Scientists Find Significant Amount of Eel DNA in Loch Ness

An international team of researchers has announced the results of investigations into the environmental DNA (eDNA) present in Loch Ness, a large freshwater lake best known for sightings of the long-necked ‘monster.’

Hoaxed photo of the Loch Ness ‘monster’ from April 21, 1934.

Hoaxed photo of the Loch Ness ‘monster’ from April 21, 1934.

“People love a mystery, we’ve used science to add another chapter to Loch Ness’ mystique,” said team leader Professor Neil Gemmell, a researcher with the University of Otago.

Professor Gemmell and his colleagues from the Loch Ness Centre, the Loch Ness Project, the University of Otago, the University of Copenhagen, the University of Highlands and Islands, the University of Hull, and the University of Bangor collected 250 samples of water from various spots in Loch Ness.

eDNA from each sample was captured, extracted and sequenced then compared against genome databases to reveal a comprehensive picture of life present in the lake, examining the bacteria, the fish, and everything else in between.

“Most species are so small you can barely see them but there are a few that are larger and of course the question we’re all asking is — is there anything big enough to explain the sorts of observations people have made over the years that have led to this myth or this legend of a monster or creature in Loch Ness?” Professor Gemmell said.

“With over a thousand reported sightings dating back to the 6th century, of all the ideas for what people have seen in the water, one of the more common, and outrageous, is there might be a Jurassic-age reptile or population of Jurassic-age reptiles such as a plesiosaur present in Loch Ness.”

“We can’t find any evidence of a creature that’s remotely related to that in our eDNA sequence data. So, sorry, I don’t think the plesiosaur idea holds up based on the data that we have obtained.

The scientist tested other predominant theories of various giant fish: whether it be a giant catfish or a giant sturgeon, an eel, or even a shark such as a Greenland shark.

“So there’s no shark DNA in Loch Ness based on our sampling. There is also no catfish DNA in Loch Ness based on our sampling. We can’t find any evidence of sturgeon either,” Professor Gemmell said.

Gemmell et al found a very significant amount of eel DNA in Loch Ness. Image credit: University of Otago.

Gemmell et al found a very significant amount of eel DNA in Loch Ness. Image credit: University of Otago.

The remaining theory that the team cannot refute based on the eDNA data obtained is that what people are seeing is a very large eel.

“There is a very significant amount of eel DNA,” Professor Gemmell said.

“Eels are very plentiful in Loch Ness, with eel DNA found at pretty much every location sampled — there are a lot of them. So — are they giant eels?”

“Well, our data doesn’t reveal their size, but the sheer quantity of the material says that we can’t discount the possibility that there may be giant eels in Loch Ness. Therefore we can’t discount the possibility that what people see and believe is the Loch Ness Monster might be a giant eel.”

“Further investigation is needed to confirm or refute the theory, so based on our data, giant eels remain a plausible idea,” he said.

“In 1933, researchers had also proposed that a giant eel might in fact be the explanation for some of the sightings made then. That idea then waned as notions of extinct reptiles became more prominent.”

“Other evidence such as the video shot by Gordon Holmes in 2007 which shows a 4-m torpedo-like shape seemingly swimming on the Loch’s surface support the hypothesis of a giant eel, large fish, or perhaps a marine mammal.”

“We also found substantial levels of DNA from humans and a variety of species directly associated with us such as dogs, sheep and cattle,” the researchers said.

“However, we also detected wild species local to the area such as deer, badgers, foxes, rabbits, voles and multiple bird species.”

“These findings indicate eDNA surveys of major waterways may be useful for rapidly surveying biological diversity at a regional level.”

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