During my recent field trip with John Whitmore to Scotland to study Permian sandstones, we spent a day touring around Loch Ness. The loch has long attracted attention for its fabled resident, the monster, which many have supposed might be a living plesiosaur (Shuker 1995). Creationists have also been interested in the possibility of prehistoric survivors, because they think that their discovery would cast doubt on evolution and the standard geological timescale (Gibbons and Hovind 1999). In fact, such is the popular interest that I can almost guarantee someone will raise a question about the Loch Ness Monster every time I speak on the subject of dinosaurs (even though plesiosaurs were not dinosaurs).
I can certainly understand why the idea of surviving plesiosaurs has such a grip on the popular imagination. As a boy I too was fascinated by the possibility, and grew up reading books on the Loch Ness Monster by Constance Whyte (1957), Tim Dinsdale (1982) and Nicholas Witchell (1975). But as the years went by (and especially after I visited the loch myself for the first time) the realisation dawned that the evidence for a population of prehistoric reptiles in Scotland’s most famous lake is poor to non-existent. Consider the following facts:
- All the famous photographs and films of the Loch Ness “creature” without exception have been explained as misidentifications (e.g. logs, water birds, boat wakes) or hoaxes (e.g. the Surgeon’s Photograph). See Binns (1983), Campbell (1991), Martin and Boyd (1999) and Raynor (2001).
- The monster tradition in Loch Ness is largely an invention of the media circus that followed the Mackay and Spicer sightings in 1933 (Binns 1983 pp.48-60; Shine 2006 pp.6-9). Earlier newspaper reports seemed to describe a large fish, rather than a prehistoric reptile, and St Columba’s famous monster encounter in 565 AD took place in the River Ness, not the loch.
- The anatomy of plesiosaurs does not seem to fit the popular descriptions of the Loch Ness animal. For example, the articulation of the neck vertebrae in plesiosaurs would not have allowed them to lift their heads out of the water in a swan-like fashion (Zammit et al 2008), yet this is what many eyewitnesses describe.
- Plesiosaurs were air-breathing reptiles and would need to come to the surface regularly to breathe. Even a small population in Loch Ness would give rise to much more frequent sightings.
- No bones or skeletal remains have ever been found (Binns 1983 p.35).
- There is no convincing sonar evidence of large vertebrates in the loch. The sonar record consists of echoes from methane gas bubbles, fish, floating logs, internal seiche waves, bounces from the loch sides, and so on (Campbell 1991 pp.75-97; Shine 2006 pp.21-24).
- Loch Ness is a glacial lake and marine animals such as plesiosaurs could not have entered it since the ice melted. Sediment cores reveal no evidence of a marine incursion when the last glaciers retreated from the region (Shine 2006 p.5).
- There are no fossils of plesiosaurs in post-Cretaceous rocks, suggesting that they became extinct before the Pleistocene ice advance. Naish (2000) has pointed out that the oft-cited analogy with the rediscovery of coelacanths is a “red herring”, since, unlike plesiosaurs, coelacanths have low preservation potential and, in fact, are now known from a couple of post-Cretaceous specimens.
- Most think it would be impossible for plesiosaurs to survive in the cold waters of Loch Ness (Campbell 1991 p.115; Leadbetter 1997). Fossil evidence for cold-water plesiosaurs is questionable.
- The biological productivity of Loch Ness is very low (Shine 2006 pp.18-20). Sonar recordings suggest that the biomass of Arctic char in the lake is only about 20 tonnes. There simply isn’t enough food to sustain a viable population of large predators (Shine 2006 p.26).
Much as it grieves the ten-year-old in me to say it, and much as I’d love to believe otherwise, the evidence is conclusive: there are no plesiosaurs in Loch Ness.
Binns R. 1983. The Loch Ness Mystery Solved. Open Books, Shepton Mallet, Somerset.
Campbell S. 1991. The Loch Ness Monster: The Evidence. Revised Edition. Aberdeen University Press.
Dinsdale T. 1982. Loch Ness Monster. Fourth Edition. Routledge, London.
Gibbons W. J., Hovind K. 1999. Claws, Jaws, and Dinosaurs. Creation Science Evangelism, Pensacola, Florida.
Leadbetter S. 1997. The plesiosaur and the mouse: an examination of plesiosaur morphology and physiology in connection to their thermodynamics, in: Downes J. (editor), The CFZ Yearbook 1997, Centre for Fortean Zoology, Exeter, pp.98-111.
Martin D., Boyd A. 1999. Nessie: The Surgeon’s Photograph. Martin and Boyd, East Barnet, Hertfordshire.
Naish D. 2000. Where be monsters? Fortean Times (132):40-44.
Raynor D. 2001. Eyewitness evidence and the remains of the Loch Ness monster, in: Heinselman C. (editor), Dracontology: Crypto Special Number 1: Being an Examination of Unknown Aquatic Animals, Craig Heinselman, Francestown, New Hampshire, pp. 127-128.
Shine A. 2006. Loch Ness. Loch Ness Project, Drumnadrochit.
Shuker K. P. N. 1995. In Search of Prehistoric Survivors: Do Giant ‘Extinct’ Creatures Still Exist? Blandford, London.
Whyte C. 1957. More Than a Legend: The Story of the Loch Ness Monster. Hamish Hamilton, London.
Witchell N. 1975. The Loch Ness Story. Harmondsworth.
Zammit M., Daniels C. B., Kear B. P. 2008. Elasmosaur (Reptilia: Sauropterygia) neck flexibility: implications for feeding strategies. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology – Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology 150(2):124-130.