Author Topic: More about the blob  (Read 1453 times)

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More about the blob
« on: July 10, 2003, 01:20:38 AM »
The 12-meter-long mass of gray flesh that washed ashore in Chile 2 weeks ago is probably decaying whale blubber, say experts, but they'll know for certain when samples arrive in labs today (July 9) for testing. Until then, the possibility cannot be ruled out that the blob might be the first-ever specimen of a giant octopus, the kind that, legend says, plucks fishermen from their canoes.

"I'd bet you lunch its a whale," said Sidney Pierce, a marine biologist at the University of South Florida. Pierce has analyzed several such blobs, including a historic blob that washed ashore near St. Augustine, Florida, in the late 1800s and at the time was thought to be a giant octopus. Through electron microscopy and analysis of amino acids from a sample stored at the Smithsonian Institution, Pierce determined in 1995 that the creature was a deboned and decayed whale.

Outside of a Jules Verne novel, the giant octopus of lore has never been found. But the possibility that the Chilean blob is a previously unknown species cannot be ruled out, said Steven M. Carr, a geneticist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland who has a reputation for debunking sea monster myths through DNA analysis. "No one thought we'd ever find a coelacanth or megamouth shark, either."

Nevertheless, Carr agrees with Pierce that the Chilean mass is probably decayed whale blubber. Pictures of the Chilean blob look very similar to other blobs that Carr has investigated, including one discovered at Fortune Bay in Newfoundland in August 2001, which Carr found through genetic analysis to be a sperm whale. He said the "tentacles" that appear on some blobs are actually fingers of flesh between the whale's ribs.

When a whale dies, the body can float for months, gradually decomposing, said Pierce. Eventually, the skull and backbone dislodge and drop to the bottom of the sea, and the blubber decomposes until all that is left is a mesh-like matrix of collagen protein. This mesh is what washes up onto beaches.

"What comes in doesn't really look like a whale because there is nothing left of it but a protein matrix," he said. Such blobs are more common than most people realize, added Pierce, who has had numerous requests to analyze blobs. "Every year or so I get a foul-smelling envelope."

When the chunk of Chilean blob arrives in Pierce's lab, his team will attempt to isolate DNA from any remaining cells in the collagen matrix, to amplify certain sequences with polymerase chain reaction, and to check those sequences against known whale and octopus gene sequences stored in GenBank. He will also look at the sample with electron microscopy, which will quickly reveal whether the mesh is made of whale collagen.

But Steven M. Carr said there is an even simpler method, the sniff test. "A decaying octopus smells like a cat box you've let go too long," said Carr, because they secrete ammonia upon death. But, he said, a decaying whale smells unmistakably like rotting meat.

Elsa Cabrera, director of the Center for Cetacean Conservation in Santiago, told The Scientist that the blob will remain on the beach until scientists determine what it is. "Aside from all the discussion of whale versus octopus," said Cabrera, "the amount of attention this blob is getting shows that we still have a lot to learn about the ocean."

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« Reply #1 on: August 31, 2004, 03:31:03 PM »
the specimen from st. augustine at the smithsonian was definitely NOT whale tissue. i saw a discovery channel documentary about it back in the '90's and a scientist who went there to test it showed it clearly compared to squid or octopus tissue. why lie about it?