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Scouting the seas

When professors check their mail, it typically consists of department letters and students’ questions.

Sidney Pierce receives that type of mail, too, but he’s also forwarded e-mails with supposed sea monster snapshots, and has even gotten occasional samples of ocean-dwelling creatures.

Pierce, a USF biology professor, has investigated sea monsters as a “sort of” hobby for 15 years.

Recently, he was quoted by the blog Gawker about photographs of a possible new Massachusetts beach monster – which he guessed was “from his teeth . . . a small dog.”

However, Pierce said he doesn’t study pictures or myths like the Loch Ness Monster, and his actual research began in 1995 with the Floridian case of the St. Augustine Monster.

The carcass washed ashore nearly one century earlier in 1896 and had long been used to suggest evidence of a giant octopus.

First, he obtained the remains from the Smithsonian Institute. Then, through electron microscopic research, he found that the tissue more closely resembled a whale’s blubber.

After his group published a paper on their findings, Pierce said he started receiving requests to test various sea monster samples – from locations as diverse as Tasmania, Bermuda, Chile and Newfoundland.

“What I get is fairly bad-smelling Ziploc bags . . . that people shoot to me,” Pierce said.

Although these ocean creature remains are often initially considered as signs of potential giant octopi and squids, Pierce said that he has been able to trace every tissue sample he’s received back to one animal – the whale.

“They’ve turned out to be different species of whales, but they’ve all turned out to be really, very badly decomposed whale blubber,” Pierce said.

In 2003, the 13-ton, 41-foot Chilean Blob was discovered on Pinuno Beach – with the story receiving coverage from the New York Times and BBC News.

Pierce and his laboratory ran DNA analysis, amino acid and electron microscope tests on the sample. They concluded that the collagen matched a sperm whale rather than an invertebrate animal.

“I keep hoping they’ll turn out to be something I can’t figure out because that would be much more interesting,” Pierce said.

One of the more mysterious cases he has encountered, Pierce said, was the Nantucket Blob.

The Nantucket Shellfish Warden’s Office provided him with a sample that also turned out to be whale, but he found himself unable to extract any information about the discovery’s origins in the Massachusetts island town.

“He sent it to me, and I was intrigued to learn more about what the circumstances about it were – and nobody would talk to me about it in Nantucket after that,” Pierce said. “Mostly, I think it was because they didn’t want tourists thinking that smelly things were washing onto the beaches of Nantucket.”

While Pierce has done forensic work on about 10 sea monster samples, he said that he more commonly receives photos of strange beachside remnants.

“I get pictures like this one from Gawker all the time. Fortunately, they didn’t send me a piece of that,” Pierce said.

Pierce said he worked with students on his Chilean Blob studies and that others seemed eager to delve into the world of ocean creatures.

“You’d be surprised at the number of potential graduate students who write to me every year, hoping that they can get their Ph.D. working on sea monsters,” Pierce said.

Nicholas Curtis, a graduate biology student, said that assisting Pierce on his Chilean Blob laboratory research helped him train his eye for future sea monster discoveries.

“It’s difficult visually . . . it’s just sort of an amorphous mass, there’s nothing else in it,” Curtis said. “So it’s not surprising that people conclude that it could be a giant octopus.”

Curtis also helped in testing the Tasmanian West Coast Monster, Nantucket Blob and other samples as a means of comparison – not the biological surveys he expected to do in grad school. “It was fun and different than the day-to-day grind of what you’re normally doing, for sure,” Curtis said.

Though all the specimens he investigated with Pierce were matched to whales, Curtis said discovering new sea monsters still seems plausible.

“We know so little about the deep ocean that there’s always the possibility there’s something down there we’ve never seen before,” he said.

Enormous water-dwelling creatures like the colossal squid – which possess hooked tentacles and eyes the size of dinner plates – have been uncovered in recent years.

“You never know,” Pierce said. “It’s just stuff (that) washes in on a beach. I just sort of sit here and wait for people to call and say, ‘This just washed in on the beach, and we don’t know what it is. Do you want some of it?'”