The Loch Ness monster will simply not die, nor will its legend.
Recently, old Nessie was in the news and trending on social media. A British digital publisher told us that an “incredible discovery” made the existence of the Scottish sea serpent “plausible.” Nobody had ever been able to prove it was real, “perhaps until today,” one of their tweets read. “Get your binoculars out.” Even the BBC claimed that African fossils “show ‘monster’ could have lived in Loch Ness.”
I am used to reporters blowing a mouse study out of proportion (often with the help of the drum-beating scientists themselves and their university’s public relations office) and declaring cancer over; but the hype monster here would make a snack out of these laboratory mice.
This “incredible discovery” does not move the needle on the plausibility of the Loch Ness monster. Nessie’s legend, like the lake it is meant to inhabit, has been thoroughly examined. Nothing substantial has ever been found, except for a fascinating hypothesis: that the myth of Nessie was born in a famous movie released in 1933.
It was Kong that birthed the Beast
Even if you were not alive in 1933, you have undoubtedly seen footage from this black-and-white classic which used stop-motion animation to bring to life a giant ape in front of mesmerized audiences.
The film is called King Kong.
Kong himself lives on Skull Island, which is also populated by dinosaurs. In a particularly striking scene, the crew of the ship Venture encounters one of them while at sea on a raft. Through the thick fog, a long neck emerges from the waters, topped by a saurian head. The creature topples the raft, and as the surviving crew members make it to shore, the monster emerges from the sea and reveals itself to be a massive, four-legged dinosaur, akin to a brontosaur.
In their book, Abominable Science!, authors Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero convincingly argue that this scene might very well be the beginning of the modern Loch Ness monster legend. This creature’s true origin is often said to date back at least to the year 565, with Saint Columba, an Irish missionary who travelled to Scotland, allegedly encountering a great roaring beast in the River Ness, northeast of the loch. We are told the missionary invoked God’s name and commanded the creature to turn back and ignore Columba and his companions. “The beast, hearing this command of the holy man, fled terrified in pretty swift retreat.”
Except that this story was written one hundred years later by a biographer who had never met Saint Columba and who weaved a tale filled with magic and devilish creatures to match the saintly exploits of the time that often contained references to dragons and serpents.
The specific origin of the Loch Ness monster has actually been traced back to the 1930s. Three young anglers were fishing for trout on Loch Ness in 1930 and they witnessed “a great commotion with spray flying everywhere.” Crucially, they did not spot any monster.
But this story stayed with reporter Alex Campbell who, in 1933, heard that two of his friends had just seen something in Loch Ness while driving along its shore. In writing it up for the Inverness Courier, he embellished his friends’ testimonies, turning a splashing that might have been caused by fighting ducks and two dark humps spotted in the distance into a frolicking creature with the body of a whale. King Kong had opened in London four days before this sighting and instantly became a hit. A few months later, the Courier fanned the embers of the glowing legend by publishing a letter by a Londoner, George Spicer.
Spicer had been driving with his wife along the shore of the soon-to-be-famous lake in Scotland when he claims to have seen “a dragon or prehistoric animal” with a long neck crossing the road fifty yards ahead. Like in King Kong, a long-necked dinosaur had landed in the modern day. Spicer’s report that the creature appeared to be carrying a small lamb or animal of some sort also echoes the black-and-white classic, as the brontosaur can be seen snatching men with its jaws and shaking them around.
Spicer himself, it would be reported, had seen King Kong.
In a case of life imitating art, the modern dinosaurs of Kong, Son of Kong (1933), The Secret of the Loch (1934), and The Lost World (1925), in which a four-legged dino tears through the streets of London, seem to have inspired most reports of the Loch Ness monster, and these reports quickly zeroed in on the idea that the lake was home to a plesiosaur, an aquatic dinosaur with a long neck, a notion that was ferociously pushed by none other than Alex Campbell.
Extraordinary monsters require extraordinary evidence
The legend of Nessie, the ever-elusive Loch Ness monster, is unfortunately riddled with hoaxes, disappointing eyewitness accounts, and empty-handed scientific expeditions.
The most famous photo of the monster, showing the backlit creature’s neck and head rising above the rippling waters, was a hoax. It was one of many, which included prints left by a cast of a hippopotamus’ hoof and part of a deer antler alleged to be the monster’s tooth in order to drive interest in a new novel about the famous lake.
