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Strange Science: Hunting the Loch Ness Monster’s DNA

The first supposed "photo" of the Loch Ness Monster taken by a London surgeon in 1934. This later turned out to be a hoax. Credit: AP/REX/Shutterstock

A scientific team in Scotland is highly skeptical that “Nessie” is anything more than a fascinating legend…but, they’re going to check the lake for traces of her DNA, just to make sure. 

Actually, the full experiment isn’t really centered on Nessie, per se. Rather, the biologists are scanning the cold waters of Loch Ness for the DNA sequences of all the animals that live there, looking for DNA that may have been shed by any foreign, or unknown, species. They don’t expect to find any traces of Nessie, which some people believe to be a living dinosaur, i.e. a plesiosaur, or possibly a giant sea serpent. But, if there is any truth to the legend, these tests should tell the tale—or tail. Who knows? 

Ironically, Loch Ness would be just another Scottish lake if it weren’t for the legendary monster (or monstrous legend, depending on your point of view). It’s not very big or deep—just 22 miles across with a maximum known depth of 754 feet. But, it draws thousands of tourists each year, most of whom hope to get a glimpse—better yet a selfie—of the elusive “monster” that may lurk below. 

Sightings have been reported since the 6th century, when, according to legend, St. Columba prevented the creature from chowing down on a man by reprimanding it. “No, Nessie! No bite! Bad monster!” 

The legend really took off in 1934, when a surgeon snapped a shadowy photo of an apparent long-necked “creature” with its head protruding from the murky water. Published it in London newspapers. Very cool, but also very phony; decades later, the picture was proven to be a fake. 

While many people have claimed eye-witness sightings, and others have launched searches of Loch Ness using underwater cameras, sonar, drones, and satellite tracking, Nessie remains elusive and undetected. 

You would expect dead Nessies, pairs of Nessies, or flocks of little Nesslings to show up occasionally, unless the beast is eternal, invulnerable, and celibate. No luck there, either. 

So exactly what do the scientists really hope to find? A phenomenon called “environmental DNA”. All animals shed DNA from their skin, bodily wastes, etc. into their environment. The stuff can be recovered from air, water, soil, and ice, according to the expedition’s website, https://www.lochnesshunters.com. This will tell them not only whether the Loch Ness Monster is real, but whether there are any other undiscovered species in the lake, e.g. fish, insects, etc. 

The international scientific team will set sail on Loch Ness in June. They will initially take 300 water samples from three different depths. Next, they will extract and sequence the DNA fragments they find in the water. Next step—compare those fragments with DNA databases of known animals to see if they contain anything unexpected, unknown, or weird. 

Prof. Neill Gemmell, of the University of Otago in New Zealand, is leading the project. “I think we’ll find lots that is news,” he said, “but it is unlikely we will find anything new that explains the monster myth.” However, Gemmell wouldn’t be surprised to find new species. In fact, he said that a recent environmental DNA study of a nearby loch revealed four new species of brown trout. “If this were solely a monster hunt, I wouldn’t be doing it,” he affirmed. 

Even so, the team will test a few Nessie-specific hypotheses. For example, could the creature actually be an ancient reptile. To get an answer, they will compare the DNA they find in the loch with that of modern reptiles. Some people think Nessie could be one whopper of a giant fish, so the scientists will also compare the Loch Ness DNA samples with known fish DNA. Of course, some Nessie enthusiasts theorize that the monster is something completely unknown to science that only occurs in Loch Ness. To check that out, the researchers will test environmental DNA from the loch against samples extracted from various other bodies of water. 

However, even if the scientists find absolutely no evidence of anything Nessie-esque, the legend is unlikely to die. In Gemmell’s opinion, people will explain away the lack of evidence however they like, e.g. “Nessie was in hiding. Nessie was on holiday out of the loch.” Or even, “Nessie doesn’t have DNA because it is an alien.” 

However, this effort could shed some light on a very different phenomenon—the range, power, and tenacity of the human imagination.   

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Dave Segal

Dave Segal

Dave Segal, a Detroit native, has been a journalist since 1977. He has worked as a reporter, commentator, and news director at radio stations in Detroit, Denver, and Montrose.

Dave has been writing and editing for the Monitor since its first print issue in 2003. He is editor and senior writer for the digital magazine. On the side, Dave has also done freelance writing, media relations, and a variety of volunteer work.