The Montauk Monster: A New York Mystery

In the summer of 2008, an odd-looking carcass washed up on the shore of the East River in New York City. When photos of the bloated hairless body were posted to the Internet, it caused a sensation, with speculations that it was an unknown animal, an alien pet from outer space, or perhaps a secret genetic experiment from a nearby government research lab. It was dubbed “The Montauk Monster”.


The Plum Island Animal Disease Center–part of the monster conspiracy…?

On the afternoon of July 13, 2008, four young women were walking along the beach behind the Surfside Restaurant in the Montauk area of Long Island, when they came upon an odd-looking dead animal, hairless and with a strange beaklike nose, that had washed up on the sand. The women took a couple of color photographs of the carcass and posted them to the Internet. On July 23, the local newspaper, the Independent, ran a black and white version of the photo, and by July 29 the photos had appeared on the website under the headline “Dead Monster Washes Ashore at Montauk”. Over the next few weeks the story went national, with newspapers and news magazines running the photos. In most versions, the photo gives no indication of scale, allowing readers to jump to their own conclusions about how big the carcass is.

Since then, the Monster has been a staple on conspiracy and cryptozoology websites, and the photos are widely available on the Web. (…) The story was featured on an episode of the cable TV series “Ancient Aliens”, on another cable show called “Monster Quest”, and was also the subject of an episode of “Conspiracy Theory”, hosted by Jesse Ventura. Over the years other versions of the “Monster” have also been reported in the area, including dead animals that washed ashore in 2011, 2012, and 2014. According to some stories, these carcasses were mysteriously confiscated by government agents to prevent them from being studied or identified.

Most of the conspiracy theories around the Montauk Monster fall into two categories. First are the flying saucer fans (the ones who watch “Ancient Aliens”), who conclude that the Monster is “not of this planet”, and is either a pet for space aliens, or perhaps even an alien traveler itself.

The other group are the anti-government conspiracy fans (the ones who watch “Conspiracy Theory”), who have concluded that the Monster is some sort of “eagle dog”–the result of secret government genetic experiments. These conspiracy theories are fueled by the fact that the Monster was found within a few miles of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which is run by the US Department of Agriculture. According to the conspiracy fans, Plum Island is a secret military installation that produces illegal biological weapons, and is carrying out secret experiments to produce human/animal hybrids for military purposes (perhaps also using DNA obtained from space aliens). In reality, it is a USDA facility that develops vaccines for various agricultural diseases, including foot and mouth disease, rinderpest, and African swine fever. Because these diseases are highly contagious in animals, the lab uses sophisticated airlocks and filters to prevent the disease organisms from escaping onto the mainland, and armed guards prevent boaters from landing on the island. Plum Island does no military research or biological warfare work.

Some of the more serious media speculated that the “Monster” was either a photoshopped fake, or just an ordinary animal. One newspaper concluded that it was a sea turtle that had fallen out of its shell, apparently unaware that turtle shells are part of their rib cages and are attached to the spine, and, despite what you see in cartoons, turtles cannot leave their shells. Other sources concluded from the photos that it was a decayed dog or coyote, or a sheep, or perhaps even a large rodent like a capybara or nutria.

So, what is the Montauk Monster? When I first saw the photos back in 2008, it was no mystery to me: having grown up in rural Pennsylvania, it took me all of 30 seconds to identify it. The remaining bits of fur on the “Monster” unmistakably identify it as a mammal, and the clearly visible canine teeth show that it is a carnivore. Most evident are the feet, with plantigrade rear feet and humanlike front paws with short nail-like claws. Only one animal in North America has feet like that–a plain ole ordinary Raccoon.

How did a dead Raccoon come to have such an odd otherworldly appearance? Because it had been floating in the water for some time. When dead bodies (including human) float in water, the corpses begin to bloat over time as water soaks into the tissues. The skin becomes soft, and the hair loosens and falls out. The exposed soft parts begin to fall away, especially the area around the snout–in the Montauk Monster, the actual bones of the upper jaw are exposed and the upper teeth have fallen out, which gives it an odd beak-like appearance. The loss of fur (especially the distinctive long whiskers around the face) and the decayed flesh around the snout makes the “Monster” appear long-legged, beaked and hairless, but it is still easily recognizable as a Raccoon. And in one of the photos a fly is pictured resting on the corpse, which allows a calculation of the size of the body. It is raccoon-sized. Other “Monsters” found in later years were variously identified as cats or dogs (or, in one case in Panama, as a sloth) that had undergone similar decay after floating in the water.

So there are no space alien pets, no secret military experiments, and no mystery involved with the Montauk Monster. Just a dead Raccoon floating in the water.


3 thoughts on “The Montauk Monster: A New York Mystery”

  1. Mystery carcasses — aquatic and otherwise — say something about the people who are interested in them, as well as the people who are interested in the people who are interested in them (myself falling into both categories), but I’m not sure what it is. It’s the Venn zone where folklore, horror movies, and scientific curiosity converge: “I want to believe — and debunk, and be entertained.”

    Have been fascinated by the phenom since reading about the Stronsay beast in Heuvelmans’s “In the Wake of the Sea Serpents” as a kid.

  2. For me, it was Peter Byrne’s book on Bigfoot and Peter Costello’s book on lake monsters that sparked my interest in cryptozoology as a kid. I’ve followed the topic with interest since then. The little kid in me still hopes that some of them will turn out to be real, but the sciencey part of me still says they’re not.

  3. Whenever I see yet another such photo of a monster, either alive or dead, my first reaction is “I want to believe.” Alas, alas, no luck yet. And in the age of photoshop, a photo by itself simply doesn’t count as evidence for anything.

    Incidentally, you should perhaps at some point look into the possibility that populations of the extinct thylacine still survive in remote areas. One hears of sightings every now and then…

Post a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Forgotten mysteries, oddities and unknown stories from history, nature and science.