Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A New Morphology vs Classic Sightings (Part 1 of 3)

Readers of my previous articles may have noticed I've treated the image of the Loch Ness animal in the Hugh Gray photo as if it were a type specimen.  In the absence of physical remains in a museum, or a living captive, this is only rarely acceptable to the academic community when recognizing a new species (and I'd hazard to say Nessie is the least likely candidate to be granted an exception to the rule).  Luckily for us, there is no law against discussing the nature and form of an as yet unnamed, unclassified species.  And while the Gray Photo is critically helpful, it is not our only source of information about the morphology of the Loch Ness Giant Salamander.

The next question to be resolved is this: can the morphology of a giant, aquatic salamander even be compatible with the other evidence (besides the Gray Photo), the other observations, and the centuries of varying reports of unidentified creatures in Loch Ness?  Particularly with what reports there are of long necks?  Herein I shall attempt to demonstrate that this is indeed the case, and that the form of a giant salamander is more than adequate for explaining the great majority of all observations.

Before proceeding, another brief nod to history is in order.  Over a century before the press coined the name "Nessie" and began spreading the notion one should expect to see a plesiosaur if they went looking for An Niseag, in fact a whopping 131 years before Hugh Gray took his camera to the loch, a crofter from the village of Abriachan named Alexander MacDonald was rescuing an injured lamb near the water's edge when he had a harrowingly close encounter with a 20 foot long animal in Loch Ness.  As related by Nicholas Witchell (The Loch Ness Story, Penguin edition, 1975, page 17) MacDonald reported  the animal that paddled to within 50 yards of him using two short appendages reminded him of a salamander, and indeed referred to it as "the great salamander" for the rest of his life.  (From another source, a correspondent for the Northern Chronicle who also looked into the Alexander MacDonald case, we hear that MacDonald "often" saw his "salamander" in the early hours of the morning while he waited to catch the ferry to Inverness from Abriachan pier.)  Witchell further relates that into the start of the 20th century the ferry skippers putting in at Abriachan pier would hail the piermaster by shouting: "Seen the salamander today?"  This tale almost immediately precedes Witchell's account of an even more singular event, this time from 1880, the first underwater sighting.  The diver was Duncan MacDonald.  When sent down to examine a shipwreck off the Fort Augustus entrance to the Caledonian Canal, he immediately gave the emergency signal to be pulled up, and reportedly never dove again in his life.  Because next to the keel of the ship, on the rock shelf where it was lodged, Duncan MacDonald saw a large animal "like a huge frog".  (Taxonically speaking of course, salamanders are frogs with tails, and hence the name of their order of classification, Caudata.)  Here we have three nineteenth century references to exceptionally large animals recognized as amphibians in Loch Ness.

(Thanks to an anonymous reader of my blog, I also have another most pertinent account to relate.  The source is A Bridge To The Past: An Oral History of Families of Upper GlenUrquhart by Peter R. English (Inverness, Speedprint, 2009).  It reads:  "Early in the Second World War, Ian [MacDonald] had been on an exercise in the area with the Cameron Highlanders when, going along the shores of Loch Ness, a disturbance was spotted. They all piled out of the truck and, armed with their spying binoculars, they watched "the beast" for a full twenty minutes. When Hamish [MacDougall] as a little lad was not behaving to Granny's [Annie MacDonald nee Galbraith's] liking, she would threaten "I will throw you to the salamander" – her name for "the monster" [emphasis mine].  Between this and the Alexander MacDonald account of 1802 cited above, we have proof that for a period of at least 112 years, the local name given to "the monster" in Loch Ness was the salamander, or the great salamander.)

I quote these accounts at this point to invoke the cryptozoological term "ethnoknown".  Put simply it means, local people know and realize what animals they have around them, and have a working knowledge that often proves superior to the "informed" opinions of outsiders.  One must live in an environment to understand it.  It strikes me as critically suggestive that during the 19th century and into the early 20th, a period relatively free from mythological and medieval influences on the one hand, but also free of the upcoming journalistic, pseudo-scientific, and Hollywood-borne influences on the other, that local inhabitants were interpreting the animal they lived with in the Loch as "the great salamander".  Not a water horse nor dragon, nor a plesiosaur, and certainly not Godzilla.  The people living around Loch Ness who encountered this mysterious animal during this arguably less-biased period were comparing what they saw to the fauna they already knew, and they saw it for what it was: a very large salamander.  In earlier times witnesses were surely more apt to jump to the conclusion they'd seen a manifestation of the devil, and in later times a Jurassic marine reptile.  But in this post-rationalistic age, this window of time before the animal in the Loch had any 20th century expectations to conform with, eyes were open and common sense may have just prevailed.  People weren't labeling it a salamander without reason.  The simplest reason being, that's exactly what they were seeing.

