Cryptozoology is a fantastic field of pseudoscience that allows us to debate the existence of bizarre beasts that are quite literally too good to be true. Among the most famous is the Loch Ness Monster, a slithery beast whose appearance in a few grainy photos over the years has raised eyebrows, and now gotten its own paper to explore the “eel hypothesis”. Who doesn’t love another twist in an already long, slippery tale?
The study explores the theory that Loch Ness Monster sightings might actually have been European eels should a particularly large, comparatively monstrous specimen of Anguilla anguilla have grown up in the loch. Could one girthy eel be enough to trick the eye into thinking you’d seen a mythical, loch-dwelling animal? Researchers took to eel stats to see if they could back up the theory.
The Loch Ness Monster’s size estimations range from around 1 to 2 meters (3.3 to 6.6 feet), based on the Surgeon’s Photograph, and 15 to 20 meters (49 to 66 feet), based on the Flipper Photograph. The authors note that estimations about Loch Ness’s biomass don’t really tie in with the larger of the two proposed sizes, and Carl Sagan’s work into collision physics could be translated to imply that if Nessie was on the smaller side, there might be several contained within the body of water.
“Thus, if there are any, there may be many,” wrote the authors. “If it’s real, could it be an eel?”
To find out, the researchers looked at catch data from Loch Ness to ascertain the number of eels and their average body sizes when they were pulled from the enormous body of water. It revealed that the distribution is skewed towards the smaller A. anguilla sizes, leading them to conclude that your chances of finding not just an eel, but a large one (minimum 1 meter) in the loch are about one in 50,000.
“However, this is not quite the ‘monster postulated,” explained the authors. “Indeed, the probability of finding a 6-meter [20-foot] eel in Loch Ness is essentially zero – too low for the software used to provide a reliable estimate.”
“Thus, while large eels may account for some eyewitness sightings of large, animate objects rising to the loch surface, they are unlikely to account for 'sightings' of extraordinarily large animals, which may instead be accounted for by wave phenomena, the occasional stray mammal, or other reasons.”
Pretty unlikely, then, but where did the eel hypothesis come from?
In the 1970s, a scientific slip-up led biologist Roy Mackal to conclude that massive eels might well exist in the loch after collecting a skewed sample from baited traps. It’s not a completely ridiculous leap when you consider the defining features of Nessie: a head sat atop a long, slender neck, extreme flexibility, a sect of pectoral fins, and dark coloration.
Mackal was also far from alone, as other naturalists suggested that mega-eels may migrate transiently to the loch from the River Ness. Meanwhile, a 2018 eDNA study found bucketloads of A. anguilla material, possibly pointing toward big, girthy eels.
But alas, if the study's findings endure, it seems this particular mystery can’t be pinned on “super” eels. Now, who’s going to tackle the possibility of a giant earthworm?
The study is published in JMIRx Bio.
An earlier version of this article (written when the study was a preprint) was published in January 2023.