Friday, October 6, 2017

New Evidence for Giant Salamanders in Post-Glacial Europe

Europe during the Miocene and subsequent Pliocene Epochs was replete with more salamanders than the continent has seen before or since -- five families including at least two species of giant aquatic salamanders (Andrias scheuchzeri and Ukrainurus hyposognathus) from the family Cryptobranchidae.  The fossil record also shows multiple, related giant species were also thriving in eastern North America at the same time, having arrived from Europe before the North Atlantic split that followed the Cretaceous, when Scotland was still conjoined to Canada via what later became Iceland and Greenland.  (One such American species, Andrias matthewi, grew as large or larger than 7.5 feet -- Naylor 1981).

The Cryptobranchidae family (more pronounceably called the Giant Salamander family) is not only significant for containing the largest amphibians then and now, but also for having a lineage that extends back through the fossil record to an origin in Mongolia during the Jurassic Period.  Significantly, this is a family that rode out the K-Pg mass extinction event that infamously eliminated 75% of all species on Earth, including the non-avian dinosaurs.

But for the Giant Salamanders of both Europe and North America, the party came to an end 2.58 million years ago with the beginning of the ice age and the subsequent glacial periods.  The ice sheets drove the Cryptobranchidae out of Europe.  Of course the same was true for most of the fauna, including Homo sapiens.  All the animals including ourselves retreated southwards.  Britain was abandoned entirely.  The last glacial period lasted from 110,000 years ago until just 12,000 years ago, at which point the glaciers retreated, the air warmed, the continents sprung upwards, and the oceans began a steady rise to their current levels.  Also at this time, the newly-created Loch Ness appeared for the first time, having been gauged out by the glaciers that were now melting away.

And species that had sought refuge in warmer climes returned to northern Europe and, following the game, the people returned to places like Britain as well, no doubt aided by the fact the British isles were one big peninsula at the time, connected to mainland Europe by the great land bridge of Doggerland.

Sadly though the European Cryptobranchidae appeared to have been lost.  Their fossil record ends where the ice age begins, and no fossils dating within the last 12,000 years have been found to indicate they survived and returned to Europe after the last glaciation.  Then again, 12,000 years is an infinitesimal piece of the geological record, and aquatic salamanders do not fossilize easily.  The absence of Cryptobranchidae from this tiny slice of the record cannot alone be taken as proof that European Giant Salamanders became extinct.  What we do know is that today, the only recognized species of living Cryptobranchidae are the Chinese Giant Salamander (Andrias davidianus), the Japanese Giant Salamander (Andrias japonicus), and the diminutive 2-foot Hellbender (Crytptobranchus alleganiensis) from the southeastern United States.

So now to the question:  How could a theoretical Loch Ness Giant Salamander, that being the thesis of this blog, even stand a chance unless there was a surviving European Giant Salamander first?  Pre-ice age salamanders don't count, because Loch Ness didn't exist until after the last glaciation.  Europe today is replete with small newts and salamanders of the modern suborder Salamandroidea, and then there's the olms, the ancestors of which came racing into Europe before the last glaciation had even finished melting.  All of these prove post-glacial Europe is an amenable ecosystem for small, modern salamanders and all manner of other amphibians, but what about those primitive Giant Salamanders that had thrived in Europe before the ice came?  I find it a bit surprising that a family that endured the K-Pg mass extinction and flourished another 65 million years couldn't survive a 98,000 year vacation to the nearby Mediterranean, like the rest of the fauna.  There could be reasons of course, but Occam's razor leads us to consider a different possibility.

What if one or more of the European Giant Salamander species did return to their original habitats after the ice age ended, and it's been overlooked?

Surprisingly, I have had the greatest blind luck to stumble onto an answer to this question.  Perhaps more surprisingly, the answer lays in an archaeological dig in southeastern Turkey.

Göbekli Tepe  is the most amazing archaeological site you've probably never heard of.  Now being excavated from beneath the hill of the same name, it has unexpectedly proven to be the world's oldest megalithic site, as well as the oldest religious site discovered anywhere so far.  This immense Stone-Age "cathedral" was constructed by Neolithic hunter-gatherers beginning 10,000 years ago, and added to and used up until 8,000 years ago.  These early dates are staggering.  No one would have expected a pre-agricultural society to have undertaken such a monumental building project,  The excavations and analysis of this site became the life's work of German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, who unfortunately passed away in 2014.

The site consists of between 170 and 200 T-shaped monoliths found so far, up to 20' tall and 10-20 tons in weight.  In the earliest layer these are arranged in multiple stone circles, but beginning 8800 years ago construction shifted to putting the pillars inside a series of smaller, rectangular rooms.  Schmidt interpreted the circles and later rooms to represent separate but adjacent shrines.

Many of the megaliths at Göbekli Tepe are intricately adorned with carved reliefs of animals: lions, foxes, leopards, eagles, vultures, scorpions, spiders and snakes.  This is in stark contrast to other examples of late Pleistocene art, which normally depict only the game animals (wild horse, deer, bison) on which the society depended for food.  But here for the first time we have depictions of predators, presumably intended as totems to ward off evil. 

Of note is that every animal depicted is a real member of the local fauna at the time, not mythological creatures or flights of fancy.

Klaus Schmidt called it all a "Stone-age zoo".

Now I have to confess I was ignorant of Göbekli Tepe until recently.  But archaeology being another of my  interests I eventually ran across mention of it, so off I went to Wikipedia to read all about it, which I did with utter fascination.  Then I picked an excavation picture at random, the one you see below:

Then I picked one of the megaliths at random, the one inside the red circle I've added, to zoom in for a closer look....

And this is the remarkable thing I found.  I must have stared with my mouth open for 30 seconds while my brain rebooted itself.

This carving is, with little room for doubt, a very accurate depiction of a Cryptobranchidae salamander.  The body proportions of Giant Salamanders are distinct, and all represented here: the extra thick tail (appearing so due to the caudal fin), the rather stubby limbs, and especially the round, near-circular head that, when viewed dorsally, appears larger in diameter than the body is wide.  It's an unmistakably unique appearance.

But only real, local fauna are carved in the stones at Göbekli Tepe, and these carvings all date between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago.

Which is after the ice age, two to four thousand years after the glaciers had withdrawn.

This is the first evidence I am aware of that living Giant Salamanders were spotted in Europe after the last glaciation.  It is circumstantial evidence, but very strong circumstantial evidence.  The people of Göbekli Tepe had to be seeing living Cryptobranchidae in their landscape to have carved one, along with all the rest of the respected predators in their environment, and to have done so with such accuracy.  Neolithic hunter-gatherers from Turkey could not have visited China or Japan.  Nor could they have visited the southeastern United States, where C. alleganiensis had survived the ice age in America.  The only explanation can be that at least one species of European Giant Salamander survived the glacial period and returned to Europe afterwards.

Which species was it?  Andrias scheuchzeri, or Ukrainurus hyposognathus? Or another species we have yet to identify in the European fossil record?  Or a combination of all three?

Importantly, there is also no reason to assume the surviving species was limited in range to Turkey -- that's unlikely.  A vast network of freshwater rivers and lakes interconnected all of Europe after the ice had melted.  In fact, it would have been possible to get from Turkey all the way to Scotland and Ireland at this time, because Doggerland connected Britain to the mainland, and no English Channel existed yet.  Loch Ness was becoming stocked with freshwater fish that followed this very path during this period.  All of Europe was once again a hospitable environment for amphibians of all sizes.

There were indeed Giant Salamanders in Europe after Loch Ness had formed.  And nothing to keep them out.
C. alleganiensis smiling at you

Monday, March 10, 2014

An Niseag vs. Nessie - Folklore vs. Science

Some time back I had the pleasure of reading Roland Watson's blog article, The Folklore of An Niseag, which proved to be a highly refreshing read.  Of course if you're here reading this, you've probably seen it already!  But if not, I highly recommend it.  This is like getting a bonus chapter to his excellent book, The Water Horses Of Loch Ness.

More importantly for me, it replenishes my ammunition.  When I run across fluff news pieces related to Nessie online, I cannot seem to ignore blanket statements such as:

"In fact, there are no reports of the beast until less than a century ago."

That's a direct quote from a piece by author Benjamin Radford, ironically entitled "Facts About Nessie", written for & located here (click for article).  It's also dead wrong, and I would cite Watson's book and his aforementioned blog article as the best places to go for proof of that.

Unfortunately the debate I had with Radford back then (posted in the comments following his article) went nowhere, as he refused to step outside his circular logic:  sighting reports cannot exist before 1933 because "Nessie" hadn't been reported by the press yet; therefore alleged sightings prior to 1933 can't be called "Nessie sightings".  They must be called kelpie or water horse legends, and as generalized legends they cannot be counted as "reported sightings".  And why again?  Well, because they are pre-1933 of course!

