The world’s famous lake monster may not be a monster

For centuries, Loch Ness has been a place of great mystery. Apart from its scenic landscape, the tantalizing mystery of the Loch Ness Monster has been baffling tourists and scientists since 1933. Now, scholars and researchers claimed to have found a possible answer to the Loch Ness Monster mystery.

black and white image of Loch Ness and possibly the Loch Ness Monster
(Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild) via Getty Images

Using environmental DNA (eDNA) data, University of Otago geneticist professor Neil Gemmell, may have an insight into what this so-called monster really is. Though he might know the answer, the real question is whether people are willing to give up the conspiracy for the truth. What did Professor Gemmell find in Loch Ness that made major headlines? Hint, it’s not a monster. 

Professor Neil Gemmell searches for the truth

Professor Gemmell and a group of researchers decided it was time to put the Loch Ness monster mystery to rest. In the past, scientists have used sonar equipment in hopes to catch a glimpse of Nessie’s dorsal fin, however, little evidence suggested there was any life apart from the standard sturgeon.

BRITAIN-SCOTLAND-NZEALAND-LOCH NESS-TOURISM-SCIENCE
(Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP) via Getty Images

Cue Professor Gemmell. Taking water from the lake, he discovered over 3,000 distinct species of lake creatures including humans, dogs, and sheep DNA (we don’t suggest drinking the water anytime soon). Once Professor Gemmell was able to eliminate the least appearing DNA strands in his sample, he noticed one species dominating the rest. 

Dinosaurs live beneath Loch Ness

Until Professor Gemmell could differentiate what kind of creature he was dealing with, many speculated — mainly cryptozoology conspirators — that the timid Nessie was a plesiosaur who survived the last major extinction and has since called Loch Ness home. First of all, the concept is downright impossible, and second, the idea is just plain silly.

Professor Gemmell collecting lake water sample
(Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/ AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP) via Getty Images

Ever since the famous “Nessie” image surfaced in 1934, many were ready to believe in the fantasy that dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1994 that photo analysts determined the famous photo (known as the “Surgeon’s Photo”) was a complete hoax and deemed the Loch Ness monster a myth. The debunked photo shot down the hopes and dreams of invested researchers, but it didn’t dwindle the number of tourists.

Because anything other than a monster is far-fetched

The Loch Ness Monster could be anything else other than a dinosaur; heavy driftwood or even a troupe of circus elephants (no, really, that was under speculation). “Is there a plesiosaur in Loch Ness? No. There is absolutely no evidence of any reptilian sequences in our samples,” Gemmell said

Styxosaurus 3D illustration
(Warpaintcobra) via Getty Images

“So I think we can be fairly sure that there is probably not a giant scaly reptile swimming around in Loch Ness.” Instead, Gemmell believed the lake monster is something more realistic than an oversized reptile. Seriously, though, no matter how anyone looked at the myth, the word “realistic” and “Loch Ness” is hard to marry (just saying). 

Gemmell went to work

So, Gemmell went to work. Note that he did not intend to find the Loch Ness Monster, but study the ecosystem within Loch Ness, and maybe — through scientific analysis — he could come up with a plausible explanation for the Loch Ness Monster sightings (because, this is science, not a traveling circus). 

professor Gemmell holding a beaker of water
(Photo by Andy Buchanan / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP) via Getty Images

Gemmell and a group of scientists sampled the lake’s water using eDNA which would help them identify remnants of genetic material floating under the loch’s murky surface. By analyzing the water, scientists were able to create a list of all the living organisms living in the lake. What seemingly appeared to be harmless lake water was a plethora of genetic information waiting to be tapped. 

The eDNA was irrefutable

By analyzing the organisms living in the lake, Gemmell could point out anything that seemed unusual (like a large reptilian monster). Sounds simple, sure. At first, Gemmell believed large fish were responsible for the monster myths. “Large fish, like catfish and sturgeons, have been suggested as a possible explanation for the monster myth, and we can very much test that idea and others,” Gemmell said in Newsweek.

large river catfish
(abadonian) via Getty Images

Other animals, such as crocodiles, Greenland sharks, and seals were considered as the Loch Ness Monster culprit, but there is no evidence of such animals in Loch Ness. Imagine if a catfish was responsible for the Nessie sightings? A catfish who catfished the world. Who would have thought?

What is eDNA?