All this seems to have made perfectly good sense to William Horsburgh Lane, who retired along with his wife Agnes to Invermoriston to lead a quiet life by the shores of Loch Ness.  Lieutenant Colonel Lane had lead an adventurous life, soldiering in the Far East with the Indian army, and then pursuing his life-long interest in archaeology.  But earlier in his life, while fishing in Burma about 1901, Lane had run into none other than Andrias davidianus, the Chinese Giant Salamander which grows to lengths of six (perhaps even eight) feet.  With that interesting encounter in his past, and then finding himself living beside Loch Ness, Lane took up a keen interest in the local rumor, and was sure he knew the answer: the local monster must be a relative of the creature he remembered from Burma.  In a 1933 letter to the Inverness Courier, William Lane became the first to espouse the giant salamander theory in print, and went on to write the very first book published on the subject of Nessie, The Home of the Loch Ness Monster (Moray Press, March 1934).  Respected naturalist Rupert T. Gould (The Loch Ness Monster and Others, summer 1934) and biologist Roy Mackal (1976) were at least temporary proponents of a giant amphibian theory, but otherwise the idea has languished, largely perhaps as a consequence of the Surgeon's Photo, which was taken after Lane published, and shortly before Gould's book went to press.  There is however no account of Lane ever wavering in his theory.  Like Alexander MacDonald, we may presume William Lane was also still thinking in terms of "the great salamander" when his life ended.  Fortuitously he had his own sighting just a year before his death, and in so far as we know the large black hump he witnessed didn't cause him to change his mind.

Morphology is the study of the gross structure of an organism and the details of its outward appearance (size, shape, measurements, color).  Below is my "working" morphology of the Loch Ness Giant Salamander, an attempt to pin down what a specimen would look like if we could lift it out of the water and examine it.  This is compatible with my interpretation of the two animals in the Gray Photo, but not limited by it.  (Size, for example, cannot be reliably measured from the Gray Photo until we work out what the field of view was before the print was cropped.)  The degree to which my model is compatible with other lines of evidence, or incompatible with the conclusions of other researchers, will no doubt raise some points for discussion, but none more so than the absence of the classically interpreted long neck.  A long, plesiosaur-like head and neck arrangement on any species of Amphibia, any salamander current or extinct, would be a startling and unlikely anomaly.  And if the Gray Photo with its short-necked and large, almost eel-like headed creatures is accepted into evidence, then we must resolve this new morphology with the views of the past.

Click on diagram for larger image

Here for comparison is a juvenile specimen of the Chinese Giant Salamander, Andrias davidianus, which may still prove to be the nearest living cousin of the Loch Ness Giant Salamander.  I've chosen a juvenile to better illustrate how fin-like the posterior appendages may appear, in contrast to the anterior appendages which have already developed into webbed feet in this example.  The rear appendages will later become webbed feet, by which time the front feet will have lost their webbing.  Eventually in the adult davidianus the rear feet will also lose their webbing, and all digits will be quite well differentiated.  Cases of more fin-like or flipper-like appendages reported for Nessie may also represent younger specimens going through these transitions, or they may equally as well represent the permanent retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood (see neoteny).
Juvenile Andrias davidianus

Before dealing with the human viewpoint and the previously proposed long-necked morphologies, let's have a look back at the evidence on which those viewpoints were based.  The three lines of evidence that can give us structural details or help to infer morphology are eyewitness accounts (from surface and land sightings), photographic evidence, and to a much lesser extent sonar readings.  I shall tackle these in reverse order, to get the smallest out of the way first and save the largest category for last.

What Sonar Has Told Us About Morphology

Unfortunately sonar images do not provided morphological detail beyond approximate size (and not always that, depending on the type of sonar).  When size is reported for sonar contacts, the estimates never seem larger than 20 feet (with a 50 foot exception recorded in 1954; see Nicholas Witchell, The Loch Ness Story, Penguin edition, 1975, pages 80-81).  Significant sonar echoes might also be returned by Atlantic sturgeon or Wels catfish, distractor species that might also be occasionally present in the Loch, but these would not normally exceed 15 feet, leading us to believe our larger contacts must be with an unidentified species.

