Environmental DNA Evidence Suggests the Loch Ness Monster Could Be a Giant Eel

Ariana Walls/iStock via Getty Images
Ariana Walls/iStock via Getty Images

Since the first supposed monster sighting at Loch Ness was recorded in the 6th century, people have been searching for logical explanations. Sturgeons, trees, and even elephant trunks have all been blamed, but scientists (and fans) haven't settled on a single culprit. As The Washington Post reports, one scientist from New Zealand claims he's finally discovered Nessie's true identity: She's not a prehistoric plesiosaur—she's an oversized eel.

That's the suggestion made by a recent environmental DNA project that analyzed the genetic material of every living thing in Loch Ness. In 2018, Neil Gemmell of the University of Otago and his team embarked on a mission to collect 250 water samples from various spot in Loch Ness in Scotland. This was harder than it sounds: The freshwater lake is 23 miles long and 788 feet deep. But the team succeeded in capturing a biological snapshot of the lake, with enough "eDNA"—the genetic material organisms leave behind in their environment—for 500 million sequences.

After comparing the sequenced DNA against global DNA databases of known organisms, the scientists didn't find anything to indicate the lake is hiding an unknown species, prehistoric or otherwise. The findings also ruled out Greenland sharks, catfish, and sturgeon as the stand-ins behind the Nessie sightings. (It's unclear if the study has been published or peer-reviewed.)

They did, however, find an unusually high amount of eel DNA in their samples. "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," a summary of the findings on the project's website reads. "Eels are very plentiful in Loch Ness, with eel DNA found at pretty much every location sampled—there are a lot of them."

Eels indigenous to the British Isles can grow to incredible lengths. Conger eels grow up to 10 feet or more, and in 2001, two 7-foot specimens were discovered on the shore of Loch Ness (though it's possible the saltwater species were planted there by someone looking to stir up monster-related press). When swimming near the surface, a large eel can possibly be mistaken for the backbone of an aquatic beast. The eDNA project didn't reveal whether the eels living in Loch Ness are gigantic or smaller in size.

Despite the new evidence, the research likely won't be enough to dissuade Nessie believers. The most famous photograph of Nessie has been proven to be fake, and there's a lot of science debunking the existence of a massive aquatic reptile hiding in Loch Ness. Nonetheless, multiple monster sightings are still reported each year.

[h/t The Washington Post]

Science Finds a Better Way to Calculate 'Dog Years'

thegoodphoto/iStock via Getty Images
thegoodphoto/iStock via Getty Images

Anyone who has ever owned a pet is likely familiar with the concept of “dog years,” which suggests that one year for a dog is like seven years for a human. Using this conversion metric, a 2-year-old dog is akin to a high school freshman, while a 10-year-old dog is ready for an assisted living facility.

If that seems rather arbitrary, that’s because it is. But now, researchers at the University of California, San Diego have come to a more data-based measurement on dog aging through DNA.

The paper, published on the preprint server bioRxiv, based the finding on DNA methylation, a process in which molecules called methyl groups attach themselves to DNA and serve as an indicator of aging. Generally speaking, the older living beings get, the faster the rate of methylation. In the study, 104 Labrador retrievers were examined, with subjects ranging from 1 month to 16 years old. The results of their DNA methylation were compared to human profiles. While the rate of methylation tracked closely between the two—young and old dogs had similar rates to young and old people—adolescent and mature dogs experienced more accelerated aging.

Their recommended formula for comparing dog and human aging? Multiply the natural logarithm of a dog’s age by 16, then add 31. Or, just use this calculator. Users will see that a 2-year-old dog, for example, wouldn’t be the canine equivalent of a 14-year-old. It would be equivalent to 42 human years old and should probably start putting money into a 401(k). But because methylation slows considerably in mid-life, a 5-year-old dog is approximately a 57-year-old human, while a 6-year-old dog is nearing 60 in human years—a minor difference. Things level out as the dog gets much older, with a 10-year-old dog nearing a 70-year-old human.

Different breeds age at different rates, so the formula might not necessarily apply to other dog breeds—only Labs were studied. The work is awaiting peer review, but it does offer a promising glimpse into how our furry companions grow older.

[h/t Live Science]

Sssspectacular: Tree Snakes in Australia Can Actually Jump

sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images
sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images

Ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes, is common among humans. We avoid snakes in the wild, have nightmares about snakes at night, and recoil at snakes on television. We might even be born with the aversion. When researchers showed babies photos of snakes and spiders, their tiny pupils dilated, indicating an arousal response to these ancestral threats.

If you really want to scare a baby, show them footage of an Australian tree snake. Thanks to researchers at Virginia Tech, we now know these non-venomous snakes of the genus Dendrelaphis can become airborne, propelling themselves around treetops like sentient Silly String.

That’s Dendrelaphis pictus, which was caught zipping through the air in 2010. After looking at footage previously filmed by her advisor Jake Socha, Virginia Tech Ph.D. candidate Michelle Graham headed for Australia and built a kind of American Ninja Warrior course for snakes out of PVC piping and tree branches. Graham observed that the snakes tend to spot their landing target, then spring upward. The momentum gets them across gaps that would otherwise not be practical to cross.

Graham next plans to investigate why snakes feel compelled to jump. They might feel a need to escape, or continue moving, or do it because they can. Two scientific papers due in 2020 could provide answers.

Dendrelaphis isn’t the only kind of snake with propulsive capabilities. The Chrysopelea genus includes five species found in Southeast Asia and China, among other places, that can glide through the air.

[h/t National Geographic]

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