Now, I agree legends don't count as eyewitness reports.  We mean something quite specific by the word "report".  There are, as Watson's new article describes much better than I ever could, traditional and modern branches to what's perceived to be part of the Loch Ness Monster story.  Whether a particular account belongs to traditional folklore, or belongs in the record of reported sightings, that's something that must be evaluated on an individual basis.  Some accounts will always fall in the grey area, and we'll never have enough data to safely class them one way or another.  Those cannot be considered as witness testimony per se.  Others will be no brainers:  I think we can all agree on which branch to place talking mermaids (legend), as opposed to where we'd put a Greta Finlay account (sighting report).  But one thing we can not do is classify our data on a randomly chosen line in the sand, such as the year 1933, because the press says so, and pretend that's scientifically objective.

Now the funny thing is I gave Benjamin Radford concrete examples of 19th century sightings with names, dates, publications and the emphasis on these being described as animals.  Who would call the Alexander MacDonald or Duncan MacDonald sightings too folkloric?  (Alexander called what he saw a "great salamander" paddling towards him with definite front limbs.  Duncan was the diver to have the first underwater encounter, and described a huge animal with a frog-like head.)  They described the animals they encountered as animals, with some specific morphological traits, and long before 1933.  And those aren't the only examples.  Alas, Radford deemed these generalized Water Horse legends, and therefore inadmissible, because the animals described didn't sound "Nessie" enough!!!  Somewhere I must have missed the chapter on traditional Water Horses being described anything like big but recognizable amphibians.

Gosh darn it.  You just can't beat circular logic.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Salamanders, Buoyancy, and Loch Ness

My thanks to Christopher Hjelte, a reader of this blog who recently sent me a link to an interesting video about research into axolotls at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois.  Midway though this 2 minute piece, we learn of a very odd and previously undocumented behavior first observed and later filmed by Blackburn students studying these aquatic salamanders.  A behavior that might possibly bear some implications for surface sightings of much larger cousins elsewhere!

Like most obligate-aquatic salamanders (that is, those salamanders with no terrestrial phase to their life cycles) axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum) have retained their lungs, although as the video points out the utilization of these lungs hasn't seen much prior study.  While it's true lungs are the norm for aquatic salamanders, including the giant Cryptobranchidae, all these species primarily breathe through cutaneous respiration, absorbing oxygen from the water through their skins.  Furthermore,  the really neotenic forms such as axolotls normally retain their larval gills for life, thus giving them not one, not two, but three methods of respiration.  At first that seems like a bit of evolutionary over-kill, so I've trundled a bit down a line of research I'd been away from for awhile.

While they may never need their lungs for respiration while in water, the Blackburn research shows that axolotls sometimes inhale one gulp of air and hold onto it, apparently for the sole purpose of floating on the surface -- albeit they float upside down!  This orientation doesn't seem to bother them (perhaps no one has embarrassed them yet by telling them just how adorable it looks).  Their lungs must be located below their center of mass, not that this would matter under other circumstances.  But given that they have this ability to float, we can wonder why they choose to do so in the first place.

And to quote Mr. Hjelte, "Up turned boat, anyone?"


This leads back to one of the most important points I made in my previous article on surface sightings, and what they can tell us about the morphology of the Loch Ness Giant Salamander.  And this is equally applicable when observing any aquatic animal partially extruded on the water's surface:  animals that live in a three-dimensional, "weightless" environment, can and will float and swim in positions that are independent of our terrestrially biased, two-dimensional thinking.  Any aquatic animal can float head down and tail up, or at any angle, or list to either side, for any reason that suits it.  And in the case of at least one species of small, aquatic Mexican salamander, we now see that even upside-down surface floating is normal!

So it's behavior as well as morphology that determines what an eyewitness would see at Loch Ness, if any deep-living animal pays a rare visit to the surface.  Roy Mackal grappled with the problem of the Nessie's back contour, and the issue of multi-hump and variable hump sightings.  Eels at first seemed to be a problem candidate, as they have laterally flattened bodies and swim by sinusoidal flexure (side to side, not up and down).  Then he tells the story (in The Monsters Of Loch Ness, 1976, page 150) of having a revelation on this point while observing eels at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium:

"Eels occasionally swim on their sides, and when doing so at the surface, the series of undulations appear to the observer as vertical by virtue of the fact the animal is on its side.  This motion can easily produce a violent splashing of water at the surface and a series of humps above the waterline."

He received corroboration from Maurice Burton, who observed the same side-swimmng eel behavior at the London Zoo.  Alas, on my own visits to the Shedd, I've never stayed with the eels long enough to observe such delightful behavior, but then there's just so much to see there.

This is one example of how a seemingly incompatible morphology, in this case that of eels, can account for an observation, in this case vertical humps, once three-dimensional behavior is taken into account.  Or as I stressed in my previous article, the appearance of a long neck on a short-necked animal if it's floating with it's tail elevated above water.  Incidentally, on that trip to the Shedd, Mackal observed an eel floating vertically, head down, with it's tail sticking up straight out of the water as well!  (For the record, at that time Mackal still favored the variable dorsal contours of a giant amphibian as better accounting for the observational data from Loch Ness, even as he made these points about eels.  Salamanders will often float with their backs arched at a fairly acute angle, the degree of which would most readily account for both triangular humps on one hand, and the frequently observed upturned-boat effect on the other.)

So now, what can we say about this matter of belly-up "floaters" as it relates Nessie?  Yes, it's another way to explain the upturned-boat effect, but the dorsal profile the Loch Ness Giant Salamander has that accounted for already.  Personally I doubt it occurs, but to say it never occurs would make me guilty of two-dimensional thinking.  The animal will float as it pleases regardless of any human opinions.  The possibility does offer us a couple tidbits.

Criticism in the variation of reported details from sighting to sighting and from witness to witness have lead some to conclude there cannot be a real, unrecognized animal behind any of these observations.  I actually take exception with that, and would note the consistencies far outweigh inconsistencies.  Be that as it may, there has been noted variability in the reports regarding skin color, skin texture, and the lack or presence of a dorsal ridge.  The variability of the latter is already accounted for in my working morphology, depending on whether the hump is viewed from front or back.  However, if there are witnesses insisting there's a dorsal ridge running the whole length of the spine (I vaguely recall an instance or two where this might be mentioned), then smooth-back sightings would still be explainable by the belly-up floater.  I doubt we have to stretch anything that far though.  And Dinsdale solved the skin texture problem in terms of viewing conditions and distance long ago, without need to resort to flipping the beast over!

What is key here is that, as is typical of aquatic salamanders, we should expect Nessie to not only have lungs, but to occasionally use them.


One obvious but secondary use for those lungs would be respiration when out of the water.  One must assume this is a secondary function, because land sightings of the Loch Ness Giant Salamander are so rare as to be almost non-existent.  But then, for all known species of aquatic salamanders, leaving the water is also extremely rare, even though we've long known (through dissection) that they certainly have functional lungs.  (In fact among all extant amphibians in all four orders, lungs are only absent in one clade of salamanders, the plethodontids, which are minute and terrestrial, and in two species of caecilians.  Lungs are of course present in frogs, but even the primitive and aquatic sirens have retained functional lungs.)

To avoid hypoxia, aquatic salamanders do indeed stick their heads out of the water and use their lungs for respiration, a life-saving backup plan should the oxygen content of the water become too low.  This however would not be a factor in the cold and highly oxygenated waters of Loch Ness.  Although perhaps even in Loch Ness, an amphibian might need to gulp auxiliary oxygen following some unusually aerobic activity -- courtship behavior among salamanders can be extremely demanding.


But the primary use of lungs observed in aquatic salamanders is buoyancy control.  Inflated lungs serve as hydrostatic organs and allow for continuous floating at either the surface, or a desired depth, with little or no expenditure of energy.  This could not otherwise be achieved because, unlike ray-finned fish, amphibians have no swim bladder.

What they do have though is a specific gravity greater than one (1), which means they sink to the bottom.  (Objects with a specific gravity of 1 are neutrally buoyant in water, those with a specific gravity greater than 1 are denser than water, and so will sink in it, and those with a specific gravity of less than 1 are less dense than water, and so will float.  The number is calculated by dividing mass by volume.)

So in many cases, the lack of hydrostatic control would prove lethal.  Axolotls might not need it as much as other species, as the video above seems to imply they are amateurs at it.  Their relatives, the tiger salamanders, depend on it, at least in their larval stage. Tadpoles of the tiger salamander need to float overnight at a specific depth, rather high in the water column, in order to feed on Daphnia, which is all they can eat at that stage.  But they have a specific gravity greater than 1, which would leave them either trapped on the bottom or paddling to maintain "altitude" all night, expending more energy than they might take in from feeding.  The solution is to swim to the surface, inhale just enough air to lower their specific gravity to exactly 1, then swim to the desired depth where they can float all night, and gorge themselves without burning more calories.  Come morning they release the air, and sink to the bottom to hide in safety.  Once they become much larger, terrestrial adults, capable of larger prey, they still continue this behavior anyway because they seem to just plain like the Daphnia.

