When a hurricane hits land, it typically brings a few surprises with it.
Those surprises might include 100-plus-year-old shipwrecks, animals swept hundreds of miles from their natural habitats, or even coffins, per The New York Times.
For Twitter user Preeti Desai, Hurricane Harvey brought a mystery: a large, strange sea creature with gruesome fangs and a long, slender body. At first glance, it looked like something out of a horror movie.
Desai posted pictures of the body on Twitter and asked for help with identification.
“Okay, biology twitter, what the heck is this??” Desai wrote. “Found on a beach in Texas City, TX …”
The responses poured in. Several Twitter users suggested that the creature was some sort of eel, likely bloated due to decomposition.
“Now that you point it out, I totally see the eel shape,” Desai tweeted. “It was just so unexpected. Happy to take any other thoughts though.”
Of course, some social media users had alternate explanations. Cryptozoologists—people who look to prove the existence of creatures like Bigfoot and the chupacabra—came out of the woodwork, declaring the creature to be a “monster” of some sort. That prompted some tongue-in-cheek responses from Desai’s followers.
Soon, wildlife experts got involved.
The posts drew the attention of Adam Summers, a professor at the University of Washington. Summers specializes in fish biomechanics (which makes for a pretty extraordinary resumé), and he in turn reached out to Benjamin Frable, the collection manager of marine vertebrates at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.
“I recognized it pretty quickly as an eel,” Frable told Forbes. “We get quite a lot of moray eel wash-ups here and they’re pretty horrifying-looking, too.”
Finally, Desai had an answer from a qualified expert: The creature was an eel from the family Opichthidae, called a “tusky eel” or “fangtooth snake-eel” depending on the region. It’s an unusual animal, and while it’s not a mythological monster, it has a few bizarre features.
“What made this genus so weird to me is the head shape and large fangs. A lot of snake-eels have similarly point[ed] heads with eyes very far forward near the tip of the snout. This is because they tend to burrow in the sand with only their head sticking out,” Frable said. He added that the eel’s coloration was strange, which could be explained by a bad sunburn.
The fangtooth snake-eel lives in tropical waters and inhabits burrows on the ocean floor, and it leaves its snout exposed and waits for passing fish and crustaceans. It uses its specially adapted tongue to lure in prey, then snaps them into its broad, toothy jaws. The males can grow to 33 inches, so to untrained observers, they can seem like a pretty formidable sea monster.
“This isn’t scary. It’s just a part of nature,” Desai said to The New York Times. “My hope is that at least there are some people who get more curious about nature and the outside world.”