How does eDNA work? How is it studied? Well, Gemmell said that the lake carried “tiny fragments of DNA” from the skin to scales. Gemmell said, “Whenever a creature moves through its environment, it leaves behind tiny fragments of DNA from skin, scales, feathers, fur, and feces.” Yup, humans included (because that sounds appealing).

Europe, Great Britain, Scotland. Loch Ness.
(Photo by Jan Michael Hosan/Fotogloria/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Gemmell then said that the captured DNA would be compared to a large database with other known genetic sequences from thousands of various organisms. Sounds reasonable. But, what if what scientists found wasn’t in the database? “If an exact match can’t be found, we generally figure out where on the tree of life that sequence fits,” Gemmell said.

Saint Columba exorcised Nessie

The earliest account of the Loch Ness Monster was found in a 7th-century biography of an Irish missionary, Saint Columba. Saint Columba was on a mission to bring Christianity to Scotland and stumbled across Loch Ness while visiting the king of the northern Picts near Inverness.

black and white photo of woman standing on the lake shore
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

At Loch Ness, Saint Columba had learned of a creature that had been killing people in the lake. In his account, Saint Columba witnessed the creature about to attack a man when he intervened and invoked the name of God to send the creature to “go back with all speed” into the lake. When the monster retreated, it never harmed another man.

There were eyewitnesses before the ‘Surgeon’s Photo’

After Saint Columba “confronted” the lake creature, there hadn’t been any further sightings of the Loch Ness Monster. That changed in 1933. Before the infamous “Surgeon’s Photo” appeared, there was a multitude of eye-witnesses who swore they saw something massive breach the water.

Alleged Image of Loch Ness Monster
(Bettmann / Contributor) via Getty Images

Those eye-witnesses didn’t think it was a monster or a beast at first glance. It looked like a whale, at other times a large crocodile. Then, on Nov. 12, 1933, photographer Hugh Grey took an alarming photo of a large serpentine creature on the lake’s surface. It was published the Scottish Daily Record and people went bonkers. 

The worm in a puddle turned into a sensation

It looked more like a worm stuck in a puddle, but to everyone reading their morning paper, it caused a spark of excitement for the locals. Next thing the area knew, a flood of people from all over Europe — and eventually — the world, came to see the Loch Ness Monster.

man in a yellow submarine ready to find the Loch Ness Monster
(Photo by Express/Archive Photos) via Getty Images

A flood of people began to report sightings of the creature. The media was having a field day. It even came to a point where a circus offered a 20,000-pound reward to anyone who could capture the beast. London’s Daily Mail even hired a famous game hunter to track the beast. 

The Daily Mail had a field day

Of course, he found no lake monster, but, a few days later, found strange tracks to a creature no one had ever seen before (strange indeed). The tracks added fuel to the media-dumpster-fire and the Daily Mail wrote, “MONSTER OF LOCH NESS IS NOT LEGEND BUT A FACT.” Talk about media sensation, right?

'The Loch Ness Monster', 1933, (1938)
(Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Because Loch Ness was garnering much attention, it wasn’t long until they gave the creature the beloved name we know today, Nessie. Once word spread about the Loch Ness Monster and the monster foot, people began to descend to Loch Ness, sitting in boats to wait for the lake monster. Only, it would never come. 

The footprints belonged to a hippo

Surprise! Turns out the footprint the game hunter found belonged to a hippo, a stuffed hippo. Granted, the news of the hoax somewhat diminished tourism around Loch Ness, but it didn’t stop the reported sightings that followed after. Finally, in 1934, the famous Loch Ness photo, the “Surgeon’s Photo,” was published featuring a dino-Nessie.

Creating Nessie
(Photo by Ian Tyas/Keystone Features) via Getty Images

Since the photo’s release, the popular theory as to how a dinosaur survived passed its extinction was born. The propagates that Nessie was frozen in a block of ice for 18 million years until it was defrosted into what was now Loch Ness 18,000 years ago. Cute, but no dice. 

Apparently ‘Nessie’ was frozen in ice before Captain America

Assuming Nessie was a frozen fish stick — a plesiosaur-looking dino who survived 18 million years Captain America style under ice — and survived, the dino wouldn’t have lasted long. Nessie wouldn’t survive in Loch Ness’ chilled waters. Plus, the theoretical dino would need a lot more space than a lake. The fish-to-dino ratio just wouldn’t add up. Ask the experts.