So it seems the regulation of buoyancy may be the primary reason aquatic salamanders retain their lungs for life, although that ability to breathe surface air does occasionally come in handy under extreme or unusual circumstances.  But while in well oxygenated water, they don't need to exhale because they are still getting their oxygen via cutaneous gas exchange.  They hold only the air they want to maintain the buoyancy they want, and for as long as they want.  Hydrostatic regulation of this sort has been observed in many salamanders, including the Cryptobranchids, and is no doubt utilized by all salamanders.  This alone was reason enough for evolution to retain lungs in aquatic salamanders no matter how little else they might use them.

All of which of course has profound implications for strange things seen in Loch Ness, if the cause were a giant salamander.

Smooth vertical submersions without a noticeable disturbance of the water would be expected, as that's the normal exit for floating salamanders.  And that is the most oft reported exit Nessie has been reported to make.  That would most likely be a planned return to the very bottom of the Loch, where these animals spend the majority of their time.  One wishing to keep it's air to maintain a specific gravity of 1 (to cruise at a certain depth) would of course have to swim down, which would occasionally result in some splashing.

Also riding too high in the water,  frequently a critique of some reports, and especially of the Hugh Gray photograph, should be less of an issue knowing that a specific level of buoyancy is actually under control of the animal itself.  A hump two feet above water may not require as gargantuan an animal as one would think.

Juveniles, surfacing for the first time might even experience some trouble getting used to their lungs, as they will be taking their first breaths.  And they could already be of substantial size at an early age.  The axolotls may only have trouble floating right-side up,  but other salamanders have been observed rolling on taking in air on their first tries, because only one lung inflates on the first go, listing them over to float sideways, and when they try to compensate with paddling they send themselves into a little spin.  (In Nessie's case, "little" might be the wrong word.)  Eventually they learn they need to exhale, relax, and try again.  The belly-up axolotls at Blackburn College may be forgetting to exhale, stranded on the surface like a kitten stuck up the first tree it's ever climbed and wondering how to get down.  Apparently hydrostatic regulation in salamanders takes a little practice to get right!  Would that a Loch Ness Giant Salamander were to get stuck on the surface for a nice long sighting, although you might not want to be in a small boat close by while it was rolling, thrashing, and trying to figure things out.

Of course hydrostatic regulation is a very useful skill.  The main supply of fish in Loch Ness are not at the bottom, they are found in the shallower waters, the littoral regions.  Incessant swimming to maintain the right depth would be extremely costly to a predator, and salamanders are extremely stingy about spending energy to hunt -- they don't chase, they lurk.  This gives Nessie its reason to climb to the surface, taking in just enough air to establish specific gravity 1, so it can swim down and maintain station effortlessly when it wants to feed at the depth of the prey, if that is indeed its preferred method of feeding.

Notably, inflated lungs would show up on sonar, but unless the animals regularly held onto extra air during a forced dive they would return a much weaker echo.  Which means you might get a strong contact one day, but not again for a very long time.

Much of this will sound very, very familiar to those who have looked at data and sighting reports from Loch Ness.  There may be a very good reason for that.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Stop the Science! It's Bad for Business!

Known hoaxer George Edwards apparently believes so.  Edwards is the long time owner and operator of Loch Ness Cruises, and skipper of the tourist boat Nessie Hunter.  He is also infamous for having made a side career out of faking photographic evidence to sell to gullible tourists, and inventing the non-existent geological feature Edwards Deep, named all too aptly after himself.

Edwards latest hoax was a photo he released in August of 2012 (see the uncropped version below) purporting to be a genuine photo of Nessie's hump in Urquhart Bay taken by himself in November 2011.  Full-time Loch Ness researcher Steve Feltham immediately recognized the object as the fiberglass model used in "The Truth Behind the Loch Ness Monster", filmed at Loch Ness in early 2011.  But Edwards' press releases were already out and the fake picture was lamentably splashed all over the news for some time.  Subsequently Dick Raynor did a full analysis on the photo, proving it was taken on a different date and at a different distance than the Edwards story claimed, and that it measures the same size as the fiberglass model.

But what's the real harm?  After all, a single tour guide selling fake postcard photos and misquoting the depth of the Loch isn't the worst thing in the world, now is it?  Especially when he's already recognized as a faker.  Surely Science can withstand a tiny bit of blurring between the lines of reality and entertainment.  Edwards has to eat like anyone else.  Or as Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson once wrote of a gentle old poacher in one of his songs, "Who am I to fast deny the right to take a fish once in awhile?"  That sentiment is a healthy one (and all the more magnanimous in this case because Anderson actually was a salmon farmer).

The trouble is, it doesn't end there.

On May 30th of this year, Mr. Edwards had the temerity to file a letter of complaint with the Drumnadrochit Chamber of Commerce, particularly attacking the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre, Adrian Shine, and "his cronies", the latter of which appears to be in reference to Tony Harmsworth, but by inference includes all objective researchers such as Feltham and Raynor.  Edwards gets personal in a rather unsavory way.  But besides all that, the premise of his complaint is that science has damaged the Loch Ness tourist industry.  Perhaps he wants the Chamber to put a stop to research?  Accept hoaxes as good for the tourist industry?  Give them what they "want" and send them away happy?  Oh my.

But wait, it gets worse.

It response to Edwards, and in his capacity as Editor for the Drumnadrochit and Glen Urquhart Local Information and Trades Website newsletter, Tony Harmsworth wrote a rebutting editorial to the Edwards letter.  Harmsworth deftly answers all of Edwards concerns, including those regarding the health of the tourist industry, even compliments Edwards for his skills as a tour guide, but then quite rightly takes Edwards to task for his fakes and hoaxes and the disservice they do to the tourist industry, the public at large, and the reputation of the local population.  It's an outstanding bit of writing, and I highly recommend reading it.  The trouble is, you won't find it in the paper.  Because the Drumnadrochit Chamber of Commerce decided to side with Edwards, censure Harmsworth's editorial and force its removal from the newsletter, instead running a spot about a business award Edwards had just received.  Oh, the irony!

Subsequent to all of which, Tony Harmsworth understandably resigned his position as Editor.  A pretty unthinkable chain of events, but here we are.  Shame on George Edwards for his hoaxes, but even more shame on the Drumnadrochit Chamber of Commerce for virtually endorsing them!

Is it any wonder it's so difficult to get research funding for work at Loch Ness when even the Chamber of Commerce perpetuates the appearance it's all a sham to bring in tourist money?

I highly recommend reading Tony Harmsworth's suppressed editorial.  He makes all the points about this far more eloquently than I could.  It, along with the Edwards letter that prompted it, are both available here at Dick Raynor's Loch Ness Investigation website.  Scroll all the way to the bottom for the letters, but by all means enjoy the entire article, and Dick's fine detective work in debunking some of Edwards hoaxes.

And while you're there, I'd also recommend Dick's new article, an in depth analysis of the sonar chart obtained by the Robert Rines 1972 expedition on the night the infamous flipper photos were taken.  Dick has a great knack for explaining the ins and outs of sonar interpretation in a way anyone can readily grasp.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Hunt Is Still On

I've been sprucing this blog up a bit, and hope readers will find the added features useful.

Note that near the top of the pane on the right, there are three new gadgets:  a Search Box, a Translation drop down, and a Follow By E-mail sign-up box.  The blog has gotten big enough that I myself have taken advantage of the Search feature.

As so many of the readers that come here are from non-English speaking countries, I hope the Google Translation feature proves helpful.  I can't make any claims for its accuracy, but I know from visiting non-English sites and using it to view them in English, it's prone to some funny mistakes.  It also has a bad tendency to mess up the position and spacing of text near images, but hopefully we can live with that.

I've never pointed this out, but in the aquarium widget on the right, you can actually feed the fish.  A mouse click drops fish food, and the fish come running.  There are ten of them, and the colors are programmable.  I'd considered making one black, and daring people to try to spot it, but that seemed a little cruel, albeit wholly appropriate :-)  If there's a way to add my own "monster" to the tank, I'll have to do that one day just for fun.

Now you may notice, if you'd already read the previous post, that I've just re-titled it. It's still Part 2 of the post that preceded it, but the "Part 2 of 3" was getting truncated in some views, perhaps leading to confusion there was a new post here at all.  That truncation was even giving me trouble on the composition page, as far as opening the correct post for edits and viewing.  I'll also give the forthcoming Part 3 it's own distinct title, and the same with any further multi-part articles (although I'm going to try to keep articles short enough for single posts in the future).

