuvelmans considered them distinct for physiological reasons, later authors have noted close similarities between the super-otter and the many-humped sea serpent of the North Atlantic. One of the type's foundational sightings, Egede's sea serpent, has also been repeatedly reinterpreted. Heuvelmans identified the type as a descendant of the earliest, amphibious cetaceans, which were then unknown in the fossil record. Although Eocene cetaceans such as Ambulocetus and Kutchicetus have since been discovered, Karl Shuker argues that a more parsimonious explanation is a zeuglodon, thus synonymising the super-otter and the many-humped. Michael Woodley identifies both as related but probably-distinct species of gigantic sea otter, while the Coleman-Huyghe system creates the classic sea serpent out of these types and the super-eel.
The super-otter, alongside the merhorse, is one of the types invoked to explain the soe-orm, the classic sea serpent of Scandinavia. Heuvelmans regarded the super-otter as possibly extinct, but similar sea monsters are still rumoured in the Barents Sea. It also shares its sightings range with amphibious sea monsters such as the fjörulalli and skeljaskrímsli of Iceland, and some cryptozoologists argue that a freshwater version of the super-otter could explain cryptids such as the skrimsl and dobhar-chú.
- 1 History
- 2 Significant sightings
- 3 Profile
- 4 Gallery
- 5 Criticism
- 6 Theories
- 7 Notes and references
The super-otter type was identified by Bernard Heuvelmans in In the Wake of the Sea Serpents (1968), and included many of the descriptions and sightings reports regarding the classic Scandinavian sea serpent, the soe-orm, collected by ecclesiastics such as Olaus Magnus (1490 – 1557) and Erik Pontoppidan (1698 – 1764). In all, Heuvelmans believed that twenty-eight of the sightings in his dossier could refer to the super-otter, thirteen without doubt. However, not all later cryptozoologists accept that the super-otter represents a distinct type of sea serpent.
Although there were later sightings of sea serpents in Norway, Heuvelmans was not aware of any sightings he could confidently assign to the super-otter postdating 1848. He therefore believed that it had likely gone extinct during the 19th Century. However, according to Dale A. Drinnon, there are recent rumours of similar sea serpents around Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago, among Russian hunters and whalers.
- Main article: Egede's sea serpent
One of the super-otter's foundational sightings, and one of the earliest of all alleged sea serpent sightings, was Egede's sea serpent, reportedly observed off the west coast of Greenland by pioneer missionaries in 1734. The identity, and even the correct description, of this sea serpent is controversial. The sighting was made by Poul Egede (1708 – 1789) and Andreas Bing during a voyage to Disko Bay, but the best-known account was published by Egede's father, Hans Egede (1686 – 1758). All accounts agree that the "sea dragon" raised itself out of the water to the height of the ship's yardarm and spouted vapour, displaying a long and pointed snout, broad flippers, rough or wrinkled skin, and a long tail, which Bing's drawing depicted as pointed. According to one of Poul Egede's accounts, it was afterwards seen to surface several times while swimming away from the ship.
Heuvelmans regarded the Egede sighting as an important super-otter account, giving the type the parataxonomic name Hyperhydra egedei in Hans Egede's honour. Lars Thomas was the first to question the sighting's relevance to the super-otter, arguing in 1996 that the animal, as originally described, bore little resemblance to Heuvelmans' type. Other identities suggested for Egede's sea serpent include a giant squid (Architeuthus dux), Basilosaurus, a sexually-aroused whale of a known species, and an entangled basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus).
Sundsland (Before 1753)
One of Pontoppidan's informants, a fisherman from Sundsland, claimed to have observed a sea monster which Heuvelmans noted was remarkably similar to Egede's "sea dragon," but which Pontoppidan relegated to a footnote. The fisherman described it as gigantic and woolly-haired, with seal-like forequarters and a long tapering tail.
Herøy (Before 1753)
Pontoppidan interviewed two inhabitants of Herøy in Sunnmøre, Reutz and Tuchsen, who claimed to have seen sea serpents during their boat journeys to the local church; both men identified what they saw with a drawing of a sea serpent made by Governor Benstrup, another alleged witness. Tuchsen gave Pontoppidan a rare description of the sea serpent's tail, claiming that "the body, which looks to be as big as two hogsheads, grows remarkably small at once just where the tail begins".
Sunnmøre (Before 1753)
According to a rumour reported by Pontoppidan, a large marine "serpent" or "snake," with four legs, had recently (1753) been caught by the peasants of Sunnmøre, but the animal was left on the shore and crawled back into the sea. Pontoppidan did not believe the account referred to the soe-orm, and again relegated it to a footnote, but Heuvelmans felt that the animal involved was likely a young super-otter.
