In many ways we are very lucky. We get to travel around the world looking for mystery animals, and then write books about our adventures. Of course it isn’t quite as simple as that, because there is a whole slew of mundane administration and stuff, but on the whole doing what we do is a heck of a lot better than having a proper job. We live in Woolsery and we run The Centre for Fortean Zoology – the world’s largest mystery animal research group, and once a year we invite devotees of the weird and wonderful here for the internationally famous Weird Weekend.

We also write a monthly column for The Bideford Post and we decided that it was about time that we introduced Weird Torridgeside to the blogosphere..

Sunday, 11 January 2009

And in the end the skulls you take, are equal to the rules you break...

Well, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the mystery of the Croyde beach carcass has now been solved once and for all. Zoologist Darren Naish, an old friend of the CFZ, who is probably most familiar to the world at large as the author of Tetrapod Zoology, an embarrassingly popular, and very informative blog which kicks everything we do into a cocked hat popularity wise, has delivered his verdict.

"Hi Jon

Many, many thanks for uploading and linking to the pics - they are excellent, and I'm pleased to see that there are some with a scale. The Daily Mail photos made me think that it might be an otariid, but your photos demonstrate without doubt that it is a Grey seal after all. How do I know this? ...

-- In otariids, the nasals only extend to the anterior margin of the orbit: in phocids, the nasals extend much further posteriorly. Furthermore, otariids have bony lumps on the frontals (termed the supraorbital processes) that project over the orbits. Phocids lack these. The Croyd Beach skull has posteriorly extending nasals and no supraorbital processes. It is thus definitely a phocid (= earless seal). I'm very surprised that some 'experts' said that it was not a phocid skull.

-- The nasal bones are unusually short in the specimen (compared to most phocids) and the nasal cavity is very deep, giving the anterior margin of the snout a steep, sawn-off look. Short nasals and a deep nasal cavity are both characteristic of Halichoerus, the grey seal. The skull definitely belongs to that taxon, case closed."

I can also exclusively reveal that the CFZ 3 are not going to get arrested and dragged away into penal servitude. We had a long and extremely cordial conversation with Sgt Jeff Pearce of Braunton police station. He was very pleased to find out what we had done, and we promised him that we would keep him informed as to the progress of the inquiry.

However, he did give us another germ of information which both intrigues and disturbs us. Two national agencies were quoted in various newspapers as having said that the corpse was not that of a grey seal, but when I telephoned both agencies on Friday afternoon, they both insisted that they had told everybody that it was a grey seal. I had assumed that this was the work of an over eager tabloid newspaper reporter, but Sgt Pearce, who came across as an eminently sensible and reliable bloke gave me the names of the people who he had spoken to at of the aforementioned agencies, who had indeed told him that the corpse was not of a grey seal.

From a personal sense of inquisitiveness, and also from a professional point of view, I would love to know why these people, one of whom was quite a high-ranking expert, said what they did. However, it doesn't really matter, and I will not be pursuing the matter purely because I want to be (if I may misquote the Church of England, book of common prayer) in a state of love and charity with my professional neighbours, and these are people with whom it is quite likely that I shall have to work in the future.

So, the story is solved. It was a seal which may have had slightly abnormal nasal cavities. However, we are now on the position to be able to state this as incontrovertible fact. The CFZ went out and got the skull, and will be keeping it in our museum because of the minor position which it will always hold in the history of cryptozoology. We have got a new friend in Sgt Pearce, and have been able to prove, as if any proof is necessary, that the tabloid press is not necessarily the best source of good scientific evidence.

Case closed.

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