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Archive for July, 2018

Identifying the Loch Ness Monster

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/07/01

Thirty years ago, I explained [1] why science would make no effort to search for the creatures popularly known as Loch Ness Monsters or Nessies: the creatures are seen so rarely that any quest relying on a visual encounter with a Nessie, by eyesight or by photography, would be extremely unlikely to succeed. Scientists cannot sustain a career unless they obtain useful results; at Loch Ness they would be engaged in a war of attrition against the laws of chance, as Adrian Shine once put it. So I have not expected in my lifetime to learn what these creatures really are. Yet now it seems that we will find it out within about a year.

The breakthrough comes from the approach known as “eDNA”, environmental DNA.

“[L]iving things leave behind skin, hair, feathers, poo, bark, pollen and spores as part of their day-to-day activities. These traces result in a potpourri of organic material in our soil and water from which DNA can be extracted and sequenced. Our aim is to produce a census of life in Loch Ness and to establish if there is any scientific basis for the centuries-old monster legend” [2].

It seems incredible, or perhaps magical, but the technique seems to have extraordinary capabilities: “From about a litre or two of water here in Dunedin, we can detect very easily over 150 different species that are present in the inner harbour or the outer harbour” [3].

At Loch Ness, Gemmell’s team “collected 259 water samples from various parts of the loch, including its chilly depths, more than 200 metres down” [2]; so there are good grounds for Nessie believers like myself to be very hopeful that by early in 2019 we will at last know what sort of creature Nessie is.

A common opinion favors something related to the plesiosaurs which supposedly died out roughly 60 million years ago, so presumably authentic plesiosaur DNA is not available for comparison; but snakes and turtles are close relatives in the tree of life with presumably some significant similarities in DNA.

My own best guess, in fact my prediction for what will be found, is that DNA will suggest that Nessies are related to plesiosaurs much as are leatherback turtles, which have been seen at times in the cold waters around Scotland.

Unfortunately, eDNA is not foolproof: “It may be that there is no monster, but we can’t prove that … unfortunately it’s very difficult to prove a negative: the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So it might be that if there was a monster, we just didn’t sample water anywhere near where it had been over the last week or so or there may be other explanations” [4].

So we believers have a ready excuse if no marine reptilian DNA turns up. It’s actually a bit worrying if eDNA requires that the organic stuff had been shed within a week or so and somewhere near where the water was sampled — it’s generally agreed that there cannot be more than a couple of dozen Nessies at any given time, and the Loch is about 20 miles long and a mile wide and as deep as nearly 800 feet in some places. That’s why encounters are so rare. Sonar data also suggest that Nessies spend much time at the bottom; and some speculation about physiology and lifestyle suggests significant periods of inactivity.

Still, my hope is that it will be the contemporary doubters, the Nessie denialists, who will need to grasp at straws to find ways to explain away the presence of DNA from some sort of marine reptile. Turtles around the streams that flow into the Loch will be suggested, and much more as well — self-styled skeptics who can maintain that the large, rapidly-moving hump filmed by Tim Dinsdale was actually a boat can surely come up with other absurdly far-fetched suggestions.
We vindicated believers, on the other hand, will move on to point to larger lessons to be drawn from the many decades during which official science managed to ignore or dismiss the staggering amount of evidence: the Dinsdale film, the Rines underwater photos, the innumerable sonar contacts, and the thousands of eyewitness reports.
For a summary of all that evidence and links and references to further detail, see my Loch Ness web-page “Genuine facts about ‘Nessie’, the Loch Ness ‘Monster’”.

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[1]    The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery, University of Illinois Press 1986; re-issued by Wipf & Stock, 2012
[2]    “Monster hunt: using environmental DNA to survey life in Loch Ness”, by Neil Gemmell (Professor of Reproduction and Genomics, University of Otago, New Zealand; 26 June 2018
[3]    Toby Manhire, “In search of the Loch Ness Monster’s DNA – and science people give a damn about”
[4]   “Scholar reveals details of plan on hunt for Loch Ness Monster’s DNA”

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