Sonar can also give us speed, direction and depth of an animal, implying anatomical and behavioral traits which help construct an image to some minor extent.  For example, it tells us the body plan must be that of a powerful swimmer.  Time and location of contacts may tell us something of behavior as well, such as diving profiles telling us we're dealing with a benthic, water-breathing animal (see Roy Mackal, The Monsters of Loch Ness, page 126).  This may not seem like much, but it's actually invaluable to the conclusion we're dealing with an unknown species in the first place, and the type of animal it must be.

Despite the maximum size of 20 feet so far detected by sonar, I have elected to go with 25 feet for my "typical" specimen in the preceding drawing.  In any event, changing the scale would be the easiest correction to make if future evidence so warrants.  There are two reasons to predict a slightly larger size.  One is that eye witness testimony over all these years includes larger specimens, even up to or exceeding 60 feet.  I would throw out these largest estimates on general principles, suggesting as others before me that these are cases of misidentification of the Loch's well-documented and occasionally remarkable wave forms.  This brings us down to the many estimates of 30 feet or smaller as representative of the largest reported size.  And I would further reduce that, taking into account how difficult it is to estimate the scale of something seen far out in the water, with no adjacent reference points; if anything, the adrenaline or preconceptions of the viewers seem more likely to cause observational errors on the "plus" side, rather than the "minus" side.

But I also hesitate to take the 20 foot sonar readings as indicative of the largest size for the following reasons.  Sonar reflections are highly dependent on the density of the object.  Giant salamanders have a low bone density; reduced ossification is a characteristic part of the adaptation from terrestrial salamanders to aquatic forms.  This is not only true of our three current, recognized species of giant salamanders in Asia and North America.  The post-cranial remains of the aquatic Labyrinthdonts show an evolutionary  progression towards increasingly cartilaginous skeletons before fading out of the fossil record (a subject to which I'll be returning, and for very good reason, in a later article on the taxonomy of our beastie).  What this comes down to is that there are good reasons to suspect the Loch Ness Giant Salamander has a relatively low bone density, and would therefore return sonar contacts that could lead to an underestimation of its actual size.  If the calcification is even lower in juveniles, one could even wonder if these smaller, younger specimens might be invisible to sonar.

So between 30 foot eye witness sightings and 20 foot sonar contacts, I am parsimoniously confident to award our virtual type specimen, a typical adult, a size (or we should say length) of 25 feet.

What Photographs Have Told Us About Morphology

Studying the external form of an animal only requires a pair of eyes, but of course captured images that can be studied and measured at leisure would be the most helpful thing to have.  Unfortunately useful photographic images of our beastie are few and far between.  Here I'm narrowing the definition of useful to any image that gives us a clue to the structural morphology of Nessie, and for which the case of it being a hoax or mistake cannot be definitively proven.  As liberal as this may sound, just these two criterion serve to eliminate almost all candidates:  a photo (or webcam video) of a hump, blob, or wake tells us nothing we don't already know, regardless of authenticity.  I also include the Tim Dinsdale film in this category, as even if it's not a boat it doesn't show us structure.  As to the second category of unheplful material, examples include the Sheils photos, the recent Edward's hoax, and the tremendously "over-enhanced" Rines flipper pictures which aren't showing us parts of any living creature at all.

Some of the more famously (or infamously) useless photos:

From left to right: (1) a puppet (2) a recycled, wooden film prop being towed by a tour boat (3) a famous photo of the loch bottom before the flipper got hand-painted over it (4) a famous tree stump on the bottom of Loch Ness, which was still in the same spot and photographed again years after this picture was taken.

This leaves, in my estimate, only three photos that can be taken as useful, or possibly useful.  I've devoted two previous articles to the Gray Photo, and direct you to those for my reasons to believe the photo is not only authentic, but shows us the upper portions of two giant salamanders of unrecognized species.  Unfortunately the Gray Photo lacks reference points to give us scale.  On the other hand, the Peter MacNab photo, which gives us reference points and scale, only shows us two moving humps.  For many years the MacNab photo was thought to be inadmissible as evidence because there appeared to be two conflicting versions of the photo.  Roland Watson has resolved this matter with a proof that the two versions are actually one and the same photo, and you may read about that here.   And lastly we come to the much maligned Surgeon's photo, although purported to be a hoax (Nessie - The Surgeon's Photograph Exposed, by David Martin and Alastair Boyd, Herts., U.K., 1999).  If one wishes to accept it as genuine (and I don't consider the case quite closed on this matter) it also lacks reference points to give us scale.  It also undermines the working morphology I've established so far, or at least it would seem to.  And what of the second photo Dr. Wilson took?  The temptation here is to throw out these two Wilson pictures, but one should never be too hasty to throw out data that doesn't fit one's model.  What doesn't fit might actually be trying to tell us something.  So I have chosen to keep the Wilson photos under consideration, and let's see where that leads.