Family matters both good and bad have kept me away from writing, but I should have extensive time for it this summer.  The New Morphology vs. Classic Sightings article has been in the works for over a year now, but it will conclude with Part 3, and I will make it shorter than Part 2.  I'm very excited to tackle the next logical theme after that, Taxonomy And Origins, a big subject to be sure, but one that must be faced in the development of this blog's thesis.  I've gathered my thoughts and data for that task for over a year as well, and it's coming along rather nicely.  Also shaping up will be an article on Behavior And Reproduction, as well as (yes, I'm afraid) my own suggested plan for capturing a live type specimen.  Please don't hesitate to laugh, I won't be offended -- any plan to catch a one ton, aquatic, nocturnal, bottom-dwelling, sound-sensitive, overly shy amphibian is bound to be hysterical.

The most readership and feedback this blog gets is still for my first article on the Hugh Gray Photo from eight months back.  Even after my second article on that subject there are loose ends to be tied up, certainly enough to allow for a third article on that photo someday.

Here it is mid-April and Winter refuses to release its icy grip on Chicago.   Perhaps when it finally warms up I'll take my laptop and MiFi box down to the lakefront and see what Lake Michigan, our own giant body of fresh water, inspires.  Back in the late 70's, at the height of the frenzy over the Rines photos and the glorious but short era when we spoke in terms of Nessiteras rhombopteryx, there was a half-serious proposal made to "grab up some of them" and start a breeding colony here in Lake Michigan.  It was thought it would be good for tourism of course.  A glossy, full color, but long defunct publication, Chicago Magazine, did a cover story on it, written totally straight as I recall.  I seriously hope I still have my copy somewhere, and if I run across it I'll be sure to share it here.  The cover illustration alone is priceless, depicting a leaping plesiosaur with rhomboid flippers stealing a fish off a boater's rod, with the Chicago skyline and its familiar landmarks as backdrop.  Those were heady days for anyone interested in Nessie.

It's still as cold as Winter though, here and now.  But I imagine soon, in another part of the world the Siberian Salamanders will be waking from their months of suspended animation and burrowing out of the permafrost.  Perhaps in another much more westerly part of Europe, a considerably larger salamander is also stirring in the deep silt that lies at the bottom of one Loch Ness, anticipating a run of food in the warming layer above the thermocline.  The hunt is still on.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

What Surface Sightings Have Told Us About Morphology

(This is Part 2 of a 3 part article.  To view Part 1 first, click here)

A New Morphology vs Classic Sightings (Part 2 of 3)
What Surface Sightings Have Told Us About Morphology

This brings us to our most extensive repository of morphological data, our treasury of eyewitness testimony.  Compiling statistics for his 1976 book, Roy Mackal estimated there had been at least 10,000 reported sightings to that point, but only about 3,000 of these had been recorded in written form or official reports.  From those he extracted 251 reports as the most useful and representative for conducting his own analysis, and reproduced the details of those sightings in table form.  While somewhat dated by the 36 years that have passed since then, this is still a remarkably handy resource.  Dr. Charles Paxton of St. Andrews University is currently working on a paper on Loch Ness sighting statistics, for which he gave a talk at Edinburgh earlier this year.  Reportedly he had also concentrated on 250 sighting reports (at least so far) for analysis, so perhaps that is a magic number (or at least a manageable one).  In any event we look forward to his paper.

One of the few things I bring to the table when it comes to discussing all this is a minor background in statistical analysis.  It also means I know when I've been bettered, so to the relief of the reader at this point, I'm not about to attempt to duplicate, recompile or fling statistics at you.  Besides, I've retired from that line.  Sufficient to the current purpose will be my own take on the consensus of what is contained in historical sightings, expressed for the most part in relative terms, although some quotations of the statistical findings of others will be noted at points critical to the discussion.

Here we have the structural features as reported in surface sightings:

SIZE (and by inference, MASS and POPULATION)

Length estimates from sightings range from about 9 to 60 feet, but I would halve those few high-end reports to only 30 feet on the assumption a few extreme cases were simply bad estimates, or cases of two animals seen close together but mistaken for one larger specimen (an occurrence that seems decidedly less rare the more I've reread the old reports).  So a length of 20 to 25 feet is what has been more typically reported for surface sightings, and as we'll get too much later a smaller range of only 15 to 20 feet for land sightings.  It's from here I make the size estimate in my earlier diagram.  (I am entirely ignoring a couple extreme outliers here.  At the low end we do have the June 1937 Smith/Considine sighting of a trio of eel-like animals, long-necked, four-flippered, dark grey and only 3 feet long apiece, seen trailing their boat; perhaps baby Nessies, but these sound more like visiting seals to me.  Then there's the occasional mention of 100 foot multi-humped lines on the Loch we must attribute to misidentified wakes or standing waves.)

For estimating girth, which I'll express as the width and height of the animal, surface sightings are less than ideal as the majority of the body remains below the waterline.  A very tiny percentage of witnesses have reported rolling, but were otherwise lamentably short of providing us anatomical details!  Humps reported above the waterline are often in the range of 2 to 3 feet wide, and standing (when reported) 1 to 2 feet above water.  As most of the body mass must still be below the waterline, these animals must have large mid-bodies indeed, on the order of 5 to 6 feet thick to account for two-foot high humps floating above water.  I've settled on the notion that they are a bit wider than they are vertically deep, as illustrated in my earlier diagram which I'll repeat for convenience just below.  Even so these creatures must have a deep draught; considerable mass has to occur below the waterline to anchor the long, usually 6 foot protrusion that's occasionally raised above water, whether you choose to call that protrusion the tail as I do, or a long neck.  While many salamanders have such stout builds, this is a marked departure from the body shape of the three current and recognized species of Cryptobranchidae.  The giant salamanders of China, Japan, and North America are longitudinally quite flat.  But then they need to be to fit their environment and life cycles, which include hiding under rocks, facing fast river currents, and swimming upstream in mating season to reach their spawning ponds.  The river dwelling Cryptobranchidae must present as narrow a cross-section as possible to minimize the energy expenditure of facing the continuous currents they live in.  Permanent residents of a deep lake, the Loch Ness Giant Salamanders have no need of such adaptations in structure or behavior, nor do they have to fit under rocks to remain unseen when they have hundreds of feet of peaty water to hide under, and many feet of silt on the bottom, as opposed to mere inches of clear water in the streams where the Cryptobranchidae are found.

But while not ventral-dorsally flattened, the abdomen of our creature isn't exactly cylindrical either based on what we know of the triangularity of the humps (see below).  In my Working Morphology diagram I've depicted a body shape modeled more on L. axolotls than on any of the Cryptobranchidae species.  (Axolotls are highly neotenic aquatic salamanders, known for reaching reproductive maturity although morphologically they remain tadpoles throughout life.  This indeed harkens us to some sighting reports, such as that of James Cameron in 1933, who saw a 14 foot long, three humped animal in Loch Ness that "looked like a huge tadpole".)

The degree to which salamander bodies are laterally flattened depends not just on the species, but the type of water (still or moving) into which they are born.  Larva of the same species develop quite different body plans dependent on whether they are hatched in stream or pond (see diagram here), with the pond offspring having abdomens of considerably greater draught, along the proportions I've depicted for the Loch Ness Giant Salamander.  Hopefully without insulting any Highlanders, I would call Loch Ness more of a pond than a river, albeit a "pond" of immense proportions.

Based on my proposed morphology, we're looking at an animal about the size of a female killer whale, Orcinus orca.  The female orca only range from 16 to 23 feet feet in length, but these whales are built quite robustly, more so than our Loch Ness Giant Salamander, which I believe would weigh well under the typical 3 to 4 tons of a female orca.  Now also to be taken into account is that Orcinus orca has a very massive skeleton.  Giant salamanders have relatively light, cartilaginous skeletons, and we must expect the same to be true of a species in Loch Ness.  Halving the top mass of a female orca twice (once for overall build and once for lower bone density) I would estimate we're looking at large specimens of Nessie reaching no more than one ton, with typical adults perhaps only three quarters of that.

(With a working body mass in mind, it is rather irresistible not to take a small digression from morphology into population estimates.  One of the most recent estimates of the mass of available prey in Loch Ness was 177 tons calculated by Roland Watson here.  Thomas Mehner in his 2009 paper "A study of 66 European lakes" found the median predator-to-prey biomass ratio to be 0.321 (ranging from a low of 0.061 to a high of 1.384), suggesting that the biomass of piscivorous lake populations is on average one third that of the mass of available prey.  Using this median value, and assuming a metabolic requirement equivalent to that of these carnivorous fish, there is enough food in Loch Ness to support a maximum population of 76 three-quarter-ton predators (177 tons of fish times 0.321, divided by 0.75 tons per predator).  Not being taken into account here is that salamanders can have the lowest metabolisms of any tetrapods (the Siberian salamander being the most extreme case, as it can have an effective metabolic rate of virtually zero while being frozen for years at a time).  Andrias japonicus, the Japanese Giant Salamander, can go for weeks without eating.  Therefore Mehner's median ratio may not be the applicable number here, in which case the maximum population estimate of 76 is to be taken as highly conservative.  Applying the top ratio Mehner obtained yields a maximum population as large as 327 three-quarter-ton predators in Loch Ness.  Assuming this is the correct body mass, the true population of Loch Ness Giant Salamanders no doubt falls somewhere between these extreme estimates of 76 and 327 (the average here being 202).  The lowest number may be somewhat problematic for a permanently resident, healthy, viable breeding group, but again this is based on the conservative assumption metabolism is as high as Mehner's median value.  If true metabolic data revealed a species with lower feeding requirements than an average predatory fish, then the lid would be off the 76 animal maximum.  Keep in mind that even if the available prey estimated above were halved, Mehner's top ratio would still allow for as many as 163 predators of three-quarter-ton size.)