As the classic sea serpent, the super-otter is described as having an exceptionally flexible, elongated body, moving with vertical undulations and displaying multiple bends or loops of its body. It is almost always described as enormous in size, generally as large as a ship, although its dimensions have probably been exaggerated by some alleged eyewitnesses. Appendages such as fins, crests, and humps have never been mentioned. The tapering head, sometimes held a couple of feet out of the water, is usually compared to that of a seal[1753:2] or a snake,[1820:2][1820:3] but has been called horse-like. Teeth are sometimes observed distinctly.[1820:1]
The super-otter is distinguished by its four limbs and its pointed tail. Four limbs are described in only a handful of sightings,[1753:5] and one sighting specified "two fins, on the fore part of the body nearest the head". According to Heuvelmans, some sightings describe webbed feet with distinct toes, seen when the animal banked in the water. The body narrows suddenly at the base of the tail,[1753:4] which is "about six fathoms long ... quite small, and pointed at the end."[1753:2]
The integument has been described conflictingly, as rough or wrinkled, with "shellwork" or "scales," "smooth skin,"[1753:1] or "furred skin."[1753:2] Heuvelmans argued that a woolly, seal-like coat might appear like rough skin to an observer, but alternatively suggested that the super-otter might have skin like the walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) or elephant seal (Mirounga sp.). In colour, it has been described as "greyish ... the mouth was quite black", grey with a blackish head,[1820:1] dark grey,[1820:2][1820:3] or generically dark.
Due to its lack of fins, Heuvelmans believed that the super-otter must have swum much like a true otter, with vertical undulations and occasional spiral movements, explaining the appearance of loops in sightings. Based on its quadrupedal nature and colouration, Heuvelmans suggested that the super-otter lived a pelagic lifestyle in nearshore waters of the continental shelf. As a quadruped, Heuvelmans believed that the super-otter was likely capable of limited movement on land. Indeed, a distinctly four-limbed super-otter allegedly caught in a net was able to move back into the sea after being left on the shore.[1753:5]
Super-otters have been observed in apparent pairs in two sightings, both of which occurred during the summer.[1820:2][1820:2] Three individuals were seen together in one sighting, in which the time of year was unspecified. Sightings are reported from the coasts and fjords of Norway, in the Norwegian and Barents Seas, from North Cape in the north[1820:1] to Nordfjord in the south, but possible sightings have also been reported from the west coast of Greenland, in the Labrador Sea, and from the Baltic Sea. Every sighting in which the time of year was specified occurred during the summer. Heuvelmans believed that the super-otter probably spent the rest of the year in more northern, Arctic waters, coping with the low temperatures by gigantothermy, moving south in the Summer to mate or to give birth.
As with other sea serpent types, some cryptozoologists speculate that the super-otter could also exist in freshwater habitats, explaining similar lake monsters. Heuvelmans himself cautiously associated the super-otter with stories of giant, seal-like animals in Iceland's River Hvítá, near Skálholt. Peter Costello later identified the skrimsl of Skorradalsvatn Lake, also in Iceland, with the super-otter, on account of that lake monster's seal or otter-like head, lumpy body, and distinct, pointed tail. The freshwater skrimsl was indeed said to have been partially marine, as it was reported from the coasts of Grímsey Island, where it was reputed to occasionally come ashore. Michael Woodley also suggests a connection between the super-otter and the dobhar-chú of Ireland, which is described as a giant river otter, and is reported from freshwater habitats on several small Irish islands and peninsulas.
The possible existence of the super-otter has been criticised by some cryptozoologists, on two main bases: that accounts describe natural phenomena or known species, and that descriptions of the super-otter are indistinguishable from descriptions of the many-humped sea serpent.
It has been argued that the "coils" or "humps" effect, characterising the super-otter and the many-humped, is merely a wave effect, caused, in different cases, by either wind, or by the wakes of marine animals, known and unknown, including other sea serpent types. The Marshall system therefore lumps the super-otter and many-finned together with the longneck and merhorse to form the great sea horse, whereas Drinnon rejects the super-otter and many-finned types altogether, identifying the super-otter reports as a mixture of wave action and grey whales (Eschrichtius robustus).
Ulrich Magin, in a general criticism of the Heuvelmans system, argued that Heuvelmans categorised sea serpent reports as super-otters based solely on their geography, opining that "when the witness happens to stand on Scandinavian shores, [it is] a super-otter". The Coleman-Huyghe system also lumps the super-otter together with the many-humped and the super-eel, at least partially due to the lack of modern sightings; Karl Shuker feels that the same animal, perhaps Basilosaurus, could be behind both types. Heuvelmans preemptively rejected this criticism, arguing that the super-otter showed coils of its body, whereas the many-humped usually showed fatty humps: "... anatomically the Norwegian type with its large coils does seem very different from the American one with a row of humps along its back. This is at once clear if one attempts to draw the two types to scale." Michael Woodley also argues that, although the super-otter and many-humped are more alike than different, they do appear to be distinct cryptids. The maned merhorse, reported from some of the same localities as the super-otter, has also sometimes been described as having a long, tapering, pointed tail.
