Montauk Monster and the Raccoon Body Farm
In July 2008, the carcass of a creature soon dubbed the “Montauk Monster” allegedly washed ashore near Montauk, Long Island, New York (Figure 1). It sparked much speculation and controversy, with some suggesting it was a shell-less sea turtle, a dog or other canid, a sheep, or a rodent—or even a latex fake or possible mutation experiment from the nearby Plum Island Animal Disease Center. (In time, other “Montauk Monsters” turned up—one, for example, a decomposing cat [Naish 2008].)
Before long, the original creature was credibly identified as a raccoon by wildlife biologist Jeff Corwin (Boyd 2008). Although questions remained, I gave the matter little more attention—for a time.
Case of the Missing Hair
However, when—on an investigative outing on September 19, 2009—I came across a dead raccoon by the roadside, I quickly decided it might be profitable to study the issue further. My wife, Diana, drove the getaway car while I retrieved the roadkill in busy traffic. I subsequently deposited it at a convenient wooded site she dubbed the Raccoon Body Farm (after the famous forensic site maintained by the University of Tennessee). (See Figure 2.) I monitored it to observe developments.
The experiment raised questions. The already putrid carcass decomposed quickly, and in about three days it was largely gone, leaving behind a swarming mass of maggots plus all of the raccoon’s fur (Figure 3). As I looked again at the Montauk Monster photo, I thought the creature’s fur loss needed explaining. One suggestion was mange (Radford 2009), which can produce strange-looking creatures. (Indeed, Diana and I once went in search of a Bigfoot in Pennsylvania that turned out to be a mangy bear [Nickell 2008; “Big Foot” 2008]. More recently I examined, up close, a mangy coyote mistaken for a “chupacabra” near Springfield, Missouri [Nickell 2011].) However, long familiar with mange from my boyhood days in eastern Kentucky, I did not think the Montauk Monster looked like a case of mange.
Paleontologist and science blogger Darren Naish (2008) observed that water-logged creatures often lose their fur. But what was a raccoon doing in the ocean in the first place—if it did not just die on the beach, and if it really was a raccoon?
A housefly on the creature’s back allowed photo enlargement (by colleague Tom Flynn) to be made approximately life size (assuming an upper limit for the fly as 12mm) and the carcass to be measured as about 65cm (approximately 25.6 inches) long. This is well within the range of the adult common raccoon, Procyon lotor (according to the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Mammals [Whitaker 1996, 748], which gives a length range of 24–37 inches).
Those who doubted the raccoon identification had their main arguments refuted by Darren Naish (2008). First, whereas the creature was said to be too long-legged for a raccoon, Naish observed: “Raccoons are actually surprisingly leggy”; he asserted that “claims that the limb proportions of the Montauk carcass are unlike those of raccoons are not correct.” Secondly, claims that the creature had a “beak” prompted Naish to say of raccoons: “The tendency for the soft tissues of the snout to be lost early on in decomposition immediately indicates that the ‘beak’ is just a defleshed snout region: we’re actually seeing the naked premaxillary bones. . . . The Montauk animal has lost its upper canines and incisors (you can even see the empty sockets [in one photo]). . . .”
I recalled an earlier claim that the presence of a hairless raccoon at Montauk had been explained—and then the explanation dismissed as not credible. Reportedly, three young men had found a dead raccoon on nearby Shelter Island two weeks earlier. As a lark, they gave it a “Viking funeral”: sending it adrift on a makeshift raft (made of twigs and an inflatable toy)—containing a watermelon and cloth scraps—after setting the carcass afire. (Their prior revelry involved a “waterboarding endurance competition,” and later hijinks included a “clothespins-on-your-genitals challenge.” Many were skeptical of the trio’s story, pointing out what a circuitous fifteen-mile route the carcass would have had to travel to get to Montauk (“The Latest” 2009).
However, an investigator is not a dismisser who ignores evidence because it is inconvenient or merely because someone’s behavior does not comport with what he or she thinks someone would do in a situation. Neither is an investigator the equivalent of a newspaper’s rewrite staffer. Mysteries are solved by the use of the best, corroborative evidence, together with the principle of Occam’s razor (that the preferred hypothesis is the one that makes the fewest assumptions consistent with the evidence). It turns out there is considerable corroborative evidence for the “Viking funeral” claim.
First, data on the surface currents and winds in the area show that the “Viking funeral” critter would likely have been pushed in the proper direction (“The Latest” 2009). Significantly, the trio provided photographs documenting their launching. The snapshots (see Figure 4) clearly show a dead raccoon—first being launched on a raft of sticks as claimed, then blazing and adrift. Also the Montauk Monster has what appears to be a strip of cloth around its right foreleg, possibly linking it to scraps of cloth used with the “Viking funeral” raccoon. (Enlargement of one of the trio’s photos shows what could be a band around the raccoon’s right foreleg.) Moreover, the forelegs of the latter are in the same approximate position with respect to each other as those of the Montauk Monster (“Has the Montauk” 2009). Finally, the latter’s flesh has a decidedly baked appearance, consistent with the reported burning.
Therefore, the best evidence thus far indicates—until perhaps better evidence comes to light—that the Montauk Monster was neither a hoax (involving either a fake latex creature or a skinned animal) nor a mangy, gone-swimming-and-drowned critter; instead, it is an identifiable raccoon whose dead body was set ablaze and adrift on a makeshift raft as part of a comically wry ritual dubbed a “Viking funeral.” The dead raccoon does seem to be achieving a kind of immortality as a result.
I appreciate the research assistance of Tom Flynn and Henry Huber as well as CFI Libraries Director Timothy Binga.
Big Foot in the Pennsylvania wilds. 2008. Online at http://www.angelfire.com/pa2/stonemanguitars/bigfoot.html; accessed February 27, 2008.
Boyd, Aaron. 2008. Naturalists confirm Montauk Monster is relative of Rocky Raccoon. Online at http://www.hamptons.com/
Has the Montauk Monster mystery been solved? 2009. Online at http://gawker.com/5278112/has-the-montauk-monster-mystery-been-solved; publ. June 4, 2009; accessed December 22, 2009.
The latest Montauk Monster theory: A compleat accounting. 2009. Online at http://gawker.com/5280493/the-latest-montauk-monster-theory-a-com; accessed December 22, 2009.
Naish, Darren. 2008. What was the Montauk monster? Online at http://scienceblogs.com/
Nickell, Joe. 2008. Personal journal entry, February 24.
———. 2011. Chupacabra attack (blog post). Available online at http://www.centerforinquiry.net/
Radford, Benjamin. 2009. Hide the kids and wake the neighbors: The Montauk Monster returns! Skeptical Briefs 19(3) (September): 14.
Whitaker, John O. Jr. 1996. Field Guide to North American Mammals, revised ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.