Mega Joke, or A Funny Thing

Happened on the Way to Publication

The Megamouth Shark is widely regarded as one of the most spectacular and sensational discoveries in ichthyological history. In November 1976, ichthyologist Leighton Taylor had the first known specimen conveniently delivered to his front lawn at the Waikiki Aquarium, where he was curator of fishes at the time. Several years passed, yet Taylor had not presented the scientific paper to formally describe Megamouth to the waiting ichthyological world. In 1980, fellow ichthyologist John McCosker and artist-author Richard Ellis were visiting Taylor in Honolulu and since Taylor's long-awaited paper still had not appeared they got to wondering what the hold-up was. As they blissfully charged drinks to Taylor's account at the Outrigger Canoe Club in Waikiki, McCosker and Ellis hatched a splendid, complex, ethanol-lubricated plan to hurry along the process.

Perhaps drawing from the historical example of Charles Darwin, apparently spurred into publishing On the Origin of Species after 21 years' procrastination by the possibility of being scooped by Alfred Russell Wallace, McCosker and Ellis conspired to create the impression that Taylor had waited too long. McCosker and Ellis manufactured a phony technical paper, patched together from journal articles in Japanese, photographs of the first known specimen of Megamouth, tables of its proportional measurements, and a map showing the location where it was captured. To add credibility to this fabrication, they composed an abstract (summary) in English, declaring the paper to be the long-awaited description of the Megamouth Shark discovered by the purposely mis-spelled "Reighton Taylor" and listed several Japanese authors headed by John E. Randall. Randall is a distinguished ichthyologist who has described many new species of fishes with Japanese colleagues and to add irony to injury had for many years been curator of fishes at the Bishop Museum, also in Honolulu. Copies of this bogus paper were sent to an accomplice in Japan, who was instructed to send one of them to Taylor. McCosker and Ellis made it appear that Randall had gone behind Taylor's back to describe Megamouth, stealing the honor of naming the new species irrevocably out from under its discoverer's nose. It was a diabolical plan carefully conceived and executed to drive Taylor stark, raving mad.

When Taylor received his copy of the paper, he was absolutely dumbstruck. Taylor eventually regained his composure after about 30 minutes, and asked his Japanese-American secretary to translate the paper out loud to him. She surveyed the Japanese part of the text for a while, finally stating that she couldn't translate the paper because it made absolutely no sense. One page was about the cat in Japanese art; another was about rhinoceroses in the Ueno Zoo. Embedded among the Japanese characters on the last page she found the names of McCosker and Ellis, which were placed there for Taylor to find. Only then did Taylor realize that he had been the victim of a clever, heart-rending practical joke perpetrated by his so-called 'friends'. But he never said a word to either McCosker or Ellis about it. However, on page 110 of Taylor et al.'s (1983) description of Megamouth, it states: "Particular thanks go to Richard Ellis and John McCosker for preparation of a preliminary manuscript which was of great help in the production of this final paper."

And that's the story behind the story of how nearly seven years after the discovery of the first known specimen Taylor finally overcame his writer's block so that Megamouth was formally described and received its official scientific name: Megachasma pelagios, which means "huge yawning cavern of the open sea". Since the original specimen of Megamouth was discovered, 14 more have appeared. We can be sure that, somewhere in the deep ocean, other Megamouths swim along, unmindful of the ichthyological community's long wait for a formal name to apply to them or the strained nerves that Taylor has suffered at the whimsy of McCosker and Ellis. Taylor, McCosker and Ellis are once again on speaking terms, but apparently Taylor no longer delays in getting his work into print.

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ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research
Text and illustrations R. Aidan Martin
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