Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Known Suspects - A Short Answer

While great discussions have been had over the possible candidates for the Loch Ness animal, and I may go into greater detail about some of those theories in later posts, we are going to get the ball rolling with a single, and I hope definitive, statement:

Nessie is not an air-breather, which consequentially rules out everything other than fish or amphibians.

Even if the temperature of Loch Ness was warm enough to support reptiles (which it is not) and even if Plesiosaurs were not thoroughly extinct (which, unfortunately, they are) you couldn't hide a population of them in Loch Ness -- you couldn't even hide one.  As air-breathers, Plesiosaurs would continuously and regularly surface.  Their respiration would rule their behavior, and we'd have had our type specimen in hand long ago.  There are other problems with any form of giant reptile in Loch Ness, but the respiration obstacle alone ends that debate. The theory that the unidentified creatures in Loch Ness represent a relic population of surviving Plesiosaurs has been the romantic favorite for so many decades that many people will be disappointed by this.  But alas, this is rather irrefutable logic.  Nessie never was nor ever could have been a Plesiosaur.

The same logic applies to mammals and birds.  Extinction and known range aside, Hydrodamalis gigas, or Steller's Sea Cow might be a suitable candidate based on size and anatomical appearance, and could tolerate cold water, but runs into the same initial problem as a Plesiosaur: it would constantly be coming up for air, and too hard to overlook.  The same is true of any less exotic aquatic mammals, of which only whales grow large enough to account for the size of our mysterious denizen.  Even granted some form of giant aquatic reptile or mammal came equipped with snorkeling appendages that permitted it to sneak breaths without fully revealing itself at the surface, that would still place it at or near the surface on a constant and regular basis.  Such an animal would still be spotted regularly by fisherman, or any sufficiently patient monster hunters.  It would also have to regularly show up on sonar scans in mid-water, never far from it's source of oxygen.  The infrequency of such sightings tells us: we are not dealing with an air-breathing animal here.

A nod must be paid to the late F.W. Holiday, who espoused for many years his theory that Nessie was a giant aquatic worm.  His book The Great Orm of Loch Ness outlines this theory, as well as delving deep into the dragon mythology of ancient Europe, and remains a great read to this day.  The obstacle to entertaining the possibility of a giant invertebrate again comes down to Nessie's behavior, but in this case the rarest and most mysterious quirk in that observed behavior:  land sightings.  No invertebrate of Nessie's size could voluntarily leave the water, enjoy a stroll, and return to the water.  Like a giant jelly fish it would collapse under it's own weight if removed from the water.  Even Holiday acknowledged this flaw in his otherwise rather good theory.  As infrequent as land sightings may be, they have been a constant part of the historical tradition, and an irregular but definite portion of modern, recorded sightings (perhaps as many as two dozen instances since the 19th century).

Ultimately, it all comes down to behavior.  Nessie is a bottom dwelling, water breathing animal that spends very little time on the surface or in mid-water, although just enough to be spotted visually or by sonar on very rare occasions.  Its forays up from the the depths are most likely made along the sides of the Loch, to feed on the fish which are predominantly found along the sides, in shallower water above the underwater cliffs that precipitously drop off into the 750 foot abyss.  Such behavior is only consistent with a fish, or aquatic amphibian, which can extract all of it's needed oxygen directly from the water.

Yet as seldom as it happens, and for reasons known only to the animal itself, Nessie also leaves the water for apparently brief stretches, as observed most famously in the Spicer and Grant sightings of 1933 and 1934 respectively.  It may be said that this is nothing new:  it's a centuries old tradition among the Highlanders that the kelpie or water horse of Loch Ness comes ashore.  That's a key behavioral trait to take into account if we are distinguishing fish from amphibians.

My next post will be a picture essay which will on the one hand "deconstruct" one of the more famous photographs ever taken at Loch Ness, while further demonstrating why we should be thinking in terms of the Loch Ness Giant Salamander.