So what then do these few photos tell us about structural morphology?

Useful, or possibly useful photos:

From left to right: (1) the Gray Photo (2) the MacNab Photo (3) detail of the 1st Wilson Photo (4) the 2nd Wilson Photo

The Gray Photo is the most useful piece of evidence we have.  We see the overall shape of the upper portions of the animal, evidence for the number of appendages and their locations as well as the important clue that the anterior appendages are actually limbs, the shape of the head and mouth (on the further of the two animals), and the horizontal flexture of the powerful tail along with a look at a fairly prominent caudal fin that runs forward from a point about a third of the tail's length, starting from the tip, to slightly up the rear of the dorsal hump.  Also of great importance, it gives us the lateral proportions of the animal.  As a percentage of overall length we have: 16% head-neck, 50% body, and 34% tail.  This is in major contrast to the traditionally assumed proportions of 33.3% head-neck, 33.3% body, and 33.3% tail.  And I am about to make much of the "co-incidence" that the actual tail is the same proportion of the total animal as the traditional head-neck region was supposed to be: any authentic sighting or photograph of Nessie in which a long neck was spotted must have included a misidentification of the tail as the neck.

Accepting that the right hand portion of the Heron-Allen print of the Gray Photo shows a large head on a short neck (see Watson's article), then every case of a witness reporting a long thin neck had to be a misidentification of the tail (if what they saw was the same species as in the Gray Photo).  It would be highly imprudent to postulate two separate species of large unidentified animals in Loch Ness, or to postulate extreme variability in neck anatomy from specimen to specimen, when all we need to account for such sightings is that the Loch Ness Giant Salamander occasionally lifts its tail above water..  And exactly such a tail is the clearest element in the Gray Photo.  I'll return to this dilemma later.

We can take from the MacNab photo one of two conclusions: we have a single, two-humped specimen an incredible 50 feet long, or we have two single-humped specimens, one with a 30 foot dorsal line followed by a smaller animal showing a length of about 12 feet.  Personally I would favor the two-specimen interpretation, and the supporting evidence to this might be that the two humps seem to be on slightly different axis in the full size image.  Even so, the visible 30 feet of the longer object would mean something even bigger than my virtual type specimen.  But the normal variability within a species would still allow for an occasional member to exceed the mean size, which if 25 feet might make a specimen a little over 30 feet (20% above average) not totally implausible.

Last among the photos relevant to the problem of morphology, we come to the two pictures taken successively by Dr. Kenneth Wilson in April 1934, the first of which has become known as the "Surgeon's Photo".  It remains the most popular Nessie icon in the world, despite having been labeled a hoax since 1994 (Nessie - The Surgeon's Photograph Exposed, by David Martin and Alastair Boyd, Herts., U.K., 1999).

What's problematic for this article is any chance the Wilson pictures might still prove genuine, as at face value the Surgeon's Photo (1st Wilson photo, above) depicts what has been accepted by many as a long, plesiosaur-like head and neck.  That Wilson's photos might still be vindicated is a possibility, as the key witness for the expose that debunks Wilson's first photo (Christian Spurling, stepson of Marmaduke Wetherell) actually seems to have been unaware of the existence of Wilson's second picture (2nd Wilson photo, above), a glaring omission by someone claiming to have been in on the alleged hoax from beginning to end.  So rather than dismissing the Surgeon's Photo, I've chosen to tackle it head on (no pun intended), as if it does show a live animal in Loch Ness.