Ambulocetid, remingtonocetid, or protocetid
Considering that the super-otter, which was certainly a mammal, was too large to be a true otter and had too long a tail to be a pinniped, Heuvelmans concluded that it must be a cetacean. Its distinct neck and flexible spine were suggestive of a zeuglodon, but, as discussed below, the super-otter's four limbs and tail shape argued against this identity. Consequently, Heuvelmans suggested that the super-otter was the descendant of a hypothetical earlier stage of whale evolution...
When Heuvelmans made this suggestion, the now well-known families of "walking whales," Ambulocetidae and Remingtonocetidae, were unknown in the fossil record, although some fully-aquatic members of the family Protocetidae were known. Ivan T. Sanderson had speculated on putative "first ancestors" in Follow the Whale (1956), in which he suggested that such animals might still survive, a possible inspiration for Heuvelmans' theory. Ambulocetus natans was not described until 1994, and when it was, it was seen as closely corresponding to Heuvelmans' theoretical "primordial Archaeocetus," with its four limbs, tapering tail, and otter-like mode of locomotion. Ambulocetus and many other amphibious and aquatic early cetaceans lived in the coastal waters, mangroves, brackish estuaries, and freshwater lakes, rivers, and swamps of tropical South Asia throughout the Middle Eocene, mainly hunting fishes and small mammals.
Karl Shuker, while conceding that something like Ambulocetus, but much larger, might perfectly explain the super-otter, argues in favour of a more parsimonious identity, that of a zeuglodon, which would synonymise the super-otter with the many-humped sea serpent, turning two undiscovered species into one, a basilosaurine cetacean. Inversely, authors such as Loren Coleman and Darren Naish have suggested that the humped sea serpent could itself be an evolved remingtonocetid or protocetid, synonymising the types under Heuvelmans' original super-otter identity instead.
Although Ambulocetus may have swam like an otter, it and most of its relatives would have more closeley resembled mammalian crocodiles than giant otters. According to Michael Woodley, the only early cetacean bearing any resemblance to the super-otter was the remingtonocetid Kutchicetus (~46–43 MYA). Kutchicetus, alongside its close relative Andrewsiphius (~50–40 MYA), lived in tropical South Asia during the Early to Middle Eocene. Sometimes compared to an otter in their skeletal anatomy, remingtonocetids had long narrow snouts, short legs, and strong tails, as well as vertebral proportions similar to those of otters; in terms of locomotion, Kutchicetus itself has been considered a cetacean analogue to the giant river otter (Pteronura brasiliensis). However, remingtonocetids were among the smallest of the early cetaceans, and have never been discovered outside of South Asia and the Middle East. In general, remingtonocetids are thought to have inhabited water with low visibility, and have been found in formations suggestive of algal reefs, seagrass meadows, muddy beaches, coastal swamps, and shallow inlets. All remingtonocetids were probably powerful swimmers, but clumsy on land.
Woodley argues that an ambulocetid, remingtonocetid, or protocetid identity for the super-otter is unlikely because most of its characteristic features–such as a "lumpy" body, four distinct limbs, and fur–were phased out of the ocean-going cetacean body plan early in their evolution. Nevertheless, Woodley does cautiously suggest a protocetid identity for certain marine saurians. More recently, larger protocetids also compared to otters have been discovered elsewhere, such as the Peruvian Peregocetus (~42 MYA), indicating that protocetids did attain a wide marine distribution while retaining all four limbs and a tapering tail.
Basilosaurus was a large, eel-shaped Eocene cetacean which, alongside its close relatives, is usually called a zeuglodon in cryptozoology. Heuvelmans rejected a zeuglodon identity due to the super-otter's four distinct limbs and lack of a bilobate tail, features which Basilosaurus and its relatives had already evolved past. However, Karl Shuker argues that a zeuglodon would indeed be a plausible identity for the super-otter, thus eliminating it as a type distinct from the many-humped sea serpent. Shuker points out that, in light of modern palaeontological knowledge, the super-otter's four limbs do not necessarily remove the zeuglodon as a candidate. In 1989, complete skeletons of Basilosaurus isis discovered in Egypt revealed that this cetacean did in fact retain small, but functional, hind limbs. Remains of such limbs had been found before, but had been assumed to be purely vestigial. Shuker argues that, if these limbs were external and prominent enough to be noticed by eyewitnesses, they could satisfactorily explain sightings of four-limbed super-otters.
