Opabinia is known from the 505-million-year-old Burgess Shale fossil beds in Canada, one of the oldest sites with well-preserved imprints of soft body parts. It has some bizarre anatomy – most notably five eyes and a trunk-like proboscis – and its exact evolutionary relationships are still debated. It’s most likely closely related to the ancestors of arthropods, and one study has suggested that its closest living relatives might even be tardigrades.
Tullimonstrum, meanwhile, comes from the 300-million-year-old Mazon Creek fossil beds in Illinois, USA. It’s found quite commonly there, to the point that it’s the official state fossil – and yet nobody knows just what type of animal it is! The overall rarity of soft-bodied creatures in the fossil record makes it impossible to tell what it might be related to. And while its proboscis does have a surprising similarity to that of Opabinia, that’s probably more due to convergent evolution than any actual relation.
Pioneering Nessie investigator and old school monster-hunter, F.W. “Ted” Holiday, wrote a book in 1968 entitled: “The Great Orm of Loch Ness.”
At the conclusion of his tome, Holiday surmised that the monster in Loch Ness was not the only example of a relic Tullimonstrum skulking around Europe, but that the legends of huge dragons and other bizarre aquatic mysteries, which had plagued the continent for centuries, were most like due to encounters with this spineless beast.
In his book Holiday reports:
“During April 1965 there was a period of heavy rain lasting several days. The loch rose and the River Ness was in spate. A salesman, Mr. George McGill, had business in the YMCA building on Bank St. in Inverness. At 11:45 a.m. the rain was so heavy that Mr. McGill stood in the doorway with a friend watching it. Mr. McGill wrote to me [Holiday]: “Just as we got to the door I looked across the River Ness. What I saw was a large, thick, ridged neck looping out of the water. The height of the neck above the water would be about four feet six inches and it was about eight inches in diameter. There was a disturbance where the neck re-entered the water and another disturbance some distance to the rear. What it was I cannot say, but it was not a fish. It was very unusual and I have never seen anything like it before. I shall try to draw what I saw.”
Holiday does not reproduce Mr. McGill’s drawing in the book, but he reports that it shows, “What appears to be the neck of a smallish Orm which seems to be going down-river on the flood water.”
Finally, an incident that may support the possibility of an animal trying to pass through the canal locks. In 1900 (the exact date is uncertain) an odd animal was reportedly found at the bottom of Corpach Lock on the Caledonian Canal. It was assumed to have come from the loch, although it could just as easily have been trying to get into the loch. To my knowledge, this incident was first reported in print by F.W. Holiday in The Great Orm of Loch Ness . It is also mentioned by Peter Costello in In Search of Lake Monsters. The two versions of the incident differ in that Holiday states that the animal was killed by the workmen who found it, while Costello contends that it was discovered dead by workmen who were engaged in clearing out the lock. Both reports state that the animal resembled a large eel and both describe it as having a “mane.” This incident is not mentioned in Ulrich Magin’s comprehensive listing of recorded sightings, which means that it was not picked-up by the contemporary local papers. According to Fortean Times publisher Mike Dash, the story my have been originally reported to Dom Cyril Dieckhoff, a highland Catholic priest in the 1930s who had a great interest in lake monsters, by one of his correspondents.
When these reports are considered in relation to the veritable wealth of recorded long-neck sightings in the coastal waters of the British Isles it seems reasonable to suggest that the animals in question are capable, under the proper circumstances and at an early stage of development, of making their way into Loch Ness from the open ocean. It would be logical to assume that they would be capable of entering other lochs as well where a navigable link to the sea exists.
Throughout the sliver in the geological record, known as the Pennsylvanian period, which began approximately 320 million years ago and ended approximately 34 million years later, vast low-lying coastal swamps and deltas covered much of West Virginia and the eastern and Midwestern United States, as well as large portions Europe.
During this era there existed a unique carnivorous invertebrate known as Tullimonstrum gregarium, which is speculated to be a distant relative of both the octopus and the common garden slug.
This soft bodied creature, of unknown taxonomic standing, is a major candidate for many lake monsters. Everything from Nessie to ogopogo has been explained with the tulimonstrum theory.
Described as having two, huge eyes - attached to stalks - protruding from either side of its body (mistaken for flippers?), a long proboscis with a mouth on the end (looks sort like a head and neck…), two large prodigious posterior fins and a third broad tail fin, it is no wonder that this fossilized relic has been associated with the legends of so many lake cryptids, from Loch Ness Monster to Mussie to El Cuero.
At the end of its proboscis mouth was a “jaw” that contained eight small, sharp teeth. There is no evidence that the throat went down the proboscis. It seems more likely that the proboscis was a muscular organ used to pass food to the mouth. Near the middle of the body was a transverse bar that passed through the body. The bar had swellings on the end. These may have been the animal’s sensory organs.
Overall, if it were to attain an emmense size it would be the perfect lake monster. Who’s to say a modern descendent of Tullimonstrum isn’t responsible for such lake monsters?
