While walking his dog along a beach north of Darwin, Australia, a man made a gruesome discovery, something that looked like a severed finger. Yet when he took it to police, it turned out to be something much stranger: a species of plant no one has been able to identify.
Concerned that the finger came from a murder victim or one of the Northern Territory's notorious crocodile attacks, the anonymous man took the “finger” to Casuarina Police Station, where officers were split over whether they were dealing with human remains or something less concerning and more confusing.
"Casuarina General Duties played it safe and treated it as though it were human remains,” Watch Commander Brendan Lindner said on the force's Facebook page. While waiting for the pathology results, debate continued to rage among officers who had seen the finger, or just photographs of it.
Credit: NT Police. The "finger" in its full glory.
The pathologist concluded that the disturbing "finger" is some sort of plant, but could not identify the species. "None of us on PG5 are botanists or marine biologists, so the best we can come up with is Alcyonium digitatum, otherwise known as dead man's fingers," said Lindner.
Despite its evocative name, dead man's fingers seems an unlikely suspect. A. digitatum was described by Linnaeus himself, but the World Register of Marine Species only records it in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean – a very long way from northern Australia. Moreover, A. digitatum is a soft coral, which despite their sedentary nature are still animals, not plant matter.
Unless more “fingers” start washing up on local beaches, the mystery may never be resolved. Since Darwin's police force regard their job as stopping crime rather than adding to botanical knowledge, they plan to dispose of the specimen now that they have ruled out foul play. They have not yet responded to suggestions that they send the "finger" to a museum.
Update: As a result of significant public interst (which we like to think we contributed to) Darwin police passed the specimen on to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT). “It was examined by Dr Richard Willan and Ms Suzanne Horner and determined to be a dead solitary sea squirt (technically called an ascidian or tunicate), a type of sea-dwelling animal native to the Darwin region,” MAGNT reported.
Although sea squirts are common to the reefs off Darwin, this one had been so damaged in the storms that started on New Year's Day that is looked very different from those normally washed ashore, leading to the confusion. For the same reason Willan says it is not possible to identify the species. Tunicates come in very diverse forms, including some that are more likely to be mistaken for rocks than human anatomy. It is unclear whether reports that the pathologist had found the specimen to be a plant were a result of miscommunication from the police media services or a consequence of short staffing over the summer break.