If living through the ravages of a massive hurricane weren’t bad enough, imagine checking the damage to a local beach and being confronted by something that looks like it crawled out of a nightmare. That sinister sight greeted Preeti Desai in September 2017, when she investigated a stretch of Texas coastline in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Harvey had been the first large hurricane to reach the U.S. mainland in more than a decade. And over four days in August 2017, the storm brought record rainfall to a number of American states; East Texas was hit particularly badly. In fact, the resulting tropical cyclone was the wettest of its kind since records began in the U.S.
Areas affected by the hurricane saw more than 40 inches of rain fall from August 25 to August 29, 2017, and this caused extensive flooding in Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of American homes were inundated with water. More than 30,000 residents were made homeless as a consequence, and the bad weather and its aftermath necessitated in excess of 17,000 separate rescue efforts.
The extensive and dramatic flooding did not just have a human cost, however, since the surge in water levels also dumped a lot of debris from the sea onto the land. But while most of this displaced material went unnoticed by a traumatized populace, there was one grisly item that washed up on an East Texas beach that was almost as shocking as some of the damage that Harvey had wrought.
And Desai would be the one to discover the unusual creature. Desai lives in the New York area and works as a social media manager for the National Audubon Society – a non-profit conservation agency that works to secure birds and their habitats around the U.S. And in the wake of the devastating damage caused by Hurricane Harvey, Desai and a team from the organization had headed to East Texas in September 2017 to check on local coastal ecosystems.
The group’s last call of the day was a stretch of beach in Texas City; they were there to check on some bird species that the local Audubon group has taken under its wing. But while Desai was watching a group of black skimmers feeding, in her peripheral vision she detected a disturbingly strange shape lying on the shore.
Intrigued, Desai alerted her colleagues, and together they approached the washed-up object. As they drew near, however, the team realized that they had found the ugly and bloated remains of an unidentified sea creature. Talking to Earth Touch News Network after the event, Desai said her first thought was that the body was that of some sort of lamprey.
However, when Desai examined the dead creature up close, she realized that her first impression had been wrong. And she came to that conclusion for one very obvious reason: the decaying creature had jaws lined with vicious-looking fangs. Desai told Earth Touch News Network, “When I saw the mouth, I thought no way was it a lamprey. It looked like something that came from deeper waters.” And while the conservation worker was at a loss as to what the dead fish was, she knew of one avenue that she could explore for a possible answer.
Yes, Desai took to Twitter; after all, the social media manager follows naturalists, scientists and researchers who had come to her aid in the past. So, Desai snapped a few pictures of the strange monster and shared them on her feed. She also tweeted, “Okay, biology Twitter, what the heck is this??” And it didn’t take too long for the social media community to start speculating about the identity of the dead creature.
Most respondents on the resulting Twitter thread agreed that the creature was an eel, although they couldn’t agree on which species. It was suggested that the find was a moray eel; what Desai had encountered, however, had pectoral fins, which the moray doesn’t possess. Another Twitter user suggested that the sea-dweller could have been a shrimp eel.
But there was also a problem with that person’s guess: the creature on the Texas City beach was just too big to be a shrimp eel. Then Dr. Kenneth Tighe, a specialist in eels at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., came forward. And it seemed that his idea about the mystery monster’s true identity may have been closest to the truth.
Dr. Tighe said that he thought the creature was probably an example of Aplatophis chauliodus. This Latin name roughly translates as “terrible serpent” – an appropriate moniker, some might say. However, Aplatophis chauliodus is more commonly known as the fangtooth snake-eel – again, a name that’s rather fitting.
The fangtooth snake-eel – sometimes known as the tusky eel – lives in waters of between 100 and 300 feet deep. This would confirm Desai’s theory about the dead fish having come from far beneath the surface of the ocean. However, fangtooth snake-eels are known for living the majority of their lives in undersea burrows, making the creature’s appearance on the East Texas beach something of a mystery.
Yet while it is true that fangtooth snake-eels largely reside in the depths, they nevertheless sometimes head into shallower waters. The Texas City specimen could therefore have gotten itself into trouble during this process and found itself swept ashore. And there is also a strong case to suggest that Hurricane Harvey also played its part in the fish’s end.
Indeed, the tropical storm may well have created the conditions that led to the eel’s death. Strong winds and currents around the area may have driven the creature to the Texan shore, although it is impossible to know for sure. But there is another twist to the fish’s tale, and once again it comes from the office of Dr. Tighe.
It turned out that Dr. Tighe wasn’t 100 percent sure about his fangtooth snake-eel theory. Consequently, the specialist offered some other options that could also fit the bill. In particular, he has explained, it’s possible that Desai’s discovery may have been a Bathyuroconger vicinus or Xenomystax congroides. That’s the large-toothed conger or the bristletooth conger to non-eel experts.
And as it happens, all three of the potential eel species live in the sea off East Texas. However, the decomposition of the corpse found on the Texas City beach makes it hard to give a definitive answer to the question of the creature’s actual identity. Apparently, if the tip of the eel’s tail had been in better condition, it would have been much easier to tell exactly what it was. Nonetheless, there is still one more question about the elusive eel that is much easier to answer.
One thing that is striking about the images Desai took of the rotting fish is that the eel doesn’t appear to have any eyes. And when Twitter users raised this, they were told that it wasn’t because the dead creature was sightless. Instead, the eel corpse seemed to be eyeless because of the way in which marine bodies decompose. Plus, the deep-sea loving fangtooth snake-eel doesn’t have particularly large eyes to begin with.
That’s right: soft tissues such as the eyeballs are the first thing to decompose when a sea creature dies. And since the fangtooth snake-eel has small eyes, the organs would have rotted clean away relatively quickly after death. So, while it is bad enough to see those gruesome teeth in Desai’s pictures, the absence of the creature’s eyes only adds to the horror of the images.
Regardless of the identity of the mysterious sea monster in Texas City, though, the creature certainly had its moment of internet fame. Indeed, Desai’s story just goes to show what social media is capable of nowadays. Just make sure you have your smartphone with you the next time you head to the beach, then, as you never know what mystery you may have to solve.