It’s 1995 and scientists have just made a puzzling discovery near the Japanese island of Amami-Oshima. Steeped in coral-rich waters, the subtropical island is a bastion of marine biodiversity. However, the curious phenomena spotted by the team don’t appear to be natural. Indeed, they almost seem to be of extraterrestrial origin…
Etched in the sand are several large circles – and the researchers aren’t at all sure what (or who) constructed them. Resembling giant sunflowers, the structures measure more than 6 feet across and consist of several concentric rings. The two outermost rings appear to be adorned with petal-like ridges, while the innermost circle contains a web of flattened arteries.
The structures – which were subsequently dubbed “mystery circles” according to National Geographic – left the scientists baffled. Where had they come from? What had forged them? And more to the point, why? Were they the product of some naturally occurring geological process? Or had they been engineered with conscious intent, perhaps as a message to humanity?
Given the vast scale of the world’s oceans – and our relative lack of knowledge concerning them – it’s not at all surprising that scientists are occasionally stumped by what they find beneath their waves. In fact, oceans cover 1.39 million square miles, which equates to more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface. However, less than one-tenth of their total area has been explored.
As such, both sailors and landlubbers have long speculated about the mysteries lurking in the deep, dark, uncharted waters of our oceans. Indeed, the menagerie of weird and wondrous sea creatures described in global myths – from mermaids to giant sea monsters – is as diverse as the human imagination is vibrant.
Of course, some people believe that the oceans conceal something far more exotic than mere undiscovered fauna, including the remains of lost civilizations. One such supposed ruin was discovered in the mid-1980s near Japan’s coast. Dubbed “Japan’s Atlantis,” the so-called Yonaguni Monument consists of what appears to be a cluster of manmade structures including pyramids, steps and sculptured faces.
And then there are the alleged alien technologies, the supposed interstellar space wrecks that are said to have sunk into our sea-beds. In 2011, for example, a research team called Ocean X located what appeared to be a saucer-shaped relic at beneath the Baltic Sea. Now known as the “Baltic Sea Anomaly,” the object is approximately 200 feet thick and of unknown origin.
Meanwhile, the underwater circles discovered in Japan in 1995 have invariably drawn comparisons with another, very specific paranormal phenomenon: crop circles. These are mysterious geometric formations that often appear overnight in fields of cereal crops. They’ve been studied by paranormal investigators for decades, and some believe they’re the work of extraterrestrial visitors.
Of course, most commentators identify crop circles as a relatively modern phenomenon. Indeed, the first documented crop circle in recent history dates to 1966. A farmer called George Pedley claimed to have witnessed a UFO emerging from a marsh in Tully, Australia. And that UFO, according to Pedley, left behind a flattened circle of reeds – in other words, a prototypical crop circle.
Then, over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, crop circles started to appear quite regularly in rural England. The media started covering the phenomenon. And during the 1990s they started turning up further afield in the United States, Canada, Japan and even the former Soviet Union. To date, there have been in the region of ten thousand accounts of crop circles globally.
And around the turn of the millennium, crop circles became increasingly large and intricate. In fact, some of them contained thousands of components, including mathematical symbols and other characters. Patterns such as the one seen at Barbury Castle dispelled the theory that crop circles are the result of natural forces such as lightning. Instead, given the complexity of the patterns, their creators had to be intelligent.
Of course, skeptics have long argued that there is indeed a tangible intelligence behind crop circles: that of humans. And there’s convincing evidence to support that claim. In 1991, for example, two English pranksters called Doug Bower and Dave Chorley announced that they themselves had created numerous crop circles in England using nothing more than a plank and a rope. Not everyone believed them, however.
Indeed, many ufologists and paranormal investigators continue to explain crop circles with more imaginative theories. Some claim they are carefully crafted messages from alien visitors, for instance. Others believe the circles are connected to ley lines – invisible paths of power said to crisscross the globe to connect religious shrines and other spiritual landmarks.
A paranormal investigator named Dr. Horace Drew has spent more than two decades looking into UFOs and crop circles. A former molecular biologist with a chemistry doctorate from the California Institute of Technology, Drew claims to have seen a silver UFO above his house in Jacksonville, Florida, when he was a child.
According to Australian news site News.Com.Au, Drew claims that crop circles contain “advanced binary codes” that he himself has been able to decipher. He has stated that the codes conceal a mixture of benign messages and ominous warnings. One of them apparently reads, “Much pain but still time. Believe. There is good out there.” Another allegedly says, “Beware the bearers of false gifts and their broken promises.”
When Drew spoke to News.Com.Au in 2007, he stated that aliens might be saying “hello.” “One theory is that they are trying to introduce themselves to us peacefully, like we do using bubbles with dolphins,” Drew claimed. “When [humans] want to talk with dolphins we put little bubble circles under the ocean with a generator. We watch the dolphins come up and play and investigate, and we study them.”
Another theory put forward by Drew suggests that crop circles are in fact geographical markers to assist the navigation of time travelers. “There are definitely humans living there in about 5000 years with time travel capability,” he said. “The trouble is we don’t know space-time physics enough to understand what’s happening. It’s beyond our knowledge.”
Speculation about an alien connection has also been fueled by the work of biophysicist Dr William C. Levengood, who analyzed thousands of plant samples from crop circles. According to Levengood, the plants showed evidence of exposure to microwaves or electromagnetic energy. And furthermore, seeds taken from crop circles grew into plants with enhanced yields and an above-average tolerance for stress, he claimed.
Such alien-visitor theories are also anecdotally supported by a host of vivid eye witness reports. Paranormal investigator Francine Blake, for example, professes not only to have seen a UFO visiting a crop circle site, but also to have photographic evidence of it. Furthermore, she claims that crop circles are created by a momentary “burst” of extraterrestrial energy.