Click on diagram for larger image
Humps are the most frequently sighted and reported feature.  Sometimes stationary, sometimes slow moving, and on rare occasions reported to be moving at great speed.  Short spurts are one thing, but aquatic animals do not normally move at great speed with their backs above water for any significant amount of time.  This latter behavior wastes far more energy than swimming below the surface, and simply put no animal ever does this on a normal basis.  One could still debate however what Nessie herself considers "fast" or "significant time", as these are relative terms.  But humps, if continuously well above water, and reported to be moving at great speed for extended periods of time, do not appear likely to have anything to do with aquatic animals. 

The most classic and oft reported sightings are of single humps presenting the appearance of an upturned boat, especially when the hump is viewed end-on.  If the animal is triangular in cross section, as I've depicted in my head-on illustration, that's easy enough to understand.  More consideration must go into accounting for the fact these up-turned boat sightings come in two distinct forms: smooth, and ridged.  Because the tail's dorsal fin extends partway up the back, this would result in a slightly serrated line running up the middle when the hump is viewed from behind.  But when viewed from the front, this ridge would not be visible and the hump would present a smooth appearance.  This accounts for both ridged hump and smooth hump sightings.

But along with our single hump sightings there are substantial occurrences of multiple humps, often more than two but rarely more than four.  The numbers even vary over the course of a single sighting and, probably most problematic of all, pairs of humps have been seen to merge into one single, longer hump.  Do we have a vertically undulating, multi-coiled sea-serpent after all, or an aquatic Bactrian camel?  Actually the independent horizontal motion in many such sightings, along with the evidence of the Gray Photo, tell us it's not unusual for the members of our elusive species to travel in pairs.  That certainly accounts for some such sightings.  Actually though the morphology of salamanders, as Mackal pointed out in 1976, makes them an ideal fit for explaining any number of the multi-humped sighting aspects, and that's only with invoking the tail and caudal fin.

The top of the head, being two feet thick from top to bottom and as much as three feet long (see my diagram), easily provides another hump for multi-hump sightings.  The small eyes could easily be overlooked at the range of most sightings, and could even remain submerged with the top of the head still protruding a foot above waterline.  The tail (or more precisely the tail fin) seen breaking the water in profile easily provides the appearance of another hump, or humps.  If the dorsal caudal fin sags in the middle, it can provide a view of what would appear to be two humps by itself.  Thus even a single giant salamander seen breaking the surface in profile can account for sightings of up to four humps.  The number of humps perceived can even vary during the course of the sighting because of the flexible behavior of the caudal fin.  The tail fin can also lie flat, causing a perceived hump or pair of humps to disappear while those caused by the back and head remain visible.  Even to all this we may add that, while salamanders are built to flex and swim horizontally (unlike mammals which flex ventral-dorsally) they still have quite a degree of vertical "bendiness" to their spines.  The cartilaginous skeletons of aquatic salamanders no doubt make this possible.  They sometimes float with backs arched, and sometimes with spines almost horizontal to the waterline.  This not only accounts for the occasional acuteness noted in Nessie's dorsal hump, it also explains how the contour of that hump can change right before the witnesses eyes into one longer, straighter dorsal line.

Hump sightings are also our main source of reports for the coloration and texture of Nessie's integument.  The most common color reported is black to dark grey, followed by reddish brown and more rarely an olive or khaki green.  All of these colors occur in salamanders in general, and are not always species dependent.  When any part of the underside is noted, it usually seems to be a lighter shade of the dorsal color, or even white.  The skin texture is often compared to that of an elephant.  Some have described it as smooth, while others wrinkled.  As Tim Dinsdale pointed out, rough skin can look smooth when wet and shiny and seen at a distance, but smooth skin always appears smooth at any distance whether it's wet or dry, leaving us with the inescapable conclusion Nessie has a rough hide.  Wrinkled skin is most consistent with the giant salamanders among the Cryptobranchidae, as is the most frequently mentioned color of black.  These giant salamanders are dependent on dermal respiration, and the wrinkling provides greater surface area for the absorption of oxygen.  Sometimes Nessie's skin is reported to be very glossy or reflective, even slimy, either overall or in part.  In the Gray Photo we see how much more reflective the wet areas are, consistent with the landing areas of the water being thrashed up.  Salamanders are of course well know for their shiny dermal secretions, a defense mechanism brought on by stress or excitement, which can give them both a slimy appearance and a smoother looking dermal texture even when they are quite wrinkled.  The range of observed skin colors and textures is most easily accounted for by Amphibia, but becomes a serious problem if we try considering candidates other than giant salamanders to be behind the mystery in Loch Ness.

Humps also occur, albeit quite rarely, in the presence of another visible structure, a lengthy six foot protrusion we'll get to shortly.  When I say "quite rarely" I imagine many readers might be surprised by that and hasten to disagree.  But in rereading all 251 sightings Mackal (1976) employed as data, and of these eyewitness accounts looking at all in which both hump and long appendage features are reported, an almost invariable pattern emerges: the hump submerges when the neck-like appendage comes up, or the neck-like appendage submerges when the hump comes up.  The appearance of both parts simultaneously above water is extremely rare.  Yes, one can find exceptions to this, such as the group sighting by the four ladies in September 1933 in which two humps were observed behind an almost vertical, frilled neck-like object.  A few exceptions are readily enough accounted for by the infrequent but recognized occurrences of two of the animals in close proximity to each other, a circumstance which might easily have gone unnoticed during this September 1933 sighting because it was made from a distance of 1,000 yards.  In any event this pattern of alternated rather than simultaneous views of the "neck" and humps holds for the vast majority of sightings that include any mention of a neck-like appendage.  This makes it very safe to say this appendage cannot flex vertically at an acute angle to the spine, an anatomical detail to be kept in mind.  The consistent submergence of the hump before this long appendage rises above water tells us we are not dealing with a vertically flexible structure, in this regard perfectly consistent with the laterally flexing tail of a giant salamander.

APPENDAGES (from surface observations)

Our knowledge of Nessie's limbs based on accounts of surface sightings is minimal to say the least, and has long been a mystery within a mystery.  Flipper shaped appendages have been reported in less than 2% of surface sightings, usually just one pair at the end of the animal the witnesses took to be the front.  Alexander MacDonald reported his "great salamander" approached him by means of paddling with two short limbs.  Over the ages eyewitnesses have also reported hoof shaped appendages on Nessie, perhaps harkening back to the Water Horse tradition.  My own amateur attempts to sketch flippers often come out looking more like hooves than fins, as the outlines of both seen in silhouette are actually similar.

A webbed foot.  From left to right: (1) open or fanned, (2) contracted or in profile, or (3) seen in shadow or silhouette.  The latter could easily be taken for a flipper (and even bears some resemblance to a hoof in profile).

Much more frequently reported than flipper or paddle sightings per se are hump sightings accompanied by splashing on either side.  Obviously our mysterious beast comes equipped with some bilateral organs or appendages with which to do the splashing, and flippers or webbed feet are the natural explanations.  But which is it, or is it both?  Flippers or fins can be accounted for by fish, including eels, but only an aquatic tetrapod can account for both those and/or webbed feet.  The trouble with surface sightings is that the parts that normally stay below the waterline will seldom be observed.  Hugh Gray didn't even notice the appendages during his famous sighting, yet his photograph shows a posterior water spray with the blurred after-image of a flipper-like object in the pelvic region and, better yet, the upper part of an anterior limb meeting the body above water, just behind the head of the nearer animal.  An observer can easily miss the limbs even when the camera captures them, as it did on this singular occasion.

There is however more data about our creature's limbs to be gleaned from another and much more telling source: land sightings.  These are a category unto themselves and are covered at the end of this article. 


Over and over through the years, we have heard of "the head which could not be distinguished from the neck and merely looked like a continuation of it" (Witchell, 1975).  What is labeled to be the tiny head, this undifferentiated tip of the long serpentine appendage in these particular sightings, rarely shows any visible details, much less details specific to heads such as eyes or a mouth.  This begins to beg the question, are these really heads in the first place?  Perhaps an answer lies in the way this tip moves.  Others have noted, and Tim Dinsdale once observed "On several occasions the head has been seen to turn rapidly from side to side 'as quick as a hen' or to shake itself vigorously, giving the appearance of acute awareness both of sight and sound" (Loch Ness Monster,  Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1961).  I fear a certain amount of anthropomorphism may be at work here.  And keen eyesight is highly unlikely in a benthic animal from deep, dark waters -- quite the opposite.  My contention is the tiny "head" that moves rapidly side to side on the end of the serpentine "neck" has to be the tip of the tail flapping, flopping, and curling:

Along with this "head" motion come reports of rapid undulations of the attached "neck".  But necks don't normally undulate in any species.  Tails undulate, and the tentacles of cephalopods undulate, but necks as a rule do not.  If Nessie is any form of tetrapod, the only conclusion can be that this type of head-neck sighting actually represents the tail.