For those who long accepted the Surgeon's Photo to be a genuine picture of Nessie, the standard interpretation was almost universally agreed upon: this was the head, held horizontally, atop a long  serpentine or swan-like neck that appears to meet a thicker body before entering the water.  There is some disturbance in the water behind the neck, but no hump.  Perhaps the animal is stretched out vertically with the neck above water.  But isn't it equally possible then that Nessie is stretched out vertically, head down, tail above water with the tip curling down?  Unfortunately the angle of the sun at the time this image was made gives us only a black silhouette to study.  All details within the borders of the silhouette are blank, awaiting completion by the imagination of the viewer.  Tim Dinsdale (Loch Ness Monster, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1961) took the picture to be genuine, and thought it couldn't be a carved model because of details he saw in the photo that a hoaxer wouldn't have had the foresight to include.

A rather curious detail that first perplexed me when I was analyzing this photo many years ago is the apparent pinching in the neck that starts about halfway up.  At the time I took this uneven diameter to be the sign of a possible mane lying flat, but this constriction occurs on both the dorsal and ventral sides, which seems inconsistent with a mane.  This sudden narrowing of the "neck" is even more evident in a negative image of the photo (I've indicated the spot where it starts with red arrows in the first three panels below).  Years ago I gave up trying to understand this artifact in the photo.  Earlier this year I had prepared a drawing based on a giant salamander for use in this article (you'll see these illustrations a bit further on) and had need of turning the finished product into a silhouette to use as an insert.  Imagine my own surprise when I black-filled the picture, rotated the tail into an upright position, and spotted pinching in the same area of the "neck" as in the Surgeon's Photo.  How had I unintentionally created the same effect?  The answer lies in that the perceived pinching in my drawing is an illusion.  It's not that the tail object has any constriction in it (look at the fourth panel), it's that the caudal fins I depicted hanging on either side, when viewed in silhouette, cause a sudden widening on the object that fools the eye when other detail is lacking (see panel five).  Now I hasten to add, quite strongly, this proves nothing whatsoever about Wilson's first photo.  It should be obvious that proof about a photo cannot be drawn from any illustration that coincidentally resembles the photo.  The only thing unequivocal is that a coincidence has occurred.  That coincidence being, the object in Wilson's first photo has a detail consistent with the raised tail of a salamander bearing dorsal and ventral caudal fins.  It's certainly a hard detail to explain in a hand-carved plesiosaur neck.  It's not impossible to explain, perhaps the hoaxer got carried away with his sandpaper, but it certainly is a curious matter besides the rest of this business.  At any rate, I'm satisfied the Wilson photos pose no danger to my working morphology, and could even strengthen the case if anyone overturns Christian Spurling's story. 

Click for larger image

If the object had been moving at any significant speed this would contraindicate the tail being above water, as we can presume the animal can't make great speed without use of the tail.  According to Nicholas Witchell, who obtained his information through Wilson's widow and the rare privilege of viewing Wilson's own letters about the incident, he reported it took him two minutes to take the photos (he had to change plates multiple times), during which the object "moved a little and submerged" (The Loch Ness Story, revised edition, Penguin Books, 1975, pages 44-45).  Note there is no wake in either Wilson photo, and nothing to indicate significant motion as well.  Wilson also reported having to run 50 yards and back to obtain his camera from the time the object surfaced; from that we can estimate that the object was above water for about 5 minutes, during which neither Wilson nor his companion apparently saw any significant movement to report.  But yet there is some movement.  In the 2nd Wilson photo, taken approximately 30 seconds later according to Witchell's findings, the object has submerged by approximately two-thirds of what was visible in the first picture; the angle at which the object enters the water is noticeably lessened, yet the "head" is still horizontal to the waterline (was the model hinged?).  And most importantly, the profile of the knob at the tip has changed; a skull is fairly unlikely to change its proportions in 30 seconds, but the flopping tip of a tail is extremely likely to take on other dimensions as the tail moves to a lower angle.

There is nothing in Wilson's photos or sighting account to preclude the object above water being the tail rather than the neck and head of an aquatic animal.  In fact a tail, especially one with a pair of caudal fins, makes for a much better explanation of the object that occurs in both photographs.  Nor is it suspicious that the animal (if the photo is genuine) held its pose for five minutes; the known giant salamanders are ambush rather than pursuit predators, and will hold quite still waiting for nearby prey to pass within snapping range.  If this is an instance of feeding behavior, doesn't it make far, far more sense for the head to be below water than above?

Having exhausted anything sonar and photos can tell us about the structure of the Loch Ness Giant Salamander, let us move on to eyewitness accounts.

(Click Here for Part 2 of this article,
"What Surface Sightings Have Told Us About Morphology")