Saturday, August 18, 2012

Loch Ness Mystery Solved?

When I was in grade school I resolved that I would read the entire science section of our local library. The material on crytozoology happened to come first in order according to the Dewey Decimal System, so that's what I started on. I did eventually make it through the whole section, but those first books sparked a lifelong interest in the romantic idea of uncovering previously unknown species based on eyewitness sightings. Back in the 1970's, the big cryptoids that showed up in the media were the Loch Ness Monster and the Sasquatch. Each had their respective pieces of evidence, with the "Surgeon's Photo" the most famous image from Loch Ness and the Patterson video the best footage of Sasquatch. In recent years the Surgeon's Photo has been exposed as a hoax, and while no direct evidence has been found proving that Patterson faked his footage a number of investigators now believe it to be a real possibility.

Back when I was younger I thought that the Loch Ness Monster was more likely to be real than Sasquatch, even with Patterson's video. The fact is that it simply is much easier for a large animal to hide underwater, particularly in a lake as deep and murky as Loch Ness, whereas so many people live on the west coast of the United States it struck me as hard to believe that nobody else was able to find anything besides footprints for decades after Patterson shot his famous film. Then a funny thing happened - scientists conducted a full sonar sweep of Loch Ness from end to end and found nothing, and I flew out to the west coast for the first time. Flying across the country on a clear night with a window seat brought to my attention just how enormous the unsettled areas of the Pacific Northwest really are. At the same time, scientists turned up a primate in the fossil record, Gigantopithecus, that bore a strong resemblance to reports of the Sasquatch. So my opinion changed, relegating the Loch Ness Monster's status to substantially less likely.

A couple of weeks back I posted a picture of the largest white sturgeon ever caught and noted that its relatives could very well be the explanation for lake monster sightings all over the world, including Loch Ness. This week a new photograph of the Loch Ness Monster taken by a man named George Edwards. The photograph, shown above with magnification, is much clearer than many previous pictures of the monster, and in my opinion pretty much confirms that I was right - the Loch Ness Monster is in fact a large sturgeon, and may have been one all along. Sturgeons spend most of their time on the bottom of lakes and river, so the sonar sweep could have missed it. Biologists examining the Loch also concluded that the fish population was not high enough to support a population of large predators, and in fact most sturgeons are bottom-feeders and would not be dependent upon such a population. Finally, take another look at Edwards' picture, and now take a look at this.

What you see here is Acipenser Sturio, the common or European sturgeon. It is the only native sturgeon found in the British Isles, and as you can see by comparing it with the white sturgeon in my earlier post its color is darker and the humped portion of its back is slightly more pronounced - just like the Edwards photo shows. Common sturgeons are not quite as large as white sturgeons, but they are known to grow to at least 11.5 feet, only about a foot shorter than my pictured 12.4 foot white sturgeon. While the image in the picture looks like it might be larger than that, image analysts have shown that our eyes often trick us into thinking faraway objects are larger than they actually are. This is especially true in photographs, where much of the three-dimensional reference information our brains usually process is lost.

So maybe this is the answer. The Loch Ness Monster exists, and it's a fish. Really, it pretty much had to be. The problem with the monster being a mammal or a serpent or a plesiosaur is that all of those animals breathe air and would have to surface often enough to produce much more regular sightings. A fish, on the other hand, has no need to do so and will surface only occasionally. As far as the sturgeon goes, it does happen to be the largest fish that's native to the British Isles. That means the whole mystery surrounding the monster is pretty much moot - it could have been resolved by as simple a heuristic as seeing something big in the water, and then looking up what the biggest possible fish could be living in that location.

Something tells me, though, that without any large primates roaming around North America, solving the mystery of the Sasquatch won't be nearly so straightforward.

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