There are a couple of curious details that do get sighted with some regularity in these small head-long neck cases, one being what appears to be a mane starting at varying distances below the "head", sometimes on the dorsal side, sometimes on the ventral side, sometimes on both; I shall venture an explanation for that in the next section, covering the structure of the tail.

And the most curious detail of all perhaps, a pair of stalks or knobbed horns such as observed by area resident Mrs. Greta Finlay during her famous sighting of August 1952, but occasionally mentioned by others as well.  That Mrs. Finlay and her young son had one of the closest encounters ever with our unusual beastie is hard to doubt.  She estimated she could have hit it with a pebble, and her son was so terrified by the look and proximity of the animal that he put away the new fishing pole he'd gotten that day and avoided the water's edge ever after; Tim Dinsdale reported the fishing rod was still untouched in the Finlay attic when he interviewed Greta eight years later.  The Finlay caravan had been parked near the water at a point where it shelves very rapidly to a depth of 100 feet, which would permit a large animal to swim in quite close to the shingle; but Greta only reported the visible animal to be 15 feet long, small by Nessie standards, so the terror elicited in this case sounds more based on nearness and details of the creatures appearance.  And yet Greta Finlay, who arguably has had the closest look during any tiny-head/long-neck sighting of the creature (perhaps 20 yards away in broad daylight), could see neither eyes nor mouth on what she took to be the head, even though her testimony implies she studied the "head" intently; Tim Dinsdale confirmed this was her observation during his interview with her.  To my mind, no eyes and no mouth once again equates to no head here!  Yet she did see the curious detail of the knob-ended stalks.  Perhaps, as I suspect, someone else making the same sighting from a greater distance, and end-on, could mistake the knobs for eyes and report a "definite" head to further confusticate the tail/neck issue.  Fortunately for us trying to get to the structural details, Great Finlay didn't make such a mistake.  (If there are indeed a pair of bumps on the tail tip, we need look no further to account for the miniscule number of times eyes have been reported on a small head atop a swan-like neck, such as the May 1943 Farrel sighting.)  I've had reason to refrain from including these rarely seen and highly mysterious protrusions in my working morphology for now, but will come back to them.  The point for the moment is that once again, due to the absence of mouth or eyes, we are looking not at a head-neck but at a tail and its curled over tip.

Now we come to the one great inconsistency in eyewitness testimony regarding the Loch Ness animal.  There are a number of reports of very large heads.  Reported as flattened, or sometimes triangular, and often dog-like or sheep-like, but without ears.  Heads estimated to be 2 to 5 feet long, and 12 to 18 inches wide!  In these sightings the head is set low in the water and no long, serpentine necks are mentioned.  A hump is sometimes seen close behind the head; clearly a short-necked animal.  Well we'd hardly expect a long, thin neck to support so large a head in the first place!  One Mr. H. L. Cockrell came very close to getting us a photo of the very large head he saw protruding from the water, from his kayak in 1958, but snapped the shutter just a little late; we are left with a hump photo instead, and what may be just the top of the head submerging a few feet to the right of the hump.  (As both hump and head are creating wakes in this photo, I'm not inclined to accept the idea Cockrell photographed a floating stick, after first hallucinating a head raised in the same spot.  Here I agree with Dinsdale: Mr. Cockrell probably had one of the most dangerous encounters with An Niseag since St. Columba's time.)

Based on these observations, and consistent with my interpretation of the Gray Photo,  I've chosen the following dimensions for the head of my 25 foot virtual type specimen depicted at the start of this article:  3 feet long, 2 feet thick, and 2.5 feet wide at the widest point, tapering to about 18 inches wide at the blunt snout.  A short, thick neck of 1 foot in length and 2 feet in thickness joins the head to the body immediately before the anterior limbs.  As the head and neck are the same dimensions viewed laterally and not well differentiated from each other seen from the side,  they could be taken together as a 4 foot long head.  This makes the head/neck region of the Loch Ness Giant Salamander 16% of these animals' total length.

Furthermore, we get slightly more head-related detail in the large head sightings, although not always consistent:  no eyes visible, small eyes seen, large eyes, round eyes, elliptical eyes, and slitted eyes.  Actually the shape of the eyes should vary by the viewers' perspectives.  In the Chinese Giant Salamander the eyes are small, rounded, lidless, and in a dorso-lateral position that makes them difficult to spot when seen head-on, or slit-like when viewed from above.  They would best be viewed laterally, from which perspective they do appear round; and that's also exactly what we have with the eye visible on the head in the Gray Photo.

Perhaps the best look at (and into) Nessie's mouth was the A. H. Palmer sighting of 1933, an unusually long sighting of a large, flattened head protruding from the water, mouth opening and closing rhythmically for 30 minutes.  This latter "air gulping" behavior is witnessed in all amphibians at some point, but most famously in frogs.  Palmer's view was head-on to the animal from only 100 yards away.  He estimated the mouth was 12 to 18 inches wide, opening as far as 6 inches, and observed that the interior was red.  The latter detail is certainly an exceptional one to be reported.  Here we have a rather intimidating headshot of China's A. davidianus for comparison:

This would be the last view of A. davidianus as eye-witnessed by many a fish.  Note the left eye can barely be made out if you look hard, about 3 inches above the mouth and 4 inches from the side.  The forced perspective belies the fact this is a 5 to 6 foot specimen.  Coincidentally, the tail is lying in a rather suggestive, neck-like pose.

There is one other detail to the Palmer sighting that again can only be called most curious.  Palmer reported short antenna, or horn like projections on either side of the head!  Here we have stalks of some kind mentioned again, but on a large, salamander-like head.  No knobs this time, as with the similar structures reported on the tiny-headed (read tail-tip) sighting of Greta Finlay.  Clearly, we don't have Nessie's with both miniscule heads on long thin necks, and huge heads on short thick necks.  Nor should we reasonably postulate a second unidentified species in Loch Ness on so small a basis.  Do we have something like elongated sensory tubercles on both the head and tail?  Perhaps not impossible.  The known species of giant salamanders are replete with short, you could even say knob-like tubercles almost everywhere (more so the Japanese species than in the other two), but never elongated ones.  In the Loch Ness Giant Salamander, the distance from the tip of the tail to the brain is some four times greater than it is in the Chinese Giant Salamander, so perhaps some larger, more developed sensory tubercles had to evolve to keep pace with the increasing distance to the brain.  That might account for larger knobs on the tail tip, but doesn't help at all to explain stalks or horns on the (large) head at the front end of the animal.  Herein lies a mystery I'll return to in my future article on taxonomy, as I suspect the potential classification of the species may literally hinge on the true nature of these enigmatic little head stalks. 

THE TAIL'S TALE  (or, The Story Of The Headless Neck That Never Was)

At one-third of the overall length of our animal, a whopping 8 feet long in typical specimens, the tail of the Loch Ness Giant Salamander is a marvelous structure.  So too are the tails of all salamanders, but those of aquatic salamanders, whether they be in the advanced order of Salamandroidea or in the primitive order of Cryptobranchoidea, are remarkably muscled limbs of rapid propulsion.  While speed estimates from surface sightings are highly subjective, we know from the Tucker sonar studies I mentioned in an earlier article that 20 foot specimens can manage at least 17mph below water, with an incredible diving rate of 5mph (this is faster than fish, with their open swim bladders, are capable of doing -- this diving speed is one of the reasons fish can be ruled out in establishing Nessie's identity). (In all fairness it should be pointed out that there are other interpretations of the Birmingham University sonar data.  Specifically that during some of the most pertinent readings, the thermocline was at its most reflective, and a surface craft had indeed passed through the area, the wake of which could have caused some spurious sonar reflections.)

Although rarely spotted and identified as the tail in most surface sightings, there seems to be universal agreement among eyewitnesses that when it is recognized, the tail is quite long, laterally flattened, blunt ended, and moves with rapid sinusoidal undulations.  That is an exacting description of an aquatic salamander tail, and the way in which it moves to provide rapid propulsion.

Also noted in some tail-specific sightings are the presence of a caudal fin, and the sudden widening of the tail where it meets the body.  This widening at the base, it should be noted, is also attributed to the supposed neck in long-neck sightings.  More interesting however is that caudal fin, a structural trait present to one degree or another in all neotenous aquatic salamanders.  They appear to be key to efficient undulatory swimming above certain speeds in open water (see Korsmeyer, Steffensen, and Herskin, 2002, "Energetics of median and paired fin swimming, body and caudal fin swimming").  It seems wherever Nessie may have started its evolution, it came pre-adapted to swim like a torpedo when it got into the wide open waters of Loch Ness.

