Richard Owen and the sea-serpent

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The well known naturalist, Richard Owen, had a career long engagement with monstrous creatures. In the 1830s he famously christened large fossil reptiles, Dinosauria. He investigated fossil marine reptiles as well as the giant moa. He also looked into the sea-serpents and sea monsters then drawing wide public attention. 11While the terms sea-serpent and sea monster are often employed synonymously, they do indicate distinctions between creatures. The sea-serpent has characteristics of water-born snakes exhibiting no discernable limbs or fins with a relatively smooth and featureless body. Sea monsters generally do not have snake-like characteristics, but take on a number of different body forms. He actively collected letters and analyzed correspondence on the topic, consulted with the admiralty on reports of Royal Navy encounters and sightings, and commented in the public press. He concluded that such reports were based upon misidentifications of whales and other large marine mammals, and not run-ins with mythological creatures. His work on the sea-serpent shows that rather than discount the idea out of hand, a number of high profile naturalists were intrigued by monsters and attempted to understand what they were. His work is key to understanding the skepticism over monsters held by modern mainstream science. This skepticism opened the field to later amateur investigators. 22I'd like to thank the librarians at the Natural History Museum, London, for their help with the Owen papers. Also, thanks to the blind reviewers for their useful critique of my original manuscript, and to the Kean Foundation for providing research funds. © 2012 Elsevier Ltd.

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