It was a science story made for the headlines: a monster, more than a thousand years of mystery and maybe, finally, an answer.
“I am unashamedly using the monster as a way to attract interest so I can talk about the science I want to talk about,” the geneticist and professor at New Zealand’s University of Otago told The Washington Post after a hectic day of dozens of media interviews.
More than a thousand Loch Ness Monster encounters are recorded in an official “Sightings Register.” The reports go back as far as 565 A.D., when an Irish saint is said to have saved a man from being attacked by a river monster.
Rumors intensified in the 1930s, when a road opened near the Scottish loch and when a reference to a “Loch Ness Monster” appeared in the Inverness Courier. One man swore he saw a 25-foot-long, four-foot-high creature without limbs cross the road in front of him and his wife. Some monster sightings were debunked — a famous 1934 photo published in the Daily Mail turned out to be a hoax, staged with a model head attached to a toy submarine — but interest in the legend persisted.
In fact, after Gemmell’s announcement landed, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he “yearns to believe” in the Loch Ness Monster, according to PA Media, which reported Friday:
The Prime Minister said he had wanted the mythical creature to be real when he was child, adding “part of me still does.”
Trying to explain the repeated reports of a giant sea creature, some theorized that the loch was home to a Jurassic-era reptile and pointed to a giant extinct animal called a plesiosaur. Others speculated about a huge fish, swimming circus elephants or just floating branches.
Gemmell and his colleagues say they can use science to rule out some of the ideas after analyzing DNA in 250 water samples from Loch Ness.
The DNA allowed them to build a detailed picture of the creatures living in what Gemmell called “the world’s most famous body of water,” down to tiny bacteria. They found no evidence that the lake harbors a prehistoric reptile, and no DNA from sharks, catfish or sturgeons, some of the other animals put forth to explain the myth.
There was a lot of genetic material from eels, however.
“The remaining theory that we cannot refute based on the environmental DNA data obtained is that what people are seeing is a very large eel,” the team wrote on its website explaining the findings.
It’s still unclear, the scientists said, whether the loch contains an eel big enough to account for descriptions of a monster. Some researchers have raised the eel theory before, and people have reported seeing large eels in Loch Ness. A video shot in 2007 captures a four-meter marine animal on the loch’s surface that could have been an eel, Gemmell’s team says, although they acknowledge that such a large specimen would be unusual.
Not everyone is impressed with their findings. Steve Feltham, who holds the Guinness Book of Records’ distinction for longest continuous Loch Ness monster hunt, told the BBC that the idea of eels living in the loch was no revelation. Other animals have yet to be ruled out, he added.
“A 12-year-old boy could tell you there are eels in Loch Ness,” Feltham said. “I caught eels in the loch when I was a 12-year-old boy.”
Young eels migrate thousands of miles to Scottish rivers and lochs — lakes or sea inlets — from waters near the Bahamas, the BBC reported. The creatures spend much of their lives in freshwater before returning to the ocean to lay eggs, scientists say.
Confronted at a news conference with the fact that the heaviest recorded European eel ever caught clocked in at 5.38 kilograms (almost 12 pounds), Gemmell admitted, “It doesn’t sound like a monster, does it?”
“But based on the evidence we’ve accumulated, we can’t exclude it as a possibility,” he said, according to the Guardian.
Gemmell is not sure he will be involved in any further investigation to back up the eel hypothesis. He said he’s achieved what he wanted with a project that’s captured the public imagination like no other study he’s published. Last year, he said, the scientists’ work at Loch Ness generated about 3,000 media stories within a few weeks — before they had made a single finding.
At first, Gemmell said, he worried that an exhaustive investigation into Loch Ness was silly.
But then he talked to his 9-year-old son, who told his friends, who thought the project sounded awesome. After seeing the children’s fascination, Gemmell realized that taking a serious scientific look at the famous loch could stir up public interest in techniques to track biodiversity.
Gemmell’s team took advantage of “environmental DNA,” the genetic material that creatures leave in their surroundings. This “eDNA” lets scientists learn about habitats without disrupting them and harming the animals they’re trying to study, Gemmell’s team explains on its website.
The strategy will “make a real difference in how we monitor and protect the world’s increasingly fragile ecosystems,” they write.
A Travel Channel documentary on the team’s work airing in Britain and the United States later this month will bring the project to an even broader audience.
“Loch Ness attracts people in a way that few other things ever could,” Gemmell said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested eels that migrate to Scottish bodies of water lay eggs there, when in fact they return to the ocean to do so.