Scientists have probed Scotland’s most famous lake forwards, backwards, and sideways multiple times, using sonar arrays and submarines, and always coming up empty. A team of scientists, led by Professor Neil Gemmell, visited the lake in 2018, took 250 samples of its water, and extracted environmental DNA, or eDNA, from it. EDNA is shed by the animals that live in and come near the lake in the form of skin, feathers, fur, scales, urine, and feces that they leave behind. The team could match the DNA they found to many species known to reside in the lake, but nothing even close to a plesiosaur. However, they found a lot of eel DNA, and it is possible that the serpentine eel is responsible for some of the Nessie sightings.
The loch is surprisingly busy, despite the serene picture you may have in your head: in 1822, it became part of a shipping channel called the Caledonian Canal. It was used for a long time by mercantile crafts and is now witness to recreational traffic. Yet, the fantastical encounters we hear about almost always come from lucky tourists, never from the people who spend their lives navigating the lake. In fact, when Campbell’s embellished story was published in 1933, a Captain John Macdonald wrote a rebuttal in which he described having sailed the lake for 50 years, making 20,000 trips or more up and down this lengthy body of water. “I have never seen such a ‘monster’ as described by your correspondent,” he concluded.
Eyewitness accounts are noticeably unreliable. When a small panda escaped from the Rotterdam zoo in 1978 and a media alert was issued, the escaped creature was spotted a hundred times all over the Netherlands, with one small problem: it had died shortly after escaping, killed by a train near the zoo. Sightings of the Loch Ness monster can usually be explained by a variety of humdrum objects and animals, less familiar to tourists of the lake: boat wakes, bobbing logs, long-necked birds, and otters swimming in a line. It is remarkable that, in an era in which many people carry on them a high-definition camera on their phone, the best footage we get of Nessie and other Scottish sea serpents from nearby lakes is ambiguous, faraway, and utterly unremarkable.
And these evidential crumbs in support of a theory most likely inspired by a 1933 monster movie have to be weighed against the implausibility of it all. If Nessie is a dinosaur, it survived extinction 65 million years ago and somehow ended up in a freshwater lake that was a solid glacier a few thousand years ago. This tropical saltwater dinosaur is supposedly thriving in the cold freshwaters of the loch. It manages to breathe air without being seen and it gets its sustenance from a lake with a limited supply of food. And it can hardly be alone to have survived for centuries, unless it has gained immortality. Hence, a lake that has been painstakingly scanned by scientists somehow contains a group of large beasts that have never died and left bones that could be picked up by the scientists who have dredged the bottom of the lake.
So why is the Loch Ness monster suddenly more plausible, according to the Internet? Because a scientific paper reported the discovery of plesiosaur fossils—teeth, vertebrae, and one humerus from a young juvenile—in what was once a freshwater river in Morocco.
Plesiosaur fossils tend to be found in marine deposits (saltwater environments), although it was already known that other plesiosaur groups and marine reptiles that lived in the same time period could also be found in freshwater settings. Maybe they became lost in freshwater lakes? Maybe they could tolerate either environment? Maybe these specific plesiosaurs adapted to freshwater? Interestingly enough, the paper makes no mention of the Loch Ness monster, but the University of Bath’s press release does, presumably to titillate the popular press, which worked.
None of this has any bearing on the Loch Ness monster.
And yet, the belief endures.
In the television show The X-Files, arguably the biggest popularizer of conspiracy theories and paranormal claims in recent decades, there is a poster in Fox Mulder’s office. Under the photo of a flying saucer, bold white letters spell out “I WANT TO BELIEVE.”
There are many reasons why the myth of the Loch Ness monster is resistant to refutations and why the larger field of cryptozoology, concerned with the existence of mythical animals, will always find adherents.
It fosters a sense of community with like-minded people. It’s an excuse to get back to nature and to escape reality by giving in to mystery. It’s a way to liberate the tools of science from their drudgery and put them, clumsily, in service of a more thrilling mission: to find beasts denied by scientists. Cryptozoology can be seen as a populist rebellion against the erudite denizens of the ivory tower. As Prothero and Loxton write in their book, Abominable Science!, cryptozoologists “believe that if they can find the elusive creatures that science rejects, they will be able to triumph over those who have ignored and ridiculed them for decades.”
However, there is a saying in medicine: when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.
Likewise, when you see waves on the surface of Loch Ness, think otters, not monsters.
- Fossils of a dinosaur that often lived in saltwater were recently discovered in a former freshwater bed in Morocco, which a press release and subsequent media reports said increased the plausibility of the presence of this aquatic dinosaur in the freshwater Loch Ness
- Past attempts at finding the Loch Ness monster using sonars, submarines, and environmental DNA collection from the lake have all turned up empty handed
- There is a theory that the Loch Ness monster legend and the idea that it is a dinosaur actually come from the 1933 movie King Kong, in which a brontosaur attacks men at sea and pursues them on land