Similarly, in 2009 a British policeman reportedly claimed to have seen three aliens in a recently formed crop circle on Silbury Hill. Known to some ufologists as “Tall Whites”, the aliens allegedly resembled blonde humans more than 6 feet in height. And according to British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, the policeman stated that these figures then fled the scene “faster than any man he had ever seen.”
Of course, rural England is a long way from southern Japan. Which begs the questions: did the underwater structures spotted by divers in 1995 have any actual connection to the kind of crop circles documented in England since the 1960s? What was the source of the mystery circles near Amami-Oshima island? And was there an extraterrestrial connection, as some commentators would like to believe?
It took more than 15 years to solve the puzzle, in fact, but in 2011 the architect of the mystery circles was finally identified. Of course, aliens had nothing to do with it. And geological processes weren’t responsible, either. Instead, the creator of the circles was a newly identified species of puffer fish – Torquigener albomaculosus – which is now commonly known as the white-spotted pufferfish.
Torquigener albomaculosus is one of more than 100 species of puffer fish belonging to the Tetraodontidae family, which is a near relative of porcupine fish. However, where spines on porcupine fish are thick and clearly visible, the spines on the Tetraodontidae are thin and largely concealed until the fish puffs itself up.
The ability of the fish to inflate themselves into a large, spiky ball is a defense mechanism that probably evolved to compensate for its ungainly swimming technique. Pufferfish also possess four teeth that are joined into plates to form an extremity that resembles a beak. They employ this to break the shells of crustaceans and other prey.
Since their bodies often contain tetrodotoxin – a poisonous neurotoxin that can be in excess of 1,000 times more deadly than cyanide – most species of pufferfish are quite unfit for human consumption. In fact, tetrodotoxin poisoning in humans typically leads to the paralysis of the diaphragm muscles, which in turn may cause respiratory failure and death in under six hours. That said, some marine species such as sharks appear to be immune to these effects.
The risk of tetrodotoxin poisoning doesn’t deter everyone from eating pufferfish, however. In fact, the fish is considered a delicacy in Japan, where it’s called fugu. However, it requires the skilled hand of an expert chef to prepare it for safe human consumption. And a handful of people die in the country every year after eating badly processed fugu.
So, most pufferfish contain tetrodotoxin, but Torquigener albomaculosus is the only species of the fish known to create circular formations on the seabed. And the task is no small feat, given the size of their creations relative to the fish. Indeed, naturalist David Attenborough described the creature as the greatest artist of the animal kingdom. And he may be right.
The male pufferfish creates the mystery circles by methodically flapping his fins and stirring up the sediment. He forges furrows on the outer rings by swimming in a straight line toward the center of the formation, then arcing around to its outer circumference. He does this repeatedly until the formation is complete.
As a finishing touch, the male fish places pieces of shell and coral in the outer ridges. He then puts sand particles in the center of the circle and arranges them into a random pattern. The entire work takes a week or more to complete. And it’s done for the purpose of attracting a female.
Upon the arrival of a prospective female, the male pufferfish enters the inner circle and churns up the fine sand particles. The female surveys his work. To indicate her approval, she moves to the center of the mystery circle. She then lays her eggs and swims away, leaving the male to fertilize them.
Experts don’t yet know what the female looks for in a good nest, however, only that it may function to protect her eggs from currents. She may be judging its decorations, size, symmetry or the distribution of fine particles in the inner circle. One possibility is that she prefers large nests as this suggests a strong mate.
Speaking to the science website Live Science in 2013, Alex Jordan, a researcher from the University of Texas, suggested that the nest might be purely functional. He said, “There is no evidence that females care about anything more than the fine sand, and even that’s a stretch,” he said. “The beautiful lines and structure could serve only to channel those particles to the center, and have no aesthetic purpose.”
In fact, researchers believe that a reliable supply of fine sand particles is crucial to the pufferfish’s nest-building activities. After the female deposits the eggs, the male guards them for close to a week until they hatch. He then searches for a new nesting site, although it remains unclear why he apparently cannot re-use the old nest.
Torquigener albomaculosus is presently the only fish known to carve elaborate “mystery circles” out of the seabed. However, there are other fish varieties that construct so-called bowers to attract females. For example, male cichlid fish from East Africa’s Lake Malawi construct castle-like structures for females to lay their eggs inside.
In total, there are hundreds of bower-building cichlid species in Lake Malawi. They construct their bowers by gathering sand in their mouths and then ejecting it into a pile. Furthermore, according to researchers at the University of Nottingham and the University of Hull, the bowers appear to have complex social functions that go beyond merely attracting a female.
According to Dr Domino Joyce, a biologist from the University of Hull, the shape of the bower affects how many conflicts the fish get into. “We spent a total of 26 and a half hours underwater, watching 99 cichlid fish of one particular species,” she said. “We carefully changed the sand structure of some of the fish… to find that the owners of these bowers got into fewer fights with other males.”
In addition, according to Dr Joyce, such bower alterations confer distinct evolutionary advantages. “This is exciting, because it suggests that if male fish evolve to build their castles a little bit different to the others of their species, then these males may have an advantage as they are less likely to get attacked,” she explained.
And that advantage may subsequently lead to the evolution of an entirely new species, Dr Magalhaes from the University of Nottingham stated. She said, “Over time, if female preference also evolves to favor the new shape of bower, then this could lead to the emergence of a new species of cichlid, all of whom build this once novel style of sandcastle.”
The world’s oceans represent a frontier of astounding vastness, unconquered and unexplored. Although it may be tempting to explain their mysteries with outlandish theories, it’s entirely unnecessary. In fact, the oceans are as alien to humans as outer space. And the creatures they harbor are as strange as anything dreamed up by science fiction.