Are scientists searching for the Loch Ness monster? That appeared to be the case when a group of scientists announced they’re scraping the famous loch in the Scottish Highlands for environmental DNA, or eDNA, to prove once and for all if the monster existed.
Helen Taylor, a University of Otago researcher who works for the scientist leading the Loch Ness project, explained in a 2017 blog post that the project is actually concerned with what eDNA can tell us about other life in Loch Ness. If Nessie, as the monster is often known, is real, then some of her mysterious DNA would be captured in the process. But mostly, tying the project to Nessie is good publicity.
“I was sceptical about my lab head joining the hunt for the Loch Ness monster, until I realised it was an excellent way to promote the amazing possibilities of environmental DNA,” she wrote on Sciblogs.
Taylor was absolutely right. The PR move has generated muchmorenewscoverage than an eDNA-gathering project would normally expect. And why not? Nessie has always been something that people use to draw attention—whether they’re promoting a fake photo of her or attracting 340,000 international tourists to come spend their money in Inverness, the city near the famous loch.
Modern interest in Nessie picked up in 1933 after the release of King Kong. The film featured several prehistoric dinosaurs, including a water-dwelling reptile with a long neck similar to the one Nessie supposedly has. Donald R. Prothero, co-author of Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, argues that early fake photos of Nessie were connected to the film’s popularity (The Simpsons made this connection, possibly unwittingly, in a 1999 episode where Mr. Burns captures Nessie à la King Kong).
Skeptics dismissed the first 1933 photo of Nessie as “a blurry mess,” according to the online Museum of Hoaxes. A second photo, however, wasn’t completely debunked until 1994, when a 90-year-old man who’d helped fake it said he and some other men had used a toy submarine embellished with a sea-serpent head.
And the stories only get weirder from there.
During World War II, “Italy’s Popolo D’Italia newspaper reported that the Loch Ness Monster had been killed by a direct bomb hit in a German air raid,” writesAlex Boese, curator of the Museum of Hoaxes. But “when J. MacFarlan-Barrow and his three children saw Nessie while boating on the Loch in August 1941, the Daily Mail made a point of noting that Nessie had survived the Nazi attempt on her life.”
Other Nessie photos appeared in the 1950s, and there were some more Nessie hoaxes in the ‘70s—including an April Fool’s Day prank that scientists had found Nessie’s body. There are still no verified sightings of Nessie, and there likely never will be, since scientists argue that a reptile of her size couldn’t survive in the small, chilly Loch Ness anyway.
Yet despite the mountain of evidence against her—soon to be added to by the eDNA project at Loch Ness—the urban legend of the Loch Ness monster continues.