Mythologies and lore, the unexplainable, have fascinated people for millennia. Some legends, particularly cryptids – Bigfoot, Yetis, Yowies – live on in the public imagination still, despite no concrete evidence that any or all have ever existed.
Next month, however, a team of international scientists are heading to the spot where perhaps the most famous mythic creature of all supposedly resides – Loch Ness, Scotland – to find out once and for all if there’s any truth behind the legend.
The team, led by the University of Otago’s Professor Neil Gemmel, will arrive next month to carry out cutting-edge DNA sampling of the loch’s water, using technology pioneered by the Human Genome Project, to find out what really lives beneath the waves.
Reported sightings of the legendary large aquatic marine reptile, affectionately known as Nessie, date back to the 6th century. Just a quick google will give you breathless interviews, blurry photos, and irrefutable "proof". But whether it’s a pre-historic monster, a rather large catfish, or a funny-looking log, no one has ever let the truth get in the way of a good story.
This research, however, is real. Environmental DNA sampling, or eDNA, is a relatively new technique that is helping us monitor and study creatures in their environments without disturbing or harming them. Recently, scientists using this technique discovered six species of sharks residing in Pacific waters they had no idea were there until they tested the DNA found in water samples.
By taking water samples from Loch Ness, the researchers will be able to establish what kind of organisms are living in the area. However, Professor Gemmel admitted if they did find DNA evidence of an extinct large marine reptile he would be very surprised.
Why search for Nessie if you're a scientist? Let Profesor Neil Gemmel explain.
“Large fish like catfish and sturgeons, have been suggested as possible explanations for the monster myth, and we can very much test that idea and others,” Gemmel explained.
“While the prospect of looking for evidence of the Loch Ness monster is the hook to this project, there is an extraordinary amount of new knowledge that we will gain from the work about organisms that inhabit Loch Ness.”
Gemmel does think they will discover a few surprises though. He predicts that not only will they be able to provide important information on several new species of invasive creatures recently spotted in the lake, they could even find new species of life that have been hiding away in the depths, never studied before.
The eDNA information and scientific process will be shared among researchers that range from New Zealand to the UK, the USA to Australia, including many pioneers in the burgeoning field.
“We have the opportunity through this project to demonstrate the scientific process: How hypotheses are established and tested, the need to replicate, use controls and account for observer bias using double-blind methodologies. These are all important parts of this story,” Gemmel said.
So, if Nessie is real, its days of hiding are numbered, and when the results are released next year, we’ll know once and for all. But perhaps, Nessie won't turn out to be the most surprising discovery after all.