An international team of scientists plans to dredge Scotland’s Loch Ness — seeking not the mythical monster, as so many have done before, but its DNA footprint.
Don’t get your hopes up. Even the project’s leader, Neil Gemmell of New Zealand’s Otago University, doubts that the Loch Ness monster actually exists. The evolutionary genetics professor has been quite candid that he’s using the legend to attract interest in a study of the lake’s biodiversity.
That said, if the team does come across the genetic sequence of some immortal dinosaur or a behemoth previously unknown to science, it has promised to let us know.
“You can’t help but wonder, when so many swear black and blue that they saw these things, that there might be a biological basis for them,” Gemmell said.
His will hardly be the first attempt to apply science to the mystery of the Loch Ness monster — though the project differs from others because it promises to find something, even if it’s the DNA of fish and bacteria.
The monster’s legend dates back nearly 2,000 years, to a northern Scottish tribe that carved images of a strange, flippered beast into its artwork.
A Christian missionary, St. Columba, claimed to have seen the monster in Loch Ness in the 6th century, PBS said. It was about to attack a swimmer, so the saint reportedly commanded it to retreat in God’s name. The monster complied.
The myth became a sensation after a new road was built along the lake shore in the 1930s, PBS wrote, and locals began to report a massive something splashing around.
The London Daily Mail hired a hunter to track down the monster, PBS wrote. He returned with incredible stories of the beast and plaster castings of its four-toed footprints — which were revealed to belong to a hippopotamus.
And yet the next year, in 1934, the Daily Mail published what would become the iconic photo of the Loch Ness monster — a giraffe-like neck rising out of the water in silhouette. “It was revealed 60 years later to have been a hoax,” Reuters wrote, but the image has inspired many to seek out the beast.
Gemmell’s project, in a sense, can’t fail. He’ll be joined by researchers from Scotland, Europe and the United States. The team plans to sail the loch, collecting water samples, which should be full of DNA fragments from whatever lives there. They’ll do the same thing at two nearby lakes, as control groups, and then analyze the DNA to see what sort of oddities really live in Loch Ness. “He predicts they will document new species of life,” Reuters wrote, “particularly bacteria.”
But the professor said he’ll be on the lookout for strange DNA sequences and thinks his team would even be able to tell if they scoop up DNA of a plesiosaur — the extinct sea creature that some believers think is the Loch Ness monster. But Gemmell noted that the loch would have iced over several times in the 50 million years since plesiosaurs went extinct.
But he’s open to anything, and his team plans to present its findings in 2019. “The world has waited more than a thousand years for an answer,” as the project said. “It’s only months away.”