The Genetic Hunt For Nessie
BBC Earth|January 2019

For centuries, many have claimed that a creature lurks in Loch Ness. Now, by seeking out monster DNA from the loch’s waters, scientists are going to find out what’s down there

Dr Darren Naish

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 diehards and believers, that Loch Ness, Scotland’s largest and most famous lake, is home to a new species of gigantic, dragon-like 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 lochside 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.

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