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SCIENCE! Myths and Monsters

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January 23, 2013 marks the 43rd anniversary of the first successful manned dive to the deepest point on the earth’s surface, the Mariana Trench.

mariana-trench-map-dots-via-deep-sea-challenge
Image courtesy of the National Geographic Deep Sea Challenge

The vessel involved, the Treiste, was purchased and operated by the U.S. Navy. The two-man descent took four hours and 48 minutes. The “soak time” (mentioned in the official release as being at a depth of 37,800 ft, or roughly 1.25 Mt Everests…) only lasted 20 minutes, and the following return to the surface took another three hours and 17 minutes (one hell of a way to put in a nine hour work day). The justification for why the Navy pursued such a long and extraordinary dive off the coast of Japan was simple; for scientific exploration and…because we could.

Forty years later, the Mariana Trench has been making waves in the science world once again. This time it’s for work being done on a creature straight out of mythology, the giant squid (Architeuthis dux).

Scientific interest in the giant squid isn’t anything new. Numerous dead specimens have been discovered washed up on beaches over the course of recorded history and offshore fishermen near New Zealand often capture them in fishing gear.

For decades, recorded observations of living (or even recently deceased and intact) specimens have been impossible to come by, much less verify. Because of this lack of concrete evidence, very little was known about giant squid ecology including: their comparative anatomy to other cephalopods, what their home range was, what their diet consisted of , just how much they interacted with predators like sperm whales, or how long they lived. Since 2004, significant research effort has been put into recording living specimens in photographs and video, live capturing them, dissecting fresh specimens, studying their reproduction and even attempting to spawn and rear their close cousins in captivity. Advances in deep sea exploration and filming, building on the tradition of the Treiste, have furthered the cause.

I’ve been fascinated with these the real world sea monsters for as long as I can remember. At one point I even dreamed of being a cryptozoologist, a fascination I developed after learning of the coelacanth, a “living fossil” fish long thought to be extinct but “rediscovered” by science with the help of local fishermen.

Image courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Image courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Both of these examples provide for interesting learning opportunities. It’s easy to discount creatures found in local lore as “myth”, but there’s always more to the story than that. Sometimes the creatures of myth are just symbolic, figuratively representing social norms, fears, or beliefs. But then sometimes these creatures are based in reality, and are imbued with symbolic characteristics as their lore is passed down. An example of this is found right here in Alaska, in Tlingit legend. Most of the creatures of Tlingit lore are common animals to Southeast Alaska. Raven, Eagle, Salmon, Herring, and Seal are all central to the oral tradition. Each character personifies traits important to the Tlingit (cleverness, skillful fishing, respect for the dead, spring renewal, hard work). To someone unfamiliar with any of their real world counterparts these characters might seem fictitious.

This is an important point in science; it’s easy to be dismissive of something because of a lack of quantifiable evidence. Often times our understanding of the world is limited by technology. As our instrumentation improves, so does our ability to document. Science should be careful about being outright dismissive, especially when dealing with creatures of mythological proportions. Great assertions may require great proof, but they also require an equally great amount of courage, curiosity, and diligence. You can’t explore the world’s deepest mysteries without taking a massive plunge.

James Shewmake was the science and nerd culture columnist for the Alaska Commons. He also provided photojournalism and general editorial content for the site. He was the 2nd place finalist for the 2013 Alaska Press Club Leslie Ann Murray Award for his editorial piece on science and religion. James holds a Master’s of Science degree in Natural Resource Management from the University of Alaska - Fairbanks. When he is not working on content for the Commons, he is usually dedicating himself to research on subsistence fisheries, time travel, and/or the establishment of a new Galactic Empire.

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