Over the last two or three weeks, I have been sent the accompanying picture at least nine times by different persons who had received it over the Internet and who wanted more information about the creature depicted.

A number of versions of this picture seem to be doing the rounds. The most common has accompanying text that says that this creature occurs at Il-Maghluq in Marsascala, while another version says that this animal was photographed at Bahrija. I am invariably asked if this is a real discovery or if it is a hoax, whether such an animal actually exists, whether it is a salamander or a lizard, and whether this is a native or an alien species.

The short answer to all these queries is that yes, this is a hoax, but the animal shown really exists, or rather, it has existed, since it became extinct about 270 million years ago.

The picture itself is a hoax that seems to have originated overseas, although I have not been able to trace where. The image might be of a model or it might be a doctored image created digitally. The animal shown is a type of early amphibian called Diplocaulus that is distinguished by two elongated bones at the back of the skull that in life gave the animal a very odd, boomerang-shaped head.

Diplocaulus lived some 270 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs appeared, and its fossils have been found in North America. Although not a salamander but rather a member of a now extinct group of amphibians called nectridians, Diplocaulus very much resembles a modern salamander apart for its head.

The very distinctive head may have been an adaptation against predators, since the wide head would make Diplocaulus difficult to swallow, or it may have aided the animal to swim by acting as a hydrofoil. Like most other early amphibians, Diplocaulus lived in or near water. It probably fed on insects or fish. It was also considerably larger than the image doing the rounds suggests, since fossils as large as 80 cm in length have been discovered.

Discovering a live Diplocaulus at Il-Maghluq would certainly be a major scientific discovery rivalling the discovery of the coelacanth. Unfortunately, this is science fiction!

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