  1. Very happy to have another stellar blog devoted to discussing the LNM rationally and re-visiting the evidence with new perspectives. Can't wait to see detailed commentary on the films. Fascinating reading so far. More!!

  2. Thanks for the kind words MD. Film isn't my strong suite, but I highly recommend the film analyses by Dick Raynor which can be found at his site:

    Alas I've never seen any film footage that I would say helps us with an identification of an unknown species in Loch Ness. We can only hope something definitive turns up one day.

  3. well done Steve a well structured, thought out and smartly presented thesis into possible reasons of anomalous activity in the loch, taking the lore of the Kelpie as a starting point and likening it to a possible aquatic equivalent has me sold!!!

  4. Hello! First, let me say that I am a fan of this blog, and I definitely appreciate the scientific perspective and the amount of effort that apparently went into creating it.
    However, I disagree with some of the points that you made about plesiosaurs (and air-breathers in general).

    1. Some reptiles, such as leatherback turtles, can tolerate colder temperatures very well, so it is still possible for reptiles to exist in Loch Ness. There have also been recent studies which have shown that plesiosaurs were likely endothermic ("warm-blooded"), and, therefore, could probably exist in Loch Ness, regardless of the water temperature.

    2. In regard to surfacing to breathe air and being noticed, there's more than one solution for that. First, it's actually possible that plesiosaurs might have developed a way to breathe underwater, through their throats or through their cloacas (and no, I am not joking. Some turtles already do this). Second, it's also possible that the animals at Loch Ness do not constitute a breeding population. Perhaps the plesiosaurs only live in the oceans surrounding the loch, and a few animals occasionally swim into the loch and become trapped. They could then remain there for several decades, until they eventually die.

    And, even though not all sightings resemble plesiosaurs, that isn't really evidence against the plesiosaur hypothesis. Maybe not all sightings in Loch Ness represent the same creature. Perhaps there could be a population of giant salamanders, in addition to plesiosaurs that have swam into the loch from the ocean and gotten trapped. There could also be cryptid otters. And maybe misidentifications (of common animals, like seals, as well as inanimate objects) could also play a role.

    So I'm afraid I have to disagree. I don't necessarily support the plesiosaur hypothesis, but I do certainly think that it is possible, and that we shouldn't rule it out. Cheers! And good luck with your blog!

  5. Welcome aboard Troodon, good to see you here!

    This echoes what's been stirred up by Nick Redfern's recent article ( and the lively rebuttals going on in the Zombie Plesiosaur Society group on Facebook.

    Now since I wrote the above post two years ago, I've been frequently reminded by Scott Mardis and others that plesiosaurs did occur in colder climates, both is Southern Gondwanaland (the southwestern region of what became Australia, while it was still within the Sub-Antarctic circle) and near the Arctic circle in what was North America just before the K/T extinction event. Many good papers supporting the existence of both populations can be found on the internet.

    It's also become very well established that juvenile plesiosaurs occurred frequently in fresh water, while adults rarely did so. The fascinating implication here is that the mothers swam into fresh water and up river to give birth, and the juveniles remained in this environment until migrating to the sea as they matured -- no doubt a survival strategy, protecting the young from much larger ocean predators until they were big enough to cope with them.

    That relict plesiosaurs may have survived the K/T extinction is quite a good theory.

    That a species of giant turtle may also have been overlooked and inhabiting cold water is also quite an intriguing possibility I tend to favor. It accounts well for many lake monster reports from the North Eastern US.

    My problem with either one of these reptiles in Loch Ness still comes down to respiration. No reptile has ever adapted to entirely aquatic respiration, and while nature holds many surprises we have to admit this is unlikely to be one of them. The cloaca respiration Steve Irwin discovered in one species of turtle augments, but does not replace, atmospheric oxygen. It's not impossible, just very unlikely any reptile ever retired its lungs. Much less likely than a giant aquatic salamander in Loch Ness, as giant aquatic salamanders are actually known to have existed and survived many millions of years, even through earlier mass extinction events. Some of the last known ones large enough to account for Nessie lived in the same sub-antarctic region of Gondwanaland.