One theory, which has been proposed more than a few fortean researchers, is that this animal may have survived into the 21st century, living in lakes and rivers, and rearing its head every now and again just to give the tourists a good scare.
According to those who support this hypothesis, the Tullimonstrum’s proboscis might be mistaken for the plesiosauride head and neck so often reported by eyewitnesses.
They further claim that the submarine shape of the Tullimonstrum’s body, along with its large flippers, only serve to complete this picture of the prototypical Lake-Monster.
While some scientists have speculated that it is related to snails and other molluscs, it is not really known to what other animals the Tully Monster is truly related.
However, to say that paleontologists can’t make heads or tails of the Tully Monster would be untrue. The claw-tipped proboscis on the front end and the arrow-shaped rear fins at the posterior end can be easily identified in complete specimens. Beyond that, though, this 300 million year old invertebrate remains one of the most vexing fossil species ever found.
Tully Monsters first came to the attention of paleontologists in 1958. While looking for fossils among the mining pits of northeastern Illinois, collector Francis Tully stumbled across an assemblage of marine organisms unlike any found elsewhere in the area. Especially perplexing were six-inch, worm-like impressions found inside the numerous concretions that littered the pits. Soon other amateur fossil hunters began finding them, too, and these strange creatures got their popular name in honor of their discoverer.
When presented with some of these specimens by Tully, the professional paleontologists at Chicago’s Field Museum were puzzled. The Tully Monsters did not correspond to any other known animal. In his 1966 description of these fossils, Field Museum scientist Eugene Richardson gave the animal a proper scientific title – Tullimonstrum gregarium, honoring its discoverer, enigmatic nature, and the sheer number of individuals that had been discovered – but he refrained from giving it a precise place in the tree of life. “While this obscure but plentiful animal is being studied,” Richardson wrote, “I prefer not to assign it to a phylum.”
Richardson published a more complete description of the beasts three years later with colleague Ralph Gordon Johnson. They still were not certain what it was. “There is no compelling reason to assign Tullimonstrum to any of the known phyla,” they wrote, concluding that “It could be imagined as an aberrant member of one of several phyla but the critical evidence is not available.” Nevertheless, examination of scores of specimens allowed the paleontologists to flesh out the anatomy of the monster.
The chief difficulty with studying the Tully Monsters was the fact that all the specimens were only impressions of the soft-bodied animals. No exoskeletons, no chitin plates, and no hard parts were left behind. A few specimens that had begun to decay before they were buried allowed a blurry look at the organs of the Tully Monsters, but Johnson and Richardson were mostly restricted to studying the external anatomy.
As reconstructed by Richardson and Johnson, the Tully Monsters had segmented, semi-cylindrical bodies marked by three remarkable external traits. At the posterior end of the animal were two triangular tail fins arranged like the undulating side fins of squid. On the opposite end, however, Tully Monsters had two peculiar sensory organs. Sticking out of the animal’s head was a flexible schnozzle tipped in a minutely-spiked grasping claw, and further back on the head were two stalks with cup-like depressions. An exquisite specimen in which the mineral pyrite preserved the form of these organs showed that these flexible stalks probably supported the eyes. Slight variations seen among various specimens suggested that eye stalks could be angled forward or backward for different views.
Richardson and Johnson were also able to say a little about the prehistoric habitat of the Tully Monsters. The marine invertebrates lived in the warm coastal waters of a 300 million year old ocean. Fossils of jellyfish, annelid worms, and sea cucumbers were found in the same deposits, but larger creatures swam there, too. “A few [Tully monster specimens] terminate abruptly,” the scientists wrote, “a portion of the trunk having been torn away.” Ancient sharks seemed to be the most likely culprits, especially since the fish left behind fossil feces right alongside the invertebrate body fossils.
Over four decades later, we don’t know much more about the Tully Monsters. Merrill Foster, in his 1979 reassessment of the fossils, considered Tully Monsters to be related to the subgroup of molluscs that contains conches, whelks, and limpets. A more recent 2005 paper hinted that the Tully Monsters might instead be related to the Cambrian invertebrate Vetustovermis, itself a problematic fossil of uncertain affinities. As strange as they are though, there is something familiar about the Tully Monsters. Although separated by about 200 million years, the Tully Monsters show a general similarity to the nozzle-faced Cambrian creature Opabinia regalis. Both had stalked eyes, a flexible proboscis tipped with a grasping appendage, and moved by way of flexible fins on the sides of their bodies. (The fact that the proboscis of the Tully Monsters did not have a mouth or throat – and was probably used to move food to the mouth as in Opabinia – is another clue worth considering.) Might the Tully Monsters be some long-lived cousin of Opabinia, suggesting an as-yet-undiscovered trail of trunked invertebrates? Maybe, maybe not. As ever, we need more fossils.
Other investigators have associated this beast with the nefarious Lindworms. In 1989 Tullimonstrum gregarium was officially designated the State Fossil of Illinois