ST. JOHN'S – Marine scientists in Canada and abroad are puzzled by bizarre photographs that appear to show the skeleton of a large mammal jutting out of an iceberg that recently drifted past Newfoundland's east coast.
The six pictures show what looks like a brown rib cage and spinal column, slightly bent, sticking out of a crust of ice.
But researchers throughout Canada, Greenland and Norway are unable to determine the origin of the skeleton, said Garry Stenson, a marine mammal scientist with the federal Fisheries Department.
"It's definitely unusual," Stenson said today. "It's not something that I've encountered before."
His colleagues have been debating whether the carcass belongs to a bearded seal, a walrus or a beluga whale. But without the actual specimen in his hands, Stenson said he can't resolve the mystery.
"It would be really nice to get a copy, a sample, a hold of it, but at this point we're not quite sure what it is," he said.
The photos were taken near Newtown, in Bonavista Bay, by Eli and Donna Norris on the weekend of May 26, said Ruth Knee, a friend who forwarded them to the Fisheries Department in hopes of identifying the bones.
The Norris family couldn't be reached for comment today.
Knee said the retired couple didn't want to be interviewed, but said she could vouch for the authenticity of the photos.
"Not everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame," Knee said.
Stenson said he is fairly certain the pictures aren't a hoax.
"If it was Photoshopped, it's a damn good job," he said. "The way that it's laying there, with what looks to be part of it underwater, looks authentic."
Stenson said he was told the backbone was roughly 2.4 metres out of the ice, leading him to believe the spine belonged to a large mammalian creature.
But he is uncertain whether the animal would have fallen into a crevasse in an iceberg and then got stuck, or if it simply died on an ice floe and later became embedded by other pans of ice.
"It could be a walrus, for example, that died and is laying on its back and the pressure of the snow and the ice has flattened those ribs," he said.
The bones don't appear very weathered, and it looks like there may be tissue still attached to them. Stenson wouldn't speculate on how old they are because the ice may have preserved them for years.
The iceberg's location, or if it was still intact, weren't known Monday.
"Sometimes a lot of my mysteries never get solved," Stenson said with a sigh.
The province's coastline has been the setting of a number of strange discoveries in the past.
In July 2001, residents of St. Bernard's, in Fortune Bay, were awed by a seven-metre carcass that washed ashore. Because of its decomposed state, researchers were initially unable to determine what it was, prompting locals to nickname it "the sea monster."
But two weeks later a Memorial University biologist confirmed through DNA testing that it was a decaying sperm whale.[Link via Thestar]