Eel DNA has been discovered in Loch Ness. Here’s why that might be a clue

One of the most famous and beloved cryptids in all the world is Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster. Reports describe a large, long-necked beast like a plesiosaur, yet Nessie has remained curiously elusive to scientific searches. Multiple sonar scans of the loch have come up blank.

But there’s more than one way to skin a monster, and an international team of scientists led by the University of Otago in New Zealand has just revealed the first results from a DNA analysis of the waters of Loch Ness.

There was – and this may or may not be a surprise, depending on your feelings about the Loch Ness Monster – absolutely no evidence of any Jurassic-era animal DNA, including plesiosaurs, in any of the samples tested.

Nor did they find shark DNA, or catfish DNA – two other theories for Nessie’s identity that have emerged in recent years.

But that doesn’t mean the search was fruitless. There was one other theory floated very early on (as early as after the first reported sighting in 1933, in fact) that the beast may be a giant eel. This was later dismissed, but the team’s research shows that the idea – if not the eel itself – has legs after all.

“We find a large amount of eel DNA. Eels are very plentiful in Loch Ness, with eel DNA found at pretty much every location sampled – there are a lot of them,” the researchers wrote on the project’s website.

“Researchers had earlier suggested that a giant eel might explain some sightings. That idea then lost popularity as theories about extinct reptiles became more common. But there have been ongoing reports of very large eels by a number of witnesses.”

Specifically, the DNA is from European eels (Anguilla anguilla), which does present another problem. As far as biologists know, these fish don’t grow any larger than about 1.5 metres (4 feet, 11 inches). To be consistent with Nessie reports, an eel would have to be quite a bit bigger.

The data doesn’t reveal the size of the eels shedding their DNA into the loch, but the whole idea is not without precedent. Another strange beast sighted in a highland loch could have been an eel.

In 1865, a huge “sea serpent” was reported in a loch in Leurbost, eel-like in appearance – leading to the conclusion that it was, probably, an eel.

More research will need to be undertaken to understand how an eel fits in with Monster sightings, if it does at all, but the team’s findings revealed more about the loch than just ruling out Nessie candidates.

They have so far found quite a few species in and around the loch, most of which are known to be resident. The team identified the DNA of 11 species of fish, 3 amphibians, 22 birds, and 19 mammals.

“One of the more intriguing findings was the large amount of DNA from land-based species in the Loch system,” the researchers wrote.

“These included high levels of DNA from humans and a variety of species associated with us, such as dogs, sheep and cattle. We also detected wild species local to the area e.g. deer, badgers, foxes, rabbits, voles and multiple bird species. These findings show eDNA surveys of major waterways may be useful for rapidly surveying the biological diversity at a regional level.”

And there were other surprises, too. A lot of previously unknown microbial diversity was revealed in the DNA – including a microbe that usually lives in saltwater. There are still thousands of microbe species detected in the samples that have not yet been identified, so that work continues.

It’s not the first time cryptid DNA research has turned up fascinating, if unexpected results. One time, DNA testing of hair samples said to have come from Bigfoot, yetis and other “anomalous primates” turned out to be nothing of the sort, but the research did turn up a tuft of fur from an extinct Palaeolithic bear.

And, just as that research didn’t rule out the existence of Bigfoot, there is still a ray of hope for all you Nessie fans.

“Loch Ness is vast and given that eDNA signals in water dissipate quickly, lasting days to weeks at most, there remains the possibility that there is something present that we did not detect because we sampled in the wrong places at the wrong time, or our metabarcoding method could not detect ‘Nessie’ because the sequence could not be matched with anything in the sequence databases,” the researchers wrote.

“Our investigation, like every investigation before it, has no definitive proof of the monster. Proving something does not exist is pretty much impossible. We do however have a further theory to test, that of the giant eel, and it may be worth exploring this in more detail.”

A paper detailing the team’s findings is coming soon.

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