Genetic hunt for Nessie
Scientists are tracking DNA to solve the mystery of Loch Ness once and for all.
For centuries, many have claimed that a creature lurks in Loch Ness. Now, by seeking out monster DNA from the loch’s waters, UEKGPVKUVU CTG IQKPI VQ ƂPF out what’s down there
The idea that new, large animal species might be hiding in the world’s wilder places has always been one of the most romantic and appealing of scientific concepts. Even today, it remains possible that a few big mammals, fish or reptiles await discovery in the forests of New Guinea or Southeast Asia, or in certain deep-sea basins. But can we take seriously the possibility, endorsed by a handful of die-hards and believers, that Loch Ness, Scotland’s largest and most famous lake, is home to a new species of gigantic, dragonlike animal more than 10 metres long?
In May 2018, geneticist Prof Neil Gemmell of the University of Otago, New Zealand, embarked on a project to collect and test genetic traces of animals from the loch, and hoped to resolve the enigma of Loch Ness once and for all. He and his team were set to use a technique not previously used on the loch’s water. They were going to hunt for environmental DNA, or eDNA (see box, right).
ARE YOU THERE, NESSIE?
Most scientists do not think there is a monster in the lake. This bold proclamation isn’t due to arrogant elitism or an inability or unwillingness to examine the data that exists, but to the fact that the evidence put forward to support Nessie’s reality has failed to be persuasive. The photos and films are fakes, hoaxes, or misinterpretations of known objects. Biological evidence that might support the creature’s existence – bones, carcasses, feeding signs or droppings – is non-existent. And the large number of eyewitness anecdotes provides nothing robust or consistent. Rather than monsters, there are instead assorted references to all kinds of things seen on the loch, like swimming deer, birds, seals, waves and wakes. Few of these things are familiar to the average loch-side visitor. A psychological phenomenon known as ‘expectant attention’ is also important in influencing people’s experiences at Loch Ness. It explains how people’s observations fit an existing expectation, in this case, that they will see a large, water-dwelling monster.
Still, the idea of something mysterious in the lake has nonetheless captured the attention of scientists.
“Can we take seriously the possibility that Loch Ness is home to a new animal?”
Therefore, the water has been swept by vessels emitting sonar, and its depths have been explored by divers, submersibles and motion-detecting cameras. At least a few authors and scientists have gone on record to state their confident belief in the monster’s existence, the data that convinced them later proving inadequate or erroneous. In other words: science has searched for Nessie, and the results have come back negative.
In the 2016 book Hunting Monsters, I noted that the ability of scientists to search for and analyse the genetic material that living things leave in their environment – so-called environmental DNA, or eDNA – might provide the ultimate arbiter of the presence or absence of a mystery creature in the loch. Gemmell was inspired. “I was thinking how we might use eDNA to search for and identify creatures that live in areas hard to investigate using traditional approaches, such as deep oceans and subterranean water systems. Loch Ness seemed a perfect fit for that sort of project,” he says. “I’m not a Nessie believer, but I’m open to the idea that I might be wrong. This project is about understanding the 2
2 biodiversity of Loch Ness, with the added bonus being that we might find evidence of something new that may explain the monster legend.” According to Gemmell, the study could also have benefits for our understanding of the health of Loch Ness and its future management. He’s currently awaiting the results of the survey.
The study of eDNA has proved an invaluable tool to biologists ever since it was devised in the 1990s. It has been used to examine the distribution of species no longer present in an area, but whose genetic traces are still preserved in sediment. It has also proved crucial in tracking the spread of invasive species. Asian grass carp in the North American Great Lakes and the New Zealand mud snail in the western USA, to use just two examples, have both had their progress monitored via eDNA.
eDNA studies have also been used in the search for species that are rarely seen by people and, in some cases, not seen at all. A 2012 study of seawater from the Baltic confirmed the presence of long-finned pilot whales in the area, a species not seen by people during the period covered by the study and generally thought to be an extremely rare visitor there. More remarkable is a 2018 study concerning eDNA collected from the marine
“We could gain important information on valuable, rare or sensitive species”
waters of the New Caledonian archipelago in the southwest Pacific. This revealed the presence of six shark species that were not picked up at all via more conventional sampling techniques, like longterm observation and the use of baited locations set with automatic cameras.
It’s doubtful that any of the scientists involved in these various eDNA projects ever considered how applicable this work might be to the search for lake monsters, but it’s with this record of eDNA-based successes in mind that Gemmell announced his plans to collect and analyse eDNA from Loch Ness. An eDNA census of the loch could potentially reveal the presence of a large animal matching the ‘monster’ imagined by witnesses and Nessiehunters. But it would also provide a list of the many additional species living there. Given the success of eDNA in documenting the presence of animals, it is quite plausible that an eDNA study could document fish, molluscs or other species not currently known to be living in the loch. Invasive species could be among them – organisms we urgently need to keep track of. And we could also gain important information on the whereabouts and movements of economically valuable, rare or environmentally sensitive species, like various members of the salmon family, or the European sturgeon. In short, the scientific pay-off for the study will be substantial, whether a monster is discovered or not. “We figured at the outset that we would likely describe the biodiversity of the loch. I anticipate finding evidence of all the fish species previously reported, plus perhaps some others that we think may be present,” Gemmell says. “We also think we might find new forms of bacteria and other life, particularly in samples from around methane seeps in the loch and the fridge-like depths 200m down.”
Nobody really expects to discover evidence for a creature that might be regarded as similar to the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ of popular lore. But much remains to be learnt about the biology and ecology of Loch Ness and its surrounding lochs and lakes. If eDNA and questions about a monster help us to investigate this subject and learn more about the natural world and how it functions, then this has proved a most worthwhile endeavour.
Dr Darren Naish is a palaeontologist and science writer. He is the author of a number of books on cryptozoology, including Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology And The Reality Behind The Myths. He tweets from @TetZoo.
BELOW: Tales of a monster in Loch Ness have been around for centuries. Prof Neil Gemmell is finding out what lurks in the murky waters once and for all
ABOVE: Sonar reading of Loch Ness, taken by a tour boat captain, revealed a deeper section, which some people think could be a hiding place for Nessie