Monster of the Week: The Gill Man

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The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a spectacular monster, yet his story is one of tedium and sadness.

How often we forget.

You probably have some familiarity with his 1954 discovery. Perhaps you even know about his 1955 tenure in a Florida aquarium. But let us not for a moment forget that, in 1956, the gill man suffered severe burns, lost its gills, grew human skin and very nearly passed itself off as one of us.

He was of course framed for murder, so the un-gilled creature rampaged, murdered a deranged surgeon and committed suicide by wading into ocean waters that could no longer supply him oxygen.

Few monsters can claim such a depressing biography. But let's consider his biology.

That's all his human captors were ever interested in anyway.

Gills and Lungs

What do you call a gill man whose gills are burned off in a horrible fire? You'd expect to call that gill man"dead" is what, but the creature survived -- all thanks to a functional set of lungs sealed away in its chest.

The gill man is clearly an unnatural creature, but the natural world contains a potential parallel. The lungfish also boasts a lung-and-gill combo, existing as a sort of callback to the 375-million-year-old evolution of land-dwelling creatures from a long-extinct species of lobe-finned fish.

So, while the gill man represents an unnatural link between the world of fish and the world of men, the lungfish is the closest natural-world living relative of the tetrapods (four-limbed vertebrates).

Note: Scientists studying the gill man seem to champion a form of Lamarkian evolution in which an individual organism "evolves" (organisms do NOT evolve over the course of a single lifetime) so we have to take all their findings with a grain of salt.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.