It appears there’s a new effort to find the mysterious monster that, allegedly, lives in Loch Ness. Water taken from the loch will be DNA-analysed for its biodiversity. If there are any odd genes in it, they’ll show up. Apparently.
Personally I’m sceptical. The problem with the Loch Ness Monster is that for such a creature to exist, it’d have to be part of a viable breeding population. And while one creature might possibly be able to lurk unseen in the depths, it would be quite difficult to hide even a few dozen. What’s more, you’d expect there to have been a continuous history of sightings. What’s more, some mechanism has to be proposed as to how it got there, given that Loch Ness is less than 10,000 years old – until the end of the last ice age it was part of a giant glacier that extended across the whole of the ‘Great Glen’ of which the loch is a part.
In fact, despite a couple of retroactively attributed tales – one of which was set in the River Ness, not the loch – Nessie only appeared in the early 1930s. And the most famous photograph, taken in 1934, was faked in an apparent act of revenge on the Daily Mail.
The problem of requiring a breeding population that somehow remains hidden from intrusive humans is also true of all the other weird creatures that, inevitably, are reported only by isolated individuals in remote locations. Some of the alleged sightings of mysterious cryptids, Yetis, Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) and Abominable Snowmen might well be genuine, in the sense that the witness saw something, but I am pretty sure that the explanation won’t be what they – or the woo-woo brigade – then leap to.
That’s not to say that species thought to be extinct can’t exist. The Coelacanth, a lobe-finned fish from the Jurassic era, was found to be still alive and kicking in the 1930s. Evolution isn’t a process of ‘advance’ in which new species automatically replace the old: it’s an often messy process of change in which some species survive, while others do not. Another Jurassic-age survivor, and one that’s extremely well known, is the New Zealand Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus).
The possibility of relict populations also offers an explanation for some of the Yeti and Bigfoot sightings. Today’s range of species of great apes is much reduced from what it was, and there has long been a supposition that the three-metre tall gorilla Gigantopithecus still survives, somewhere, around 100,000 years after it was thought to have gone extinct. The problem is obtaining actual proof, as opposed to shadowy footprints, blurred photographs, and ‘yeti hair’ that turns out – on analysis – to come from the common or garden yak. And again, there’s that issue of having a breeding population.
Sometimes ‘proof’ of the Yeti is drawn from stories in legends across the world: but that, too, likely has a mundane explanation – not least in metaphor and allegory. We know our own fiction is not literally true – so why do we persist in supposing that indigenous legends must be?
That said, there might be grains of truth in them. Because of the way that ape diversity has been in sharp decline – particularly since the last ice age – it’s possible that some legendary stories refer to species that were around when the first modern humans arrived, but are now long gone. Indonesian tales of Abu Gogo, for instance, seem to point to a lost species of orang-utan. Or perhaps a relict population of ‘hobbits’, H. floresiensis, now gone but around recently enough to enter folklore. But again, there is absolutely no proof.
Until such proof is found, we have to be rather sceptical about reports of mysterious lost creatures that, curiously, appear only to isolated watchers without other witnesses and leave no obvious evidence of their existence otherwise.
And for all these reasons, I can’t help thinking that Nessie has more to do with tourism than it does with biology.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017