    And again, if there are giant aquatic reptiles visiting the surface of Loch Ness for air, no matter how surreptitiously, they would still be doing so on a regular basis. Probably along the lines of Redfern's calculation of nearly 90,000 times a year. (Keep in mind he based his estimate on a population of only 20! A breeding population that's lasted 10,000 years would probably be a good bit bigger than that, so even if they could hold their breath much longer than crocs, it would still mean tens of thousands of surface visits a year.)

    And each and every time such a reptile filled it's lungs, it would turn into a beacon for sonar contact, and would remain so for the time it would take it to traverse mid-water to hide again on the bottom. There is no way that many potential sonar hits would go overlooked with all the pings flying around Loch Ness in this day and age.

    Now one could claim a much smaller population of transients visiting from the sea, but the River Ness is too shallow and Telford's Weir too problematic for any large animals to get in or out of Loch Ness unobserved. Migratory Nessies just don't work, no matter what order or family they'd be assigned to. There might BE endothermic plesiosaurs plying the waters around the UK, but they wouldn't be getting in and out of Loch Ness without notice.

    So I'm not changing my overall stance from two years ago. The unidentified animals in Loch Ness can only be fish or amphibian, bottom dwelling creatures that extract all the oxygen they normally need directly from the cold, oxygen rich waters. As elucidated throughout the rest of the blog, I have many reasons to favor an amphibian.

  6. Cant be a plesiosaur because its exctinct? So are giant salamanders.

  7. That's simply an oversimplification of what I said.

    There are three extant species of Giant Salamanders recognized, look it up.

  8. I have. The biggest only grows to 5ft. So a salamander cannot be the 20_30 ft nessie just like the plesiosaur because they extinct......right?

    1. Andrias japonicus grows to 5 feet, Andrias davidianus to 6 feet with anecdotal evidence the largest specimens used to reach 8 feet -- the last few decades they've been consumed so much they rarely get to live long enough to reach full size.

      Now these aren't the biggest salamanders in history, not even close. Many labyrinthodonts grew past 20 feet and some exceeded 30. Some adapted to tolerate salt water.

      Fossil amphibians are out of the question, but fossil reptiles are to be considered? Nope, what's good for the goose is good for the gander :>

  9. I agree in the past they use to be bigger but not now. If there are bigger amphibians out there im sure we would of found them by now.

  10. Mackal in his book looked at an amphibian that might have developed a head and neck. Embolomer type. Whats your opinion on this steve?

    1. Around the middle of New Morphology Part 2, published here in February 2013, I had this to say about it:

      "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."

      Embolomer (I am learning my amphibian taxonomy, albeit slowly) has given way to the newer term Caudata as the name of the order. It basically means any amphibian with a tail (as opposed to those without tails we call frogs). There are three living suborders to the Caudata, and as I understand it the term "salamander" should technically only be applied to members of the suborder Salamandroiea (but many of which are actually called newts for no formal reason). Yet animals in the different suborder that includes the Cryptobranchids are regularly called salamanders (the Chinese Giant Salamander and the Japanese Giant Salamander. To make this even more fun, there are many, many extinct (or presumed extinct) suborders to the Caudata as well, and there official names keep changing. These were once lumped together under the term Labyrinthodont, which now has a newer name as well. Yes, it makes me dizzy. But Mackal had a Labyrinthodont in mind as the ancestor of the amphibian he designed with artist Wellek for his book.

      Of special note though is that no actual amphibian anywhere in the fossil record ever had a long neck. So the drawings for Mackal's book are of a hypothetically evolved amphibian with no actual precedent in nature.

      Some might say that is another case of coming up with a morphology to fit the theory, but in this case the theory was that Nessie was long-necked to begin with :) To be fair to Mackal though, he made it abundantly clear there was no objective evidence IN MOST CASES to say whether the long anatomical feature reported was either neck or tail.