Although Heuvelmans wrote that the super-otter might appear at first glance to be an otter or a pinniped–a fact which gives it its name–he argued against an otter identity on account of the super-otter's far greater size, which he admitted was sometimes exaggerated. His conclusion was that "the animal is much too big to be classed among the otters with any probability". The largest known living otter, the freshwater giant river otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) of South America, officially grows to between 5' and 6', but lengths of 12' or even 20' have been reported. The marine sea otter (Enhydra lutris) is also among the largest, growing to almost 5' in length. Fossil species such as Siamogale, Enhydriodon, and Megalenhydris reached greater sizes, and giant freshwater otters also occur in cryptozoology, such as the iemisch and dobhar-chú. Shuker has also considered a giant otter identity, but preferred the zeuglodon theory on account of that animal's known prehistoric existence.
Michael Woodley finds Heuvelmans' rejection of an otter identity surprising, arguing that it is the only acceptable explanation for both the super-otter and the many-finned sea serpent. Apart from the general resemblance observed by Heuvelmans, the most relevant characteristic of otters when considering the super-otter is their highly-flexible bodies and undulating tails, which might create the illusion of humps so often described in the super-otter. In fact, this phenomenon is known in observations of the giant river otter. Heuvelmans also made such a comment on the sinuous shape of an otter, and noted the origin of the otter's name, which is ultimately derived from terms meaning "water snake". In addition, the super-otter has been described as woolly-furred, similar to the sea otter, which, unlike many other marine mammals, is insulated by its fur instead of by blubber.
Due to its geographic range, Woodley suggests that the super-otter would likely be allied to the Eurasian genus Lutra, the common species of which (Lutra lutra) may grow up to 3' long, with a 1'5'' tail. He further suggests that the many-humped sea serpent may be closely-related, but better-adapted for a marine lifestyle, and that the Irish dobhar-chú may be some kind of relative.
Heuvelmans discounted a pinniped identity due to the super-otter's long, tapering tail, though Philippe Coudray writes in tacit support of this theory. Heuvelmans briefly considered a sirenian identity for both the super-otter and the many-humped, and some early amphibious sirenians did somewhat resemble bulky otters, but Woodley rejects this theory because no known modern sirenian has a functional pelvis, meaning that, for the super-otter to be a sirenian, it would have to be of a branch unknown in the fossil record, which developed down a unique evolutionary path. More recently, Carl Marshall has argued that both types are a species of baleen whale with a unique feeding method, which he calls the "wrong whale".
Notes and references
- Heuvelmans, Bernard (1968) In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, Hart-Davis, ISBN 9780246643124
- Coleman, Loren & Huyghe, Patrick (2003) The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep, TarcherPerigree, ISBN 978-1585422524
- Woodley, Michael (2008) In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans: An Introduction to the History and Future of Sea Serpent Classification, CFZ Press, ISBN 978-1905723201
- Shuker, Karl P. N. (2016) Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors: The Creatures That Time Forgot?, Coachwhip Publications, ISBN 978-1616463908
- Drinnon, Dale A. "Revised Checklist of Cryptozoological Creatures," CFZ Yearbook (2010)
- Costello, Peter (1974) In Search of Lake Monsters, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 9780698106130
- Heuvelmans, Bernard "Annotated Checklist of Apparently Unknown Animals With Which Cryptozoology Is Concerned", Cryptozoology, No. 5 (1986)
- Paxton, Charles et. al. "Cetaceans, Sex and Sea Serpents: An Analysis of the Egede Accounts of a 'Most Dreadful Monster' Seen off the Coast of Greenland in 1734," Archives of Natural History, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2005)
- Thomas, Lars "No Super-Otter After All?," Fortean Studies, Vol. 3 (1996)
- Shuker, Karl P. N. "A Supplement to Dr Bernard Heuvelmans' Checklist of Cryptozoological Animals," Fortean Studies, Vol. 5 (1998)
- Lee, Henry (1884) Sea Monsters Unmasked
- France, Robert L. (2021) Ethnozoology of Egede's 'Most Dreadful Monster,' the Foundational Sea Serpent, Contributions in Ethnobiology
- Pontoppidan, Erik (1753) Det første Forsøg paa Norges Naturlige Historie
- Marshall, Carl "21st Century Sea Serpents," Animals & Men, No. 64–65 (June 2018)
- Thewissen, J. G. M Hans (2014) The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years
- Mackal, Roy P. (1980) Searching for Hidden Animals: An Inquiry Into Zoological Mysteries, Cadogan Books, ISBN 978-0946313051
- Eberhart, George M. (2002) Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology, ABC-CLIO, Inc., ISBN 1576072835
- Coudray, Philippe (2009) Guide des Animaux Cachés, Editions du Mont, ISBN 978-2915652383
- Marshall, Carl "Leviathan and the 'Wrong Whale'," CFZ Yearbook 2020 (2020)