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]

Why Thousands of 'Penis Fish' Washed Up on a California Beach

Kate Montana, iNaturalist // CC BY-NC 4.0
Kate Montana, iNaturalist // CC BY-NC 4.0

Nature works in mysterious ways. The latest example materialized at Drakes Beach near San Francisco, California, in early December, when visitors strolling along the shore stumbled upon what looked to be the discarded inventory of an adult novelty shop. In fact, it was thousands of Urechis caupo, a marine worm that bears more than a passing resemblance to a human penis.

The engorged pink invertebrate, which is typically 10 inches in length, is native to the Pacific coast and frequently goes by the less salacious name of “fat innkeeper worm.” Burrowing in sand, the worm produces mucus from its front end to ensnare plankton and other snacks, then pumps water to create a vacuum where the food is directed into their tunnel. Since it builds up a small nest of discarded food, other creatures like crabs will stop by to feed, hence the “innkeeper” label.

You can see the worm in "action" here:

Because the worms enjoy a reclusive life in their burrows, it’s unusual to see thousands stranded on the beach. It’s likely that a strong storm broke up the intertidal sand, decimating their homes and leaving them exposed. The event is likely to thrill otters, as they enjoy dining on the worm. So do humans: Penis fish are served both raw and cooked in Korea and China.

[h/t Live Science]

The Horrors of Anglerfish Mating

Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

When you think of an anglerfish, you probably think of something like the creature above: Big mouth. Gnarly teeth. Lure bobbing from its head. Endless nightmares. 

During the 19th century, when scientists began to discover, describe, and classify anglerfish from a particular branch of the anglerfish family tree—the suborder Ceratioidei—that’s what they thought of, too. The problem was that they were only seeing half the picture. The specimens that they were working with were all female, and they had no idea where the males were or what they looked like. Researchers sometimes found some other fish that seemed to be related based on their body structure, but they lacked the fearsome maw and lure typical of ceratioids and were much smaller—sometimes only as long as 6 or 7 millimeters—and got placed into separate taxonomic groups.

It wasn’t until the 1920s—almost a full century after the first ceratioid was entered into the scientific record—that things started to become a little clearer. In 1922, Icelandic biologist Bjarni Saemundsson discovered a female ceratioid with two of these smaller fish attached to her belly by their snouts. He assumed it was a mother and her babies, but was puzzled by the arrangement.

“I can form no idea of how, or when, the larvae, or young, become attached to the mother. I cannot believe that the male fastens the egg to the female,” he wrote. “This remains a puzzle for some future researchers to solve.”

When Saemundsson kicked the problem down the road, it was Charles Tate Regan, working at the British Museum of Natural History in 1924, who picked it up. Regan also found a smaller fish attached to a female ceratioid. When he dissected it, he realized it wasn’t a different species or the female angler’s child. It was her mate.

The “missing” males had been there all along, just unrecognized and misclassified, and Regan and other scientists, like Norwegian zoologist Albert Eide Parr, soon figured out why the male ceratioids looked so different. They don’t need lures or big mouths and teeth because they don’t hunt, and they don’t hunt because they have the females. The ceratioid male, Regan wrote, is “merely an appendage of the female, and entirely dependent on her for nutrition.” In other words, a parasite.

When ceratioid males go looking for love, they follow a species-specific pheromone to a female, who will often aid their search further by flashing her bioluminescent lure. Once the male finds a suitable mate, he bites into her belly and latches on until his body fuses with hers. Their skin joins together, and so do their blood vessels, which allows the male to take all the nutrients he needs from his host/mate’s blood. The two fish essentially become one.

With his body attached to hers like this, the male doesn't have to trouble himself with things like seeing or swimming or eating like a normal fish. The body parts he doesn’t need anymore—eyes, fins, and some internal organs—atrophy, degenerate, and wither away, until he’s little more than a lump of flesh hanging from the female, taking food from her and providing sperm whenever she’s ready to spawn.

Extreme size differences between the sexes and parasitic mating aren’t found in all anglerfish. Throughout the other suborders, there are males that are free-swimming their whole lives, that can hunt on their own and that only attach to the females temporarily to reproduce before moving along. For deep-sea ceratioids that might only rarely bump into each other in the abyss, though, the weird mating ritual is a necessary adaptation to keep mates close at hand and ensure that there will always be more little anglerfish. And for us, it’s something to both marvel and cringe at, a reminder that the natural world is often as strange as any fiction we can imagine.

Naturalist William Beebe put it nicely in 1938, writing, “But to be driven by impelling odor headlong upon a mate so gigantic, in such immense and forbidding darkness, and willfully eat a hole in her soft side, to feel the gradually increasing transfusion of her blood through one’s veins, to lose everything that marked one as other than a worm, to become a brainless, senseless thing that was a fish—this is sheer fiction, beyond all belief unless we have seen the proof of it.”

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