LONDON — Millions of years before the first (alleged) sighting of the Loch Ness Monster, populations of giant reptiles swam through Jurassic seas in what is now Britain. Known as plesiosaurs, these long-necked creatures were thought to live exclusively in oceans.
But a discovery published last week by researchers in the UK and Morocco reinforced a hypothesis long held by some Loch Ness Monster enthusiasts: that plesiosaurs lived not only in oceans but also in freshwater. This could mean, they thought excitedly, that Nessie, sometimes described as very much like a plesiosaur, might actually live in Loch Ness, a freshwater lake.
Local newspapers celebrated the find. It “appreciates the idea that Nessie could survive and even thrive in Loch Ness,” according to an article on page 32 of the Inverness Courrier, a biweekly newspaper in the Scottish Highlands. “Loch Ness Monster Bomb,” blared a headline in the British tabloid Daily Express. “The existence of the Loch Ness monster is ‘plausible’” ran the headlines in The Scotsman, The Telegraph and elsewhere, echoing a phrase from the University of Bath’s announcement of the results of the study.
This isn’t the first study to find that plesiosaurs lived in freshwater. “This new study simply provides additional evidence for certain members of this group living in freshwater,” said Dean Lomax, paleontologist and visiting scientist at the University of Manchester. “We’ve always known that.”
But Nick Longrich, the study’s lead author, said his team had one of the strongest reasons why because they found fossils of 12 plesiosaurs, evidence that it wasn’t just one plesiosaur that migrated to freshwater and then died there .
“As more plesiosaur fossils are discovered in freshwater environments, this will broaden the picture to explain why plesiosaurs might be showing up in freshwater environments around the world,” said Georgina Bunker, a graduate student who was a co-author of the paper.
dr Longrich, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Bath, said it was “completely unexpected” to find the fossil of a plesiosaur that lived in a 100-million-year-old freshwater river system that is now the Sahara.
During a research trip to Morocco, he was searching a box in the back room of a shop when he discovered a “kind of chunky” bone, which turned out to be the arm of a five-foot-long baby plesiosaur. dr Longrich paid the cashier no more than 200 Moroccan dirhams, or about $20, after bargaining to lower the price, and took the fossils back to the UK for further study.
“When we started looking, the plesiosaur started showing up everywhere,” he said. “It reminds you that there’s a lot we don’t know.” (The fossils will be returned to museums in Morocco at a later date, he said.)
When news of the study hit the headlines last week, some Nessie fans were hopeful. George Edwards, who for years skippered a Loch Ness tourist boat called Nessie Hunter, said the new study shows him how creatures can adapt to survive in new environments – and that the world is full of mysteries. Take the coelacanth, a bony fish thought to have been extinct millions of years ago but found on a fishing trawler by a South African museum curator in 1938. “Behold, they have found her, alive and well,” said Mr. Edwards. “Everything is possible.”
Mr Edwards said he’s seen inexplicable creatures in Loch Ness many times: “There must be a family of them.” From what he’s seen, the creatures have a large arched back, no fins and are somewhat reminiscent of a plesiosaur .
But there’s one detail that some Nessie lovers may have missed as they welcomed the plausibility of Nessie’s existence: plesiosaurs became extinct at the same time as dinosaurs, around 66 million years ago. Loch Ness only formed about 10,000 years ago, before that it was ice.
Valentin Fischer, associate professor of paleontology at the University of Liège in Belgium, said that it was currently impossible for a marine reptile like the plesiosaur to live in Loch Ness.
The first documented sighting of Nessie dates back to the 6th century AD when the Irish monk St. Columba is said to have cast a creature into the water. But world interest was revived in the 20th century after a British surgeon, Col. Robert Wilson, took the most famous photograph of the Loch Ness Monster in 1934. Sixty years later, the photo turned out to be a hoax.
Steve Feltham, a full-time monster hunter who has lived on the shores of Loch Ness for three decades, said the British-Moroccan study is interesting but irrelevant to his quest. Since it became clear that the famous photo of Nessie from 1934 was fake, he has stopped believing that Nessie was a plesiosaur. Plesiosaurs have to come up for air, so he thinks he saw it during the 12 hours a day he scans the lake. Instead, he scans the water for giant fish that look like an upside down boat.
“I can hardly imagine a true Nessie hunter still believing in the plesiosaur,” he said. “The hunt has evolved from that.”