Super Size Me

01 31 mastodonThe brilliance of January 31st has proved a bit elusive, so I’m going to tell you about an exhibition that you could definitely have seen on this date if you were in London in 1842, and again in 1843. It was at the Egyptian Hall which was a rather unusual, but now sadly lost, building in Piccadilly. The main exhibition hall was very large and Dr Albert Koch, a fossil collector from St Louis, had something really big to exhibit. In 1840, he had discovered an almost complete skeleton of a mastodon in Missouri. The mastodon was a large mammal, related to the mammoth and the elephant that, up until 10,500 years ago, ranged across the northern hemisphere. His specimen, Mastodon americanum, would have stood somewhere between seven and ten feet high. Koch had reassembled the bones and then added a few extra bits, according to his own fancy.

01 31 koch's missouriumThe result was impressive. He took the bones from no less than three mastodons and added extra vertebrae and ribs. He even added some extra pieces made from wood. Koch had constructed an animal that was thirty-two feet long and fifteen feet high. As a final touch, he added the tusks, but he put them on upside down so they looked like horns curving over the animal’s head rather than pointing down and outwards. He named his new animal ‘Missourium’. Koch had already had some success hauling his monster all over the United States. Although in Philadelphia, a leading fossil expert, Dr Richard Harlan, had gently suggested that he might be able to do a bit better job of it when he’d done a bit more research.

At the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, Koch’s exhibit was extremely popular. But it did draw the attention of England’s foremost anatomist and palaeontologist, Sir Richard Owen. Owen was immediately suspicious. It seemed to have far too many ribs and its horns looked like upside down elephant tusks. Of course, he was completely right. In February, he read a paper to the Geographical Society, in which he said that Koch’s Missourium was a mastodon that had been incorrectly mounted. In April, Koch had the gall to address the same society, insisting that it was definitely a new species. None of this affected public interest in his monster and the exhibition remained until the summer of 1843. Then Koch moved on to Ireland and Germany, where he met with equal success.

01 31 mastodon skeletonIn 1844, Koch returned to the United States, but stopped over briefly in London where he sold his Missourium to the British Museum. He sold it for $2,000, with a further $1,000 to be paid every year for the rest of his life. Maybe they were hoping he wouldn’t live quite so long as he did, because they paid $23,000 in the end. The British Museum knew perfectly well they were buying a fake. As soon as it arrived, they took it all apart, removed all the extra bits, reassembled it, put the tusks on the right way round and correctly labelled it Mastodon americanus. They had themselves a very fine specimen. It is still in the collection, at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.

08 05 koch's sea monsterIt wasn’t very long before Koch was up to his old tricks. Later that year, he was on the road with a 114 foot long sea serpent he had named Hydrarchos. We mentioned the creature back in August when we wrote more about sea serpents. Koch’s skeleton was soon identified for the fake it was, the fossil of an extinct whale with the bones of at least four other animals added to it. When he travelled to England with it, he met a similarly frosty reception. He eventually sold it in Germany.

Dr Albert Koch was thought of as a complete fraud. He wasn’t even really a doctor of anything, it was a title he awarded to himself. It’s a pity his career took a wrong turn, because early on, he actually discovered something quite important. In 1838, he had found the bones of a mastodon along with arrow heads. It proved that this animal had lived alongside, and been hunted by, early man. But no one believed him.


08 06 daedelusOn this day in 1848 a ship called the Daedalus was sailing home from the East Indies, between the Cape of Good Hope and St Helena when the ship’s captain, Peter McQuhae and several of his officers spotted a huge sea serpent. It was swimming with four feet (1.2 metres) of it’s head above the water. McQuhae estimated that the whole creature was about sixty feet long. He said that is was dark brown with a yellowish white throat. It had the head of a snake and it also seemed to have some sort of mane like a horse. It passed so close to the ship that McQuhae said: had it been a man of my acquaintance I should have easily recognised the features with the naked eye. He estimated that it was moving at a speed of between twelve and fifteen miles an hour and said that it remained in sight for twenty minutes.

This information appeared in a letter to the Times on October 13th 1848. While others came forward with their own reports of sea serpent sightings, the scientific community were more sceptical. The biologist Sir Richard Owen wrote a particularly scathing reply which was published on November 9th. Owen, who was the man who coined the term dinosaur, knew a great deal about fossil specimens. He thought that no such animal could possibly exist. No bones of such a creature had ever been found and no fossil evidence had ever been discovered. He was sure that what the sailors had seen was an elephant seal.

08 05 koch's sea monsterIt seems a little unfair to assume that seasoned sailors did not know what they were looking at or had never seen an elephant seal before but perhaps Owen’s scepticism was born of experience. Three years earlier he had identified as a fake, a sea serpent skeleton that was being displayed all around Europe by a man named Albert Koch. Koch had used the skeletons of six separate animals and also some whale bones and a few ammonite shells to fabricate a creature that was 114 feet (almost 35 metres) long. Koch’s biggest mistake was to use for the head of his leviathan, the skull of a Basilosaurus. A creature that Owen himself had helped to identify.

The evidence we have of the sighting are the testimony of seven sailors and a number of drawings that McQuhae had made when he returned home. He first joined the navy in 1803 and was made captain in 1835 so he had really spent a lot of time at sea. He didn’t have any reason to make up a story like this as it was inviting ridicule. On the other hand, there is still no physical evidence that such a creature exists. But the seas and oceans make up 97% of the earth’s habitable space. Also we once thought the same about the giant squid.