What is it?
Upon preliminary investigation of the specimen, a number of morphological features stand out as being particularly striking. The animal shows features common with various groups of animals, making an accurate classification difficult further than the level of ‘class’. The creature is 69 centimetres from head to tail, and appears to be of quadrupedal origin, showing signs of a four-limbed evolutionary ancestry. Although the lower limbs seem to be fused into a single tail in common with the fish and the cetacea (whales and dolphins), of particular interest are the vestigial toes. The presence of modest claws at this distal section of the lower limbs suggests that the fusing of legs into a tail is a relatively recent evolutionary trait. The forelimbs show features in common with the ‘higher’ mammals such as New and Old World monkeys, but the presence of opposable thumbs could not be confirmed. The presence of five digits with keratinous protrusions closely resembling the claws of these groups suggests that clinging or climbing ability would have been present in the live animal. The combination of terrestrial-type forelimbs and aquatic-type hind limbs suggests that the creature could have led an amphibious life, or utilised a strong grip in order to cope with strong underwater currents. Further skeletal examination would be necessary in order to determine how well suited the limbs are to either of these habitats.
The large skull in relation to the body size of the creature suggests a high encephalization quotient (EQ), the ratio of brain to body mass used as a rough estimate of the possible intelligence of an organism. This suggests that the animal could have had a level of intelligence similar to that of the ‘higher’ primates such as chimpanzees and humans. The pronounced and convex nasal bridge suggests that the creature belongs to the order carnivora, this being supported by the large and protruding canine teeth. These features are in common with some species of canine animal such as dogs and foxes, and also with pinniped groups such as seals and sea lions.
The general condition of the specimen suggests that a number of preservation techniques might have been used during its history. Ancient preservation techniques usually involved embalming a carcass with natural herbs and spices, then dehydrating or mummifying the specimen with copious quantities of salt and naturally occurring preservative chemicals. These chemicals also served as a deterrent to pests such as scavenging birds and mammals, and flesh-eating insects and bacteria. The problem with the dehydration technique for scientific specimens is that many of the features of the soft tissue such as muscle and internal organs are lost. Later in history, fleshy specimens such as vertebrates were stored and preserved in alcohol. This method can cause severe discoloration, often leading to the colour of the particular spirit used imparting itself upon the surface layers of the specimen. This could explain the yellowish tinge present in the specimen in question. Alcohol is by no means maintenance-free as a preservative measure. Due to its volatile nature, alcohol readily evaporates, especially in high temperatures, and must be frequently replaced. A more modern substitute is formaldehyde or formalin, which is less volatile but has the disadvantage of being carcinogenic. With most methods of preservation it is not possible to retain colour and pigmentation that may be present in skin or hair. Exposure to sunlight speeds up this process, but a gradual deterioration is almost always seen over time.
It seems that at some stage in its history a crude layer of varnish has been applied to this specimen, perhaps to deter insect pests or to prevent deterioration caused by changes in temperature or humidity. I would suggest that the specimen was initially preserved in alcohol for a period of time, then was allowed to desiccate as this spirit gradually evaporated. Unfortunately the range of preservative chemicals and techniques applied to the specimen over time may have destroyed any fragments of DNA present that would have allowed genetic investigations and analyses
The presence of the features described above, and others such as the presence of hair and whiskers would place the creature in the animal kingdom, the order chordata, and the class mammalia. Further than this, the only certain fact in the eyes of science is that the creature is a true anomaly and should be investigated further.
Timothy Ludolus –Consultant Zoologist, University of Lincolnshire and Cumberland…Taken from the ‘What is it?’ booklet available from Hull Maritime Museum for fifty pence.