Back in February, the remains of a large mystery creature were discovered on a beach in Wales – and they've been puzzling locals and visitors ever since. The 11-foot (3.35m) carcass, which was first spotted along the Kenfig river mouth in Port Talbot, is not what it seems. 


While some have suggested the skeleton belonged to a crocodile-like dinosaur, these bones are not reptilian (extinct or otherwise). For starters, those croc "legs" you see in the photo are actually bits of driftwood.

To get to the bottom of the mystery, we reached out to New York-based comparative anatomist Dr Joy Reidenberg. For her, there was only one contender. "This is DEFINITELY a whale," she said when presented with the photos. "In fact, it’s definitely a toothed whale in the family Delphinidae (dolphins, including small toothed whales like orcas)."

Based on the appearance of the skull, Reidenberg guessed the animal was a larger member of the Delphinidae group, like a beluga, orca or pilot whale (sperm whales, the biggest of the bunch, have asymmetrical nasal openings). Her hunch proved correct.

A bit of digging on our part revealed that the animal's blubber was mostly intact when it washed up – and enough of its head remained to allow for a proper ID. What we're looking at is the charred skeleton of a long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas). 

The whale, which was moved from its original location, was burned in an attempt to lighten the carcass. That explains the darkening of the vertebrae that some have misidentified as fossilisation. 

"My dog smelled it first as I was up wind of it," wrote Facebook user Chris Maund, who saw the whale before it fully decomposed. "As soon as I was down wind it was terrible."

Image: Chris Maund/Facebook
Image: Chris Maund/Facebook
Image: Chris Maund/Facebook

Whether or not the fire was started by officials remains unclear, but because the animal's body was burned whole, we suspect this was not the case. Carcass "demolition" can be a tough task (something we've experienced firsthand), and while officials often burn or bury the blubber to lighten the load, it's typically removed first to preserve the skeleton, which can make a valuable museum specimen if kept intact.

"It's a shame ... what a waste," says Darrell Blatchleyosteo preparation specialist and owner of the D' Bone Collector Museum. "This skeleton was still salvageable, [but] once the bones are charred like that, there's no bringing them back. They can really only be used for sample pieces."

Long-finned pilot whales are among the largest members of the dolphin family, with males reaching lengths of 25 feet (7.6m) and weighing as much as 5,000 pounds (2,300kg). Based on size alone, it's likely that the Port Talbot carcass is that of a juvenile. 

As for what caused the animal to wash up in the first place, it's too late to say with any certainty. Even without the fire, this animal was already in an advanced state of decomposition by the time it was discovered, and determining a cause of death from this state can be impossibly tricky.

Long-finned pilot whales are commonly seen in tight pods of around ten to 20 animals, so it's possible that this youngster was separated from its group due to injury, illness or rough seas. 



Top header image: Alex/Flickr