HOW does a sea monster change its shape?

It might sound like the stuff of fiction, but that’s not the subject of the latest hit children’s book, or even the opener to a punny joke.

And it hasn’t taken expeditions to the bottom of the sea to find the answer – a scientist at one of the country’s most respected universities has instead applied maths to the problem.

According to him, it doesn’t take magic or mystery to shift the shapes of the demons of the deep, but fossils and newsprint.


IN a way, yes – if by “monster” you mean “big” or belonging to a strange creature.

New work by St Andrews University statistician Dr Charles Paxton links the discovery of dinosaur bones with a sea-change in the way humans view fortean creatures.

According to newly-published work by Paxton, 19th-century fossil finds influenced sea monster sightings, with reports of serpent-like shapes giving way to dinosaur-like long-necked bodies.

The findings, compiled in conjunction with palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish of Southampton University, uphold a theory posited by 1960s sci-fi author L Sprague De Camp, who penned the Conan the Barbarian stories.


IT’S not the standard scientific fare, but our interpretation of the world around us, and the way that has changed over time, is ripe for expert evaluation.

And what is more tantalising than a monster story?

De Camp, who died in 2000 at the age of 92, had suggested that Jurassic, Cretaceous and Mesozoic fossil finds altered the way sea creatures were described.

The stories date back centuries, appearing on medieval maps and in the folklore of cultures around the world.

But the serpentine forms often described were superceded in the 1800s and 1900s by reports of dino-like anatomies, something De Camp linked to greater awareness of palaeontological finds in 1968.


ABSOLUTELY – will Nessie do you?

The National:

First reported in 1933, the Loch Ness Monster has repeatedly been described as having a long neck and small head, something clearly visible in the famous “surgeon’s photo” which appeared in the press one year later.

According to the new work, sea monster reports had peaked by 1934, following the Nessie-related frenzy which still draws visitors to the Highlands today, albeit in a less fevered form.

READ MORE: Why Nessie is thoroughly deserving of a spot on the new 10p coin

Before that, in 1848, UK newspapers were gripped by the account of a sea serpent seen by the officers and crew of the HMS Daedalus in the South Atlantic the previous May.


CERTAINLY. Paxton and Naish used statistical analysis to find trends in almost 1700 sea monster reports made in papers and books between 1801 and 2015.

Published in the journal Earth Sciences History, the research concluded that De Camp’s theory was partially correct. Although the research team did not find an immediate change in the way monsters were described in the early 19th century, they did find evidence of a steady change.

They found evidence of a decline in serpent-like monster descriptions and an increase in the proportion of reports of monsters with necks.

This followed 19th-century fossil discoveries such as that of Plesiosaurus which has a long neck.

Paxton said: “The discovery of long-necked marine reptile fossils in the 19th century does appear to have had an influence on what people believe they have spotted in the water.”

And, on the basis and value of the research, he commented: “The problem is an interesting fusion of history and palaeontology which shows that statistics can be used to rigorously test all sorts of strange hypotheses, if the data is handled in the right way.”