Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Harryhausina marinus

This giant wyvern, the only living marine species known, was named in 1999 by Heathcote when she thought it looked like a beast from one of the famed special-effects guru's films. "Harryhausia marinus would not look out of place in some Greek adventure like Clash of the Titans," she wrote in the wyvern's initial description. And like Ray Harryhausen's creations, Harryhausia is a fearsome, destructive beast, greatly feared by the captains of smaller fishing vessels in the Pacific Ocean. Although principally found near Indonesia, Harryhausia has been sighted much farther south, in the waters west of Australia and between that continent and New Zealand. Although Heathcote's description was based largely on beached carcasses, authors since then (notably Garcia & Garcia, 2002) have published accounts of the wyvern's activities in the wild.
Harryhausia is a whopping sixty feet long, with a twenty-foot "wingspan." Its wings are short, and the patagium is thick and fairly inflexible. The forelimbs are quadradactyl, in an odd configuration. The thumb and index finger are free from the patagium, while the middle finger and ring fingers anchor the patagium to the arm, while bony spines erupt from the bottom of the wrist and elbow to broaden the wing surface. Draconologists are unsure exactly what purpose the vestigal wings serve, as Harryhausia's main method of propulsion is to undulate its body from side to side through the water, using its sizeable caudal fins to provide thrust. Heathcote suggested that perhaps the wings were used for threat displays, or aided in mating rituals, but to this day, their exact function remains mysterious.
The wyvern's body is fairly wide in the middle and tapers towards the head and tail. The body is green and smooth, though the belly is covered in wide, overlapping white scales. A series of cartiliginous spines runs down the back, anchoring a short dorsal sail. The spines are tallest above the arms and become more tightly packed toward the end of the tail. The sail is made of the same tough dermal material as the patagium and is resistant to bending.
Harryhausia marinus lacks any trace of hindlimbs. Were it to lose its wings, the monster would resemble an overweight sea snake more than a wyvern. The head is flat and roughly triangular in dorsal view. The dentition is extremely reduced, with only four large teeth in the upper jaw, and two in the lower jaw. The jaw tips are covered by a horny beak, and Harryhausia has a series of recurved palatal teeth. The wyvern also has two bulbous fleshy pads on its head, one over either eye, which are bioluminescent. Garcia & Garcia reported that Harryhausia will often dive to great depths, and that the pads may aid in prey capture or intraspecies signaling in darker waters. Despite its size, Harryhausia feeds mainly on prey much smaller than itself, mostly fish and young marine mammals like dolphins and pinnipeds.
Young marine wyverns are at risk from shark attacks, but juveniles will often swim together in groups of up to ten individuals (Cope, 2001) for their first few years, leaving the safety of the creche only when they approach thirty feet in length. Whether adults lay eggs or give bith to live young is unknown at this time, although Harryhausia is perfectly able to beach itself. Individuals are often seen sunning themselves on islands and beaches across the sea, although they do not venture farther than the beach on any landmass. Cope wrote that babies "must be hatched from eggs, as groups of juveniles are almost always the same age. Unless adults females were giving birth to up to ten, and possibly more, brothers and sisters at a time, one must conclude that these babies hatched at the same time and, from birth, swam together as a group." Munster (2002) dealt a blow to Cope's assumption, noting that many living animals, especially reptiles, give birth to multiple live young at once, and that the babies often stay together for a short time.
Harryhausia marinus is unique from a phylogenetic perspective in that it seems to have no living or extinct relatives. A swath of wyvern fossils are known from marine deposits, but most are from arboreal forms. Even the most fragmentary marine-buried wyvern fossils are no indication of a marine wyvern. In his brief review of wyvern systematics, Mantell lamented: "The fact that wyverns and dragons are primarily arboreal means that they, like seagulls, could die while over water, and thus fall into the sea and be buried and fossilized, only later to be unearthed by paleontologists who would be remiss in theorizing that they lived in a marine environment. As such, even fragmentary wyverns discovered in marine deposits cannot be readily shown to be relatives of Harryhausia marinus . . . without specific features linking it to the extent marine wyvern. As of this writing, there are no such specimens." This situation may change in the coming years. A team from Australia recovered a partial skull of what they consider a relative of Harryhausia in 2005, but alas, the specimen remains unpublished.

Heathcote, J. (1999). A giant sea-serpent wyvern from the Indian Ocean. European Journal of Draconology 100(3): 450-461.

Garcia, M. J. & Garcia, N. G. (2002). Notes on the behavior of Harryhausina marinus (Heathcote, 1999). Natura Historia 409: 677-689.

Cope, E. D. (2001). Incidental observations of Harryhausina marinus. Brevia (July): 56-61.

Mantell, G. (2001). A broad look at wyvern systematics. European Journal of Draconology 102(2): 305-311.


Asher said...

so. Cope is still alive in 2001? Cool.

lantaro said...

AWESOME. lovin' the reference to those Mexican fellows you are associated with. I found it informative, yet stimulating.

Julia said...

Heh - I missed this completely the first time round (until you e-mailed me!). Clash Of The Titans is a most excellent film.

I hope you'll be looking at convergent evolution between wyverns and griffins. They must surely occupy similar ecological niches.

Or indeed moving on to lindworms after this!

Zach said...

Oh no, griffins are, if anything, convergent on dragons--what with the three pairs of limbs and all. I'm not familiar with lindworms, though. Looks like I have some research to do! :-)

Julia said...

Ah, you're right there. And of course you can't talk about the griffin without talking about the opinicus too!