The Goodies, filming of The Loch Ness Monster, on the Lido at Ruislip, Thursday 3rd June 1971.
(Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix) via Getty Images

Yes, even researchers entertained the idea of whether the Loch Ness Monster could survive in the Scottish lake. Again, it didn’t add up. Skeptics claimed the monster sightings were called by “seiches” or oscillations on the water’s surface caused by cold water meeting with warmer water. Sure, leave it to the skeptics to ruin all the fun. 

Scientist get high-tech with sonar equipment

By the 1960s, a multitude of amateur investigators from various British universities would invest much time, money, and research scouring Loch Ness. Using sonar technology, investigators slowly scanned the lake hoping to find — at the very least — a dorsal fin. Nothing. Nada. That wasn’t to say that these expeditions were all for nothing. In each excursion, investigators would catch massive objects beneath the surface of Loch Ness.

Scanning The Loch
(Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

But, could it be the legendary Loch Ness Monster or does Professor Gemmell’s theory ring true? A decade passed and by 1975 underwater photography came into play. Boston Academy of Applied Science wound up capturing something that remained inconclusive throughout the ’80s and ‘90s. 

M.I.T. dipped their hands into Loch Ness

In 1975, a group of researchers from the Boston Academy of Applied Science decided to try their hand at solving the Loch Ness Monster mystery. The members within that academic circle included technically proficient individuals tied to M.I.T. What was the Boston Academy of Applied Sciences’ approach?

Pilot with Model of Loch Ness Monster He Witnessed
(Bettmann / Contributor) via Getty Images

They decided to conduct an expedition to trap the monster by combining sonar and underwater photography. It would be a novelty concept that had never been done in prior experiments. Research planted the underwater camera near the shore. The camera was programmed so it took pictures every 45 seconds using a strobe light. The system soon paid off. 

The photo looked phony to London

In the end, the camera caught an image of what looked like the flipper belonging to a large aquatic creature. Researchers brought the image to the House of Commons in London. Before that day, the Loch Ness Monster was never taken seriously. Of course, many questions were raised about the photo’s legitimacy.

Cop petting a feminine nessie
July 1975 (Photo by Ian Tyas/Keystone Features) via Getty Images

One main concern was whether the suggestive image, which was tracked down by sonar traces, were the result of human error. Another (obvious) question was whether the photo was altered in any shape or form. The idea was too far-fetched to be taken seriously, and the evidence was shelved (who could blame them?).

Conspirators cling to the Loch Ness Monster fantasy

What will it take for the public to believe that there just might be a prehistoric reptile living and thriving beneath the lake’s surface? The answer is plain and simple, they won’t. That is until researchers have physical evidence of the Loch Ness Monster’s existence. Scientists would literally have to have Nessie on display to silence the neigh-sayers.

Viewing The Loch
(Photo by Ian Tyas/Keystone Features) via Getty Images

Until then, It’s safe to say that the monster will be left as a complete and utter anomaly. Though the 1975 team was discouraged, the evidence they gathered had yet to be disproved. Could the evidence gathered by their researchers be something completely mundane? Professor Gemmell seemed to think so. 

People love a good mystery and abhor reality

Returning to Professor Neil Gemmell’s theory, perhaps the monster is nothing more than a cluster of eels? That is certainly the more plausible idea. People love a good mystery and would rather have the romance of fantasy than droll reality. “People love a mystery, we’ve used science to add another chapter to Loch Ness’ mystique,” Gemmell said in a BBC article.

"Loch Ness Monster" Found
(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell) via Getty Images

Whatever the case, the investigation did not “scream” monster mystery, but rather, monster reality. There might not be a monster in Loch Ness. Sure, we hadn’t found Nessie (yet), but we did find a possible answer that could put this monster mystery to rest once and for all. 

If it sounds fishy because the truth stinks

Despite how fishy it sounds, Professor Gemmell did his homework. Dipping a beaker of lake water, Gemmell discovered something unique. It turned out that out of the 3,000 species who called the lake home (or should we say loch?) there was an alarming amount of eel DNA in the water. Conclusion?

fresh water eel
(Photo by Werner OTTO/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Nessie may be an eel. Ridiculous, we know, but taking into consideration that there is a fairly large population of eels in Loch Ness and that Nessie has a serpentine shape to her, maybe our monster is really a huge eel? Or, a large group of eels. But don’t take our word for it. 