A caudal fin often collapses or folds down out of water, so there is nothing remarkable in that it goes unseen in most sightings of the tail above water.  The dorsal caudal fin in the Loch Ness Giant Salamander has been noted to not extend all the way to the tip of the tail, and we seem to have corroboration of this in the Gray Photo.  This is different than in the Crytobranchidae, in which the ventral and dorsal caudal fins extend all the way to the tip and actually appear to meet, and also different from the caudul fins of eels.  Whether Nessie does or doesn't have a ventral caudal fin has not been determined, although I suspect one is present and have indicated such in my diagram.  There are however wide variations in the tail fins of aquatic salamanders even within species, so neither outcome would be surprising.  But of interest for entirely different reasons, the location of this caudal fin that stops short of extending all the way to the tip coincides with the reported location of a fin, frill, or mane below the "head", on the back of the "neck" where it meets the suddenly widening body in several of the long-necked animal sighting reports.  This is not coincidence.

Now we come to it.  The "trouble" with a giant salamander in Loch Ness, and with a short-necked model of Nessie is that this "new" morphology cannot be reconciled with sightings of an animal with a tiny, almost indistinguishable head perched atop a long serpentine neck.  (It seems widely assumed there have been many such long-neck sightings, when in reality my manual tabulation of the Mackal data reveals only 15% of surface sightings fall unequivocally into this category, with another 3.3% open to interpretation.  More current statistics would be welcome, but for now it appears witnesses at Loch Ness have only claimed to see long necks 15% of the time, and claimed to have seen heads of any kind attached to them in even fewer cases!)  Must we contrive a long-necked animal to explain these sightings?  I've been dropping clues to the contrary throughout this article, but lastly it is these characteristics of the tail, presented here, that should end all argument (although I am not so naive as to believe the argument will ever go away, not even if we catch a Loch Ness Giant Salamander to keep on public display.)  It's actually far easier to reconcile the morphology of a giant salamander with the actual sightings than it is to reconcile it with cultural tradition, even a tradition that didn't truly emerge until the 20th century.  It's likely far more people adamantly believe Nessie has a long neck and tiny head than there are people who have ever seen any part of the animal in question.

In part, people report or think they see what they expect to see, and the plesiosaur theory has become deeply engrained in public consciousness since the 1930's.  Dinosaurs were a new revelation to late Victorian culture, and every early discovery was treated as hot news to be seized upon by the press.  The enduring popularity of such period books as Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, Doyle's Lost World, and the early motion picture King Kong remind us that only eighty years ago modern society became enamored with giant, prehistoric animals for the first time, and the tantalizing notion that somewhere, somehow, a few of them might have survived.  And Darwin's Origin of Species had everyone talking and thinking about human evolution.  Every cryptic, legendary or mythological animal from the dragon to the yeti was suddenly a candidate standing in for some longed-for prehistoric remnant species.  Which might be to say, a longed-for component of mankind's rapidly fading past.  Perhaps the psychological component to all this came about because Europe was running out of unexplored territory and undiscovered animals on the rest of the continents, or so it thought.  North America was settled, and the British Empire had colonies and outposts everywhere from India to Africa.  The telegraph and radio were shrinking the world at an alarming rate.  The notion that the long-known but mysterious and unidentified animals living in one Scottish lake had to be dinosaurs was just one of many reactionary responses to the "future shock" unsettling post-Victorian thinking.  Ironically it was conveniently overlooked that plesiosaurs weren't technically dinosaurs in the first place, but that was merely splitting hairs.

And then came the Surgeon's Photo.  The most iconic and popular picture to ever come out of Loch Ness.  But not necessarily iconic because it was greatly definitive or detailed or all that good a picture, or even authentic, but because it fulfilled human expectations.  There for all the world to see swam the plesiosaur, in swan-like, noble repose.  Just what the world wanted.  There's a bit more irony in that we now know the vertebrae of plesiosaurs a bit better, and they couldn't actually bend their necks back and tilt their heads in that manner, but that's just one more thing conveniently overlooked by proponents of a long-necked, marine reptile explanation for the unusual animal in Loch Ness.

Earlier I stated my belief that any authentic sighting of Nessie in which a long neck was spotted must have been a misidentification of the tail as the neck. The case has been made before that some of the long serpentine neck sightings could just as well be sightings of the tail.  Roy Mackal made the point that most eyewitnesses viewed what they reported seeing from such great distances, there was no objective basis for categorizing them into either neck or tail sightings; he treated such sightings as equivalent data for statistical purposes, and combined them in the same column for the extensive Surface Sightings spreadsheet he created (The Monsters of Loch Ness, Swallow Press, 1976, Appendix A, Table 1).  Mackal and C. S. Wellek, who did the illustrations for Mackal's first book, seem to have hedged their bets on the neck issue; their drawings of the hypothetical amphibian on page 215 depict a creature with a head-neck region some 20% of overall length, midway between the long thin neck of a plesiosaur-shaped animal and the shorter and thicker one of a salamander.  I was always curiously dissatisfied with these beautiful illustrations, as the neck interpretation looked unnaturally pushed and pulled between conflicting data like some piece of taffy.  Mackal was indeed onto something though in considering the sightings of long serpentine structures just as likely to be tails as they were to be necks.

 As discussed in the earlier section on humps, simultaneous appearances of a hump and a long, neck-like appendage are actually very rare, but can still be readily enough accounted for by the tail of a short-necked animal protruding above the water:

Image Copyright (c) 2012 Steven G. Plambeck - All rights reserved

More often however, if a hump is above water and the animal pitches forward, the tail emerges as the hump submerges, the tail twisting or rolling a bit towards the tip because it's natural flexure is lateral.  This fold or bend near the tip creates the illusion of a small head, leading observers to believe a tail is a neck.

Nearly the rarest sighting reports of them all are those that describe both a long neck and a long tail witnessed together.  This kind of report is even rarer than reports of two animals observed at once.  Needless to say then, there must be cases of two animals showing visible parts at once that are not recognized as more than one animal, owing to distance, lighting, and point of view.  These latter cases account for the few combined neck and tail reports readily enough.  Two animals can show us two tails at once.  Witnesses unaware they are watching two animals, and expecting to see a long neck, would undoubtedly attribute one long appendage to the neck and the other long appendage to the tail during any of the rare occasions two tails were visible at once:

Image Copyright (c) 2012 Steven G. Plambeck - All rights reserved

Having established that the tail is mistaken for the neck in all of the long-necked sightings also means that, historically, we have had a greater number of tail sightings than previously realized, and hence a slightly greater opportunity to collect rare details about this part of the animal even though we didn't realize it when the original data was reported.  It is therefore time to re-sift all of the long neck sighting data we have through the filter of new knowledge, to see if there are tidbits of old information we can now recognize.  This is a project unto itself, and left for another day.  But here is one example worth an immediate digression.  And a test of any new theory is to see if it sheds light on any old, but highly anomalous data.  If a piece of the puzzle that wouldn't otherwise fit suddenly begins to fit, it's a good sign the theory is on the right track.

Qualifying as both a unique and a previously inexplicable description of a "monster" in Loch Ness, we have a quote from a letter by Highland historian David Murray Rose referring to how the Loch Ness locals described their 'water-horse' in the mid-17th century.   The discovery of this Rose letter, from which I'll quote just a snippet below, was made by Roland Watson and is discussed more thoroughly in his book (The Water Horses of Loch Ness, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011, pages 68 to 77).

To quote Rose: "Old people said it was a 'water-horse' or 'water-kelpie', because it had a head that looked like a cross between a horse and a camel, but its mouth was in its throat (italics mine)."

Some strange observations have come out of Loch Ness, but as far as I know this is the only mention of an animal with its mouth in its throat or neck!  One could hypothesize someone had tried to decapitate Nessie with a broadsword, and she'd escaped with only a gash in her neck, but that would be reaching.  That this locating of the mouth in the throat is attributed to prevailing opinion of the time rather than a single sighting may imply this feature was observed more than once during this period.  Such a weird piece of data, and so old, it surely must belong to some entirely different puzzle, so we can safely throw it away as having nothing to do with Nessie or our Loch Ness Giant Salamander.  Or, could it?

A salamander's cloaca

While not usually glimpsed from above, there is a cloaca at the ventral base of every salamanders' tail.  It can be more pronounced in some specimens than others, and it can be much more pronounced at breeding season than at other times, but it is always there, and as the picture illustrates it can look very mouth-like.

