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Chilean scientists work to ID mysterious sea creature

By Jeordan Legon

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(CNN) -- Is it a fabled giant octopus, a monster squid, or perhaps a piece of a rotting whale?

A huge, gelatinous sea creature found in the Southern Pacific Coast of Chile continued to baffle scientists Wednesday while they waited for a DNA analysis. Elsa Cabrera, director of the Center for Cetacean Conservation in Santiago, whose team found, photographed and preserved the find, received inquiries from around the world.

The more they looked at the creature, the more they became convinced it was a giant octopus known as Octopus Giganteus. A specimen of that octopus was believed to have washed up on the Florida Coast in 1896, but samples of the animal's skin were lost and its species was never confirmed, said Dr. James Mead, a zoologist at the Smithsonian Institution where pictures of the specimen are stored.

"We didn't see many tentacles, but from looking at pictures and descriptions of the 1896 animal and this one, the skin color and shape seem to match -- a bit gray with bits of pink," Cabrera said. "We're all very impressed by its size, but it's going to take further study to know for certain what it is."

The animal, which was discovered June 23 washed up on a Chilean beach, was described as a 40-foot-long (12-meter) mass of rotting grey flesh that scientists estimated to weigh about 13 tons.

"I had only heard about things like this in Jules Verne," Cabrera said, referring to the author of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," a classic novel full of exotic creatures and vivid descriptions of the sea.

But Mead, who has studied whales since 1965, said he believes the blob found in Chile is a massive chunk of whale.

"Over the years there have been reports all over the world ... of sea monsters washing up and at least 90 percent of these have turned out to be basking sharks," he said, noting the shark species can grow to be over 40 feet long. "But this somehow doesn't look like a basking shark. It looks like a piece of an old rotting whale."

The blob found in 1896 remains unidentified. But some believe it was part of a whale.
The blob found in 1896 remains unidentified. But some believe it was part of a whale, not a giant octopus

Mead said decomposing whale flesh looks slightly fibrous, similar to the flesh in the pictures of the Chilean find. While the animal found off the coast of Florida was never officially classified, he said, a similar mound of flesh found in 1988 on a Bermuda beach was tested. A DNA analysis found the animal was a piece of a sperm whale's head.

"DNA sequencing is the way to go," Mead said.

But he urged the scientists in Chile to preserve a different sample of the animal's flesh. The formaldehyde solution the Chilean researchers are using to preserve part of the animal would destroy a lab's ability to test its DNA, he said.

"They should have a sample just refrigerated in salt or alcohol that they could use for DNA sequencing," Mead said.

Cabrera said she hoped to find enough funding to conduct the DNA testing.

"We have scientists from France and Italy interested in helping us," she said. "We hope to have answers soon."

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