There was an abundance of eel DNA in the water

During a press conference, Gemmell seemed convinced with what he was dealing with. “We don’t know if the eel DNA we are detecting is from a gigantic eel or just many small eels,” he said. It was surprising not just for Gemmell, but for his entire research team (and for the public, no doubt).

State fishing association exposes 8000 eels
(Danny Gohlke/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa/picture-alliance via Getty Images)

With the mystery of Loch Ness (possibly) solved, how is it that no one speculated something as mundane as an eel? Where did the hysteria begin and will we ever see an end to it? The first answer to that question takes us back to where the legends all began, 1,500 years ago by a priest believing he was exorcising a demon. 

Eels too big for sushi may be the legendary lake beast

According to USA Today, the largest known European eel was 4 feet long and nearly 12 pounds. But, that doesn’t discount there being larger eels in Loch Ness. Regardless, an eel still sounds less glamorous than a dinosaur. “It doesn’t sound like a monster, does it?” Gemmell said at a press conference held by The Guardian

BRITAIN-SCOTLAND-SCIENCE-OFFBEAT
(Photo by Andy Buchanan / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP) via Getty Images

“But based on the evidence we’ve accumulated, we can’t exclude it as a possibility,” Gemmell continued to further disregard the myth behind the lake’s famous resident and leaned closer to a more scientific theory. Since his findings, some news has recently risen with new evidence further supporting Gemmell’s claim. Say good-bye to the myth. 

Twitter cries ‘monster’

Since Gemmell’s research surfaced on major news outlets, other Loch Ness researchers discovered something mysterious of their own. On Twitter, an underwater camera caught a short clip of what looked like a large eel drifting through the murky waters of Loch Ness. Though obscure, the shape had the familiar outline of the eels residing in Loch ness.

(Ness Fishery Board/@FishtheNess) via Twitter

The author,  the Ness Fishery Board (@FishtheNess), posted a tweet on Sept. 1, 2019: “Let’s be honest – when you see a large, eel-shaped object passing your camera in the River Ness, the first thing you think of is #lochnessmonster.” The tweet was released around the same time Gemmell concluded their eDNA sampling and further encourages the scientist’s theory that our monster is really a slippery eel. 

It was all ‘tongue-and-cheek’

Of course, the post was meant to be facetious, but viewers took the tweet a little too seriously. Director of the Ness Fisheries Board told ABC: “The footage is of a large ‘eel-shaped object’ – it is actually likely to be a tree branch about three meters in length. Eels are common in the Ness system, but unlikely to reach that size.”

fisherman looking at snapped rope
(Photo by Keystone-FranceGamma-Rapho) via Getty Images

According to ABC, an eel can grow up to four to five feet and the eel-like object in the video was larger. The director couldn’t believe how popular the post got and was in disbelief to learn how many people took the “tongue and cheek” post seriously. 

Did Gemmell figure Nessie out?

After the conclusive DNA results, Gemmell was satisfied with his findings and comfortably denouncing the Loch Ness Monster theory. “We can’t find any evidence of a creature that’s remotely related to that in our environmental-DNA sequence data. So, sorry, I don’t think the plesiosaur idea holds up based on the data we have obtained,” he said in a BBC article.

Professor Gemmell holding a beaker of water
(Photo by Andy Buchanan / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP) via Getty Images

Gemmell further outlined his theory: “The notion is that these eels would normally migrate to reproduce, but they, for whatever reason, don’t. And they continue to grow to a very large size, forgoing reproduction for growth.” Could migrating eels be our Nessie? 

Case closed for Loch Ness?

There are likely to be a multitude of explanations — rational explanations — that could debunk the mythical lake monster, as said before, the fantasy is much more thrilling than reality. Loch Ness continues to be one of the more popular tourist attractions in northern Scotland. 

Loch Ness Monster
The photograph, one of two pictures known as the ‘surgeon’s photographs,’ was allegedly taken by Colonel Robert Kenneth Wilson (Photo by Keystone) via Getty Images

With such a reliable influx of tourists visiting from around the world, does anyone need to know the truth about Loch Ness? The truth isn’t necessary or wanted. But for now, Gemmell’s theory about the Loch Ness Monster being nothing more than an eel holds ground and may just be the answer to an age-old mystery. Case closed?