Now all amphibians have cloaca (as do all reptiles, birds, monotremes, and certain fish).  Any time an aquatic salamander were to lift its the tail above water, there is a chance, however slight, to glimpse this posterior orifice.  Being on the underside it would almost always go overlooked, unless of course the animal was listing to one side, or rolling.  A few modern observers have reported rolling, but never during sightings that were close enough to note anatomical details usually hidden below the waterline, other than the lighter color of the underside.  Even the limbs, which we know are present in at least one pair if not two, have never been reported during one of these rolls.  Suppose during the mid-17th century someone luckily observed a roll from closer range, or witnessed a floating specimen listing to one side, thereby exposing its cloaca to observation?  We can safely assume that if the tail is mistaken for the neck in modern sightings, the same error has gone on in the past.  In that case, observers who glimpsed the orifice at the base of what they assumed to be the neck would have no other way to relate what they'd seen except to say "but its mouth was in its throat".  Changing the identification of the "neck" to the tail, we have an elegant explanation for what was actually reported.


If, as I assert, the long appendage when viewed above water is always the tail, and as the tail is presumably the principle means of the animals' propulsion, then we must account for the apparent motions of specimens during the course of such sightings.

First, we have established so far that surface sightings alone tell us there must be at least two, and possibly four limbs with which the animal can paddle, and that they can raise a considerable disturbance in the water tells us they are not completely ineffectual.  Secondly, in rereading the remarks to all 251 sightings recorded in Mackal's 1976 table of eyewitness observations, cross-checking neck/tail sightings against any reported movement, something quite telling emerged:  in all but six cases, the animal was reported to be stationary or moving slowly while the neck/tail appendage was above water.  In two of these six cases, the speed of the animal was reported as "fair" or "moderate", leaving only four cases where the object was reported to be moving fast or at speed with the "neck" above water (cases I'll come back to in just a few paragraphs).  By contrast, there are plenty of accounts of Nessie making speed, just below the water or with only a hump or dorsal edge breaking the surface.  Sonar has shown the animals making speed at depth.  Why can't Nessie make any speed when her neck is above water?  Because that isn't the neck at all, it's her primary form of propulsion, the tail.

When surface motion is both slow and in the direction opposite that in which the tail is tilted we can naturally visualize the animal beneath the water is paddling forward (the animal on the left in the diagram below).  But in these cases, if the observer believed the tail was actually a neck, wouldn't they report they saw Nessie swimming backwards?  That doesn't seem to be mentioned in any of the accounts.  Very often though what we do hear a comparison of the supposed "neck" to a telegraph pole, completely or nearly vertical; that may be true, or it may be the effect of the angle of observation; the closer to vertical the "neck" appears to be, the less possible it becomes to judge if there's any tilt in the direction of travel.  Add to this that most surface sightings are at too great a distance to even distinguish whether the appendage seen is a neck or tail, along with the fact the observer usually has no objective basis for knowing which way the submerged body is facing, and the direction in which the tail is tilted actually becomes guesswork.  If slow or minor motion is observed, anyone with the preconceived notion the visible appendage is the neck might think they see a tilt in the direction of movement even where no such pitching exists.  The tip of the tail folded down or curled to a horizontal position, being taken for the head, may also be taken as a pointer for direction of movement, even when no movement is actually occurring.

Watching, waiting, and keeping pace...  Slow movement to adjust position is possible with the paddling action of limbs alone, regardless of inclination of the tail when exposed above water.  Such motion is entirely consistent with the little if any movement reported in the overwhelming majority of head-neck sightings

Now consider the opposite case.  Motion appears to be slow and in the same direction as the "neck" is tilted (animal on the right in the above diagram).  Here it appears the animal is moving in the same direction the "neck" is pitched.  No one would report backwards swimming now, as they are seeing what they expect forward motion to look like.  And yet, being an aquatic animal, there is no basis for assuming which way the sub-surface appendages are moving.  In this case movement in the same direction as the tail is tilting requires the animal to paddle backwards!  Now is that reasonable?  Well, not being aquatic animals ourselves, we're more used to land animals like dogs and sheep, horses and cows, normally walking in just one direction: forward!  What must be remembered here is that an aquatic animal, used to three-dimensional movement at will, can paddle forwards, backwards, or in circles to its heart's content.  Any fish or giant salamander, regardless which way it's long axis is pointing, can back up whenever it wants or has reason.  The vertical tilt of the tail, which is going unused for propulsion when it's above water, is actually irrelevant to the direction of movement in all these cases.

Consider: what type of behavior might we be witnessing when the Loch Ness Giant Salamander floats nearly motionless, near or on the surface, tail up and head down, perhaps making slow adjustments in position with only slight motions of its limbs?  Head down is probably the significant clue.  The tail isn't being deliberately lifted above water for any purpose at all; rather, the entire body is canted at an angle to keep the head pointing downwards, and it is merely coincidental the animal has reason to be at the surface in the first place.  (Recall in the first part of this article we established definitively that any visible hump almost always submerges when the long appendage rises above water, and that this tail almost always submerges before a hump rises above water; the animal is actually adjusting its entire pitch.)

The reason for striking such a pose and calmly holding its attitude for many minutes, is consistent with the behavior of known giant salamanders freezing as their prey swim near.  While the river species live in shallow waters and lie in wait on the bottom for passing fish, momentarily freezing when one is near the mouth to allow it to blunder into striking range, a giant salamander adapted to deep water would have to float near the surface or just above the littoral shelves (which brings it near the surface) to be near its food supply.  Fishermen traditionally hold that dawn is the best time of day for fishing, as fish rise to feed as the encroaching daylight begins to warm the surface.  Fishermen apparently are not the only species aware of this advantageous timing, not if you will recall that the majority of all sightings of the unidentified species in Loch Ness occur in the earliest hours of daylight, with between 80% and 85% of reported sightings falling between sunrise and 9:30 am (Dinsdale, 1961).

At first it might seem counter-intuitive that the Loch Ness Giant Salamander would hold its main form of propulsion perfectly still while feeding, whether the tail is below water or protruding above (temporarily depriving it of any high speed maneuvering).  But the known species of giant salamanders do not chase their prey, which would be far too costly in terms of energy expenditure.  They float rather passively among their prey, or just above or below, and employ a method of vacuum feeding.  When a fish passes close enough to the front or side of their large, wide mouths, they snap their jaws open so rapidly that the prey is sucked into the sudden vacuum created in the empty space between the jaws, and then they snap their mouths shut again so quickly that the fish literally seems to vanish into nothing.  The other nearby fish don't even seem to notice the sudden "evaporation" of their comrade, and neither panic nor flee.  The salamander hasn't had to move a muscle or expend any energy other than the single snap of its elastic jaws, and the next victim remains in close range, as calm as if it was swimming near a log.  (Some excellent footage of a Japanese Giant Salamander, Andrias japonicus feeding can be found in the documentary series Planet Earth.)  The main difference here between the known species of Cryptobranchidae and our Loch Ness Giant Salamander is that the known species have no great depth to hover over.

The final stumbling block to my proposal that the appendage above water is never a long neck may at first appear daunting, but is actually the case that cements the argument.  What of those mere four sightings (out of 251) that I mentioned earlier, where the animal, long neck-like appendage clearly above water, appears to swim at great and/or sustained speed?  These exceptions are so few, it is tempting to cherry-pick around them rather than let them upset my working morphology.  (Unfortunately, by extension of this logic we could almost ignore all long head-neck sightings, as they comprise as little as 15% of the 251 overall sightings referenced here in the first place.)  How to account for the animal swimming at its highest speed if that "neck" held high is really the tail, which needs to be beneath the surface to propel it?

In fact these remaining head-neck sightings of Nessie moving at speed pose no trouble at all, for a quite simple reason:  aquatic animals never swim at sustained speed with a substantial part of their bodies above the surface and adding drag.  None of them.  Period.  The hydrodynamics of sustained surface swimming are energy-prohibitive due to wave resistance, or "surface tension" if you will.  It costs an animal 5 times less energy to make speed when it is entirely below the surface.  And in the animal kingdom, calories equal food, food equals survival, and it is survival that dictates behavior.

Therefore any reported sighting of a neck-like object above water, and sustaining high speed, could not be the neck of the animal, or any animal, because it couldn't be an animal in the first place.  Yes, short bursts of a couple seconds may be accounted for by flipper or paddle action alone, leaving the tail free to be the part seen above water.  But no animal, even if it had both a long neck and a long tail, would ever swim at sustained speed with that neck held above water.  We can also be sure plesiosaurs never swam that way, even if they were otherwise candidates.  That there are only a miniscule number of such long-neck, high-speed sighting reports (1.59% on Mackal's extensive list) is actually quite a good thing to know.  Any such sightings must be cases of misidentification of non-living objects (i.e. speedboats), and it is reassuring to find out such eyewitness mistakes have been exceedingly rare.

This last hurdle behind us, there is no remaining reason to postulate a long neck for Nessie to explain any of the surface sightings.  All can be accounted for by the appearance of the tail alone.

(In the upcoming Part 3 of this article we will examine:
"What Land Sightings Have Told Us About Morphology")