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A Mysterious “Alien” Creature Identified by NC Museum Researchers

August 8, 2012

Being a Museum researcher is fascinating on many levels.  Our primary job duties are to conduct original research projects in our various scientific disciplines, to maintain and expand the Museum’s Research Collections, and to participate in in the Museum’s mission of public education and outreach.  It’s this last category of activity that often brings unexpected fun to our daily lives, and the topic of this particular blog post.

Most people are inquisitive about nature, and when they encounter things that are even just a little ‘out-of-the-ordinary’, that curiosity can be a driving force.  It’s a relatively common thing for people to bring things they find in nature to the Museum to be identified.  Happens all of the time.  Museum staff are often asked to identify bugs (of all kinds), birds, rocks, minerals, and specimens of almost every imaginable category.  This is something we consider to be a public service activity.  Mostly, these identifications can be routine, although specimen condition can sometimes be a difficulty (imagine a spider smushed between 2 pieces of tape…making identification all but impossible!).  Some of these interactions with the public can be remarkable; for example, I recall an instance years go (when I was at a different institution) when a woman came in with a couch cushion in a bag, complaining that every time she sat on the couch she felt something biting her.  I stood there with my arm in the bag, touching the cushion, for the better part of an hour, with no ill effects.  We found no evidence of a biological culprit….we offered the possibility that she might be experiencing an allergic reaction to something physical or chemical in the cushion.

One unusual inquiry just occurred this week here at the Museum.  I received a call from a very nice woman (Gale), who asked for help in identifying her alien.  Now, Gale wasn’t talking about a friend from a different country…she was talking about an actual alien!  Here’s the story:  evidently, 13 years ago, Gale’s sister was hunting for arrowheads in NC’s Edgecombe Co. when she came across something that she had never seen before, and had no earthly idea what it was.  The specimen was old, leathery, and kind of beat up, and the only thing she could think of was that this thing was the remains of an alien life form.  She apparently took the thing to a couple of local veterinarians and a science teacher, but nobody could tell her what this thing was.  One person said that it seemed to be “a cross between a bat, a bird, and a reptile on a very bad day”…

So, years later, Gale now has this unusual specimen and was still looking for an answer as to what this was.  She decided to contact yours truly for help…your friendly neighborhood Museum biologist.  Gale sent me a picture of her alien.  I, as an entomologist, was expecting to see a praying mantis or some other invertebrate creepy-crawly.

Alien specimen

Something out of Area 51? No, this is the “Alien” of Edgecombe Co.!

Instead, what I saw in the photo was, indeed, a bizarre and peculiar specimen, and I immediately knew why Gale and others had been scratching their collective heads for years.  Although I had an idea as to what I was looking at, I wanted to tap into the vast taxonomic knowledge and experience of the Museum’s Research group, and so I sent Gale’s picture around to the staff.  Within moments, I had received several replies (and the responses kept coming and coming throughout the next several hours…even late into the night!).  Remarkably, all of the responses from the Museum staff were unanimous in their identification of this animal.  Gale’s sister had not found an alien, but rather the preserved remains of a guitarfish…a kind of ray, an animal closely related to sharks.  Gale seemed thrilled to learn about this identification, although I suspect that knowing it didn’t actually come from outer space could’ve been a tad disappointing!


The “Alien” identified….a guitarfish!
photo courtesy of C.V. Vick; used with permission from C.V. Vick’s Flickr photostream

This story highlights my ‘lesson’ of this posting…that the Museum Research staff includes experts in the taxonomy and natural history of a wide variety of scientific disciplines.  These people represent a fantastic wealth of scientific knowledge in organismal biology and geology that is often lacking at other institutions…and there’s the valid concern that such experts are endangered animals, themselves.  Taxonomic knowledge is an essential need in a myriad of situations and applications (academic, public, legislative, etc.), and yet taxonomists are on the decline.  So, conserve them, preserve them, praise them for their service.  Hug a Museum researcher today!  Just don’t call them aliens….

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Carrie Bernardi permalink
    August 8, 2012 11:18 pm

    Nice work Jason!!!

  2. Michelle Stefanik permalink
    August 9, 2012 9:52 pm

    So much fun to share knowledge, isn’t it?

  3. Gail Bentzinger permalink
    August 10, 2012 9:12 am

    I thought it might be some kind of Ray because of the slits on each side of the “abdomen”. I never heard of a guitarfish before and the “face” is very weird. LOL

  4. August 10, 2012 12:36 pm

    It is a fairly odd creature, Gail! I admit that when I first saw the picture, like you, I thought ‘ray’, but I also had never heard of a guitarfish, so that’s where the taxonomic knowledge of the other Museum researchers came in handy!

  5. Kris permalink
    August 14, 2012 10:16 am

    This is fascinating! What a brilliant team you’ve got there. Love the NC Museum of Natural Sciences!

  6. jasoncryan permalink
    August 15, 2012 7:11 am

    Many thanks, Kris! Keep coming back!


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