Remains of the DNA;The Big Picture

12th February 1999 at 00:00
(Photograph) - Once upon a time, when dinosaurs walked the earth, their aquatic equivalents, the plesiosaurs, swam in the seas. These fossilised plesiosaur bones - left high and dry by retreating oceans and found in Australia - are 120 million years old.

Time has turned the bone to opal, giving it a cracked, toffee-like appearance, and preserved these pieces in the evolutionary jigsaw. Skeletons are all that remain of the plesiosaurs, which died out around the same time as their dinosaur cousins.

Or did they? Not everybody thinks so. Optimistic monster hunters believe a direct descendant of the plesiosaur (depicted below hunting a shark) lurks in the depths of Loch Ness. But there would have to be hundreds of little monsters for the species to have survived since the Loch became cut off from the sea 10,000 years ago, making Nessie a lovely but unlikely idea. However, a mysterious incident more than 20 years ago is less easily explained. In 1977, a Japanese fishing vessel winched from the sea off the coast of New Zealand the body of a large, long necked creature with flippers. The rotting corpse had to be thrown back into the sea but photographs taken at the time show it bore a strong resemblance to the plesiosaur. The director of Japan's National Science Museum thought so and the country even issued a special commemorative stamp to mark the discovery.

But while the Japanese media celebrated their scoop, the story was notable for its absence from the front pages of news-papers and magazines in the western world. Was the story covered up to protect the sacred scientific creed of evolution or was it just another fisherman's tale?

It's Darwin's 190th birthday today. If he had still been around he would have been on the first plane to Japan. Because, if what those fishermen found really was a plesiosaur, it would have been against all the evolutionary odds.

* Harvey McGavin


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