    2. And I made enough typos in that to say, I'm done for tonight!

  11. Great stuff !!!! A skin breathing amphibian fits the bill! But i agree with troodon that reptiles can suprise us! The tuatara now live on cold islands and our terrapin friends have invaded our ponds and lakes and live throughout our freezing cold winters! ! ! And who knows how and when they breathe! We wudnt know thru fossil records that sum turtles can stay under water for five hours! I gave a council lake on my doorstep with an estimated 20 terrapins in there and bin there since early 90's...yet though i spend hours down there fishing and walking my dog ive never seen one!!! How are they avoiding me???? Lake isnt deep or large!! Strange! But i agree an amphibian is more plausible and i totally agree SP that there must be more things waiting to be discovered!!! I cant see that all these people are wrong or see natural phenonema! There is summit lurking in loch ness....or least there was!!! Great read SP and ur amphibian knowledge is incredible !

  12. Thanks for all that Jake! But I must confess my knowledge of amphibians is minimal at best, and my self-education about salamanders only goes back a couple years. I'd never seen the Heron-Allen version of the Gray photo before it appeared on Roland's blog, and before I saw the head he pointed out for the first time I entertained other notions as to the possible identity. It's only from that point forward I've been learning what I can of salamanders. They are an incredibly complicated group of animals, and I've really only scratched the surface so far! In part that's why my material has been coming out at a trickle.

  13. Great read. Love the debate!! Head and neck debate is intresting! I agree that there is lots of head and neck sightings but not always is it a long thin swan like type! Lots are more turtle like or on an angle! Ive noticed an argument about the discovery channel sighting and i have that on dvd but if u look at the photos drawn by the two people they are not long swan like necks...more turtle like !!! I think some amphibians like newts in a certain pose do look like they have a neck potruding and im sure ones that grow to an older age and go more full bodied could look even more like they have a neck becsuse they are a long slim creature! And as a fisherman i have always said that creatures when in water look different to when they are on land! Who knows that a giant newt shaped amphibian could give off a head and neck impression at a certain pose at the surface and the long thin necked sightings could actually be the tail! I know a fella in loch ness ( a previous non believer) who told me he had a sighting in ness few years ago. He said it resembled a giant eel just under the surface but as it changed direction it resembled more of a newt!!!!! Just a thought lads :)

  14. Well im off to loch ness next week!! I have a few friends in the area. Lets hope i have a story or two of a sighting for u wen i get back lol !! A few nights staying in the loch......cant wait

  15. How wonderful Jake! My job is keeping me too busy to write much less travel, so I'm envious! If you run into Dick Raynor say hi for me. I think winter naps are over and it may be breeding season in the Loch, so keep an eye out ;>

  16. Lol yeah well im staying in the best place the cabin park with cabin overlooking the loch. Few beers round the camp fire in the evening with one eye on the loch as i believe these things are nocturnal so best time!! Yes im hoping to see Dick when im up there so ill say hello for ya! Any news and u and GB will be first to know :)))

  17. Great time in loch ness. No news to be had. But i did meet up with Dick Raynor and he took me to the spot of the lachlan stuart photo. Enjoyed it. Roll on the next trip :)

  18. Glad to hear you had a great time Jake! And a chance to meet Dick. You certainly picked the right day to arrive, now if only you had headed straight to the castle, say a bit before 1:30! You could have warned those ladies to start filming sooner - LOL! Imagine that. I'm sure you have! Maybe the best sighting in years, and the day you arrived. Next March, go one day sooner! :-)

  19. Well i missed a sighting about 4 years ago aswell. We had headed up to inverness and found out later 3 humps wer seen going past my cabin !!!! my friends friend on a boat rang him to tell him to look out of the cabin but we wer in inverness having a drink lol. The sighting was also reported by a local woman driving from fort augustus!!!! No luck me lol