Ups And Downs of the Loch Ness Monster eel

Anguilla anguilla - monster of the deep? (Bernard Dupont)

Ups And Downs of the Loch Ness Monster eel

Recent research by a data analyst has provided what must be one of the last nails to be driven into the Loch Ness Monster’s coffin.

One of the greatest mysteries in history, the fabled monster, has persisted for so long that only a few theories remain. One of the last of these was that the reported sightings were of one or more European eels (Anguilla anguilla), which had reached an extraordinary size in the 230-meter-deep loch.

Anguilla anguilla - monster of the deep? (Bernard Dupont)
Anguilla anguilla – monster of the deep? (Bernard Dupont)

When Marmaduke Wetherell, an actor, reported in the Daily Mail in 1934 that he had discovered footprints beside the loch, there had long been rumours of a monster in the freshwater lake in Scotland. These were shown to have been created using a hippo’s foot umbrella stand by a practical joker.

Wetherell and his son created a fake picture that they sold to the Mail for his friend and fellow surgeon Robert Kenneth Wilson in order to get retribution after being publically mocked by the newspaper. For more than 40 years, with multiple supporting reports of monster sightings, the infamous “surgeon’s photograph” was not exposed as a fake.

The classic “surgeon’s photograph” from 1934
The classic “surgeon’s photograph” from 1934

However, decades of scuba diving expeditions by underwater photographers and the use of submersibles, sonar surveys, hydrophones, long-lining, and trawling had only produced “ambiguous sonar signals, low-quality photographs, and unidentifiable sound recordings”, according to data analyst Floe Foxon of the Folk Zoology Society, who has undertaken the new study.

The 1970s saw the collection of European eels from the loch by scientist Roy Mackal, who concluded that huge specimens would be in line with eyewitness “monster” accounts of a black, very flexible creature with a lengthened head-neck and pectoral fins. According to physicist Carl Sagan, Loch Ness could support a colony of 300 10 m-long monsters.

Neil Gemmell hoped to dispel the myth in 2018 by conducting an environmental DNA study to create a database of every species in the loch. He discovered “extraordinary” amounts of eel DNA, raising the prospect of huge specimens lurking there. The Ness Fishery Board also captured footage of a large, eel-like animal in the River Ness.

20,000 eels examined

Foxon tested the “eel hypothesis” in a practical way by analyzing catch data from the loch and other European inland waters. His recently published study includes data on 20,000 eels, allowing him to assess the likelihood of anyone seeing a specimen matching previous estimates of the Loch Ness Monster’s size – which is generally thought to be around 6m.

Foxon discovered that the maximum length recorded for a European eel was 0.932m, leading him to conclude that the chances of encountering a 1m-long eel were about 1 in 50,000. He does, however, believe that the presence of eels of that size could explain some reported sightings of unidentified creatures.

One European eel reportedly lived to the age of 155, but it did not grow to a remarkable size during that time, because eel growth is “non-linear” and slows as it ages, according to Foxon. He estimates that the physiologically feasible maximum length for Anguilla anguilla is 1.3m, far short of “monster” status.

“The probability of finding a specimen upward of 6m is essentially zero”, says Foxon, pouring cold water on Nessie-fanciers’ dreams. “Therefore, eels probably do not account for sightings of larger animals.”

He estimates that there are probably 8,000 of eels in Loch Ness at any given time based on the research.

“In this new work from the Folk Zoology Society, a much-needed level of scientific rigour and data are brought to a topic that is otherwise as slippery as an eel,” comments Foxon. “Contrary to popular conception, the intersection between folklore and zoology is amenable to scientific analysis and has the potential to provide valuable insights into anthro-zoological phenomena.”

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