Introversion and e-DNA in Loch Ness

Nessie

Parts of SOUL SIGN, the third book in the Zackie Stories, will take place in Scotland. All things Scottish draw my attention these days and I do have a fondness for monsters, so…

So, the Loch Ness Monster is an introvert. According to lore, the beast rarely makes public appearances, which is completely consistent with introversion. (Check this previous post on defining introversion if you don’t believe me.) The sparse history of all eye-witness accounts can be found on the Loch Ness Information Website, but a quick summary of the highlights is included below.

Monster sightings in Loch Ness have been going on for a very long time. The first recorded sighting by St. Columba was documented in the sixth century AD by Adomnán, an abbot of Iona Abbey. While there were probably other sightintgs in the intervening years, the next one recorded was in 1863, when a gameskeeper saw a large fish-like animal in the waters. This report roused little attention because there had always been a local tradition of something big living in the loch. Things changed dramatically after Mrs. Mackay saw a whale-like creature in 1933,  and an amateur journalist/water bailiff from Fort Augustus wrote up the incident for the Inverness Courier. The story attracted interest from the London press on Fleet Street and the reclusive Nessie achieved celebrity status—whether she wanted it or not.

Nessie’s territory has since been invaded by locals, tourists, journalists and scientists. It’s not been a peaceful life in the loch and my guess is that that scientists have been by far the worst in terms of disturbing the peace. Project Urquhart, named for the castle that stands on the shore of the loch, was established to better understand the ecology of Loch Ness. One approach was to examine populations of nematodes to establish norms for a large freshwater lake and to follow population changes with changes in climate.  Nematodes are tiny round worms that are difficult to see without the aid of a microscope, but have a long, skinny, snake-like appearance, interestingly reminiscent of some eyewitness accounts of the much larger Nessie (coincidence?).  Under the ruse of studying nematodes, the team from the British Natural History Museum detected several anomalies on their sonar, indicating the presence of something large swimming about.

There are several candidates for large things that could be swimming around the loch. My favorite is the plesiosaur,  an extinct prehistoric aquatic reptile that lived in the warm seas surrounding Scotland 70,000,000 years ago. The idea of giant squids or octopi has also been floated about. Neither of these are serious candidates for the monster.  They would have had to come in from the North Sea after the loch thawed out from a solid block of ice 12,000 years ago, and to survive, they would have required a gradual change in salinity from salt water to fresh in order for them to adapt. This was not possible when Loch Ness thawed out and became a large body of fresh water, so we can rule out a kraken. Mammals, like a long-necked seal, sea cow or whale, are also unlikely since these would have to surface frequently to breathe. Sightings would have been plentiful instead of rare, so these also are unlikely to be good monster material. Our best bet to explain monster sightings is the sturgeon. One found in a Russian river was 27 feet long and, based on the bony scales along the sides of its body, was estimated to be about 200 years old.  But, according to Loch-ness.org, if a huge sturgeon were ever caught in Loch Ness, people would probably not accept that it proved the monster might just be a bigger sturgeon. They would probably just wink knowingly, and say, “Ah, so that’s what Nessie eats!”

The latest approach to hunting for Nessie (while not actually aiming to do that) uses eDNA, or environmental DNA. Critters living in Loch Ness leave all sorts of DNA evidence in the water, thanks to shed skin cells, poop, eggs, sperm, and whatever else casually sloughs off of them. This might be why Loch-ness.org advises us that “You can drink the water from Loch Ness, but it is best mixed 50/50 with Whisky which hides the peaty taste and brown colour. If trying this please use cheap whisky. Don’t waste the good stuff!”

But back to the eDNA project… Scientists will gather water samples, enrich the DNA floating in the water and then sequence the hell out of it. By aligning the resulting unknown DNA sequences from the loch against 200 million known DNA sequences housed in a database maintained by the US NIH, the scientists will be able to match the loch DNA to the specific critters. One caveat that keeps me up at night is that the plesiosaur has no representative sequences in the database (click here for proof). This means that the scientists would completely miss it if plesiosaurs were pooping in the loch. This worries me.

Another thing that worries me is that if we were to find proof of exotic creatures in Loch Ness, trophy hunter bastards could flock to the Scottish Highlands and take aim. To prevent more sleepless nights, I began to frantically google British laws that might prevent this senseless slaughter. My efforts were rewarded when I found an article in The Scotsman that explained how diligent civil servants have already looked into this matter.

It all started in 1985 with a letter from the British Embassy in Stockholm to the permanent under-secretary at the then Scottish Office. The letter began: “I am sorry to bother you with an inquiry which will, no doubt, be greeted at first glance with gales of laughter.” It turned out that Swedish civil servants wanted to know if legal safeguards existed for Nessie, as they had concerns about protecting their own Storsj monster from poachers and hunters. Scottish civil servants performed their due diligence and determined that because Nessie was not a salmon, she was not protected under the Salmon and Fisheries Protection (Scotland) Act 1951. Under advice from the Nature Conservancy Council, it did appear that the Loch Ness Monster would be protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, which made it an offense for anyone to “snare, shoot or blow up any protected species,” including Nessie. Whew!

I am very glad to learn that Nessie is protected from human monsters. I hope that in the near future, other exotic beasts on this planet will also be protected from trophy hunting.

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Image credit:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nessie.svg

Description: Image of Nessie                                                                                                          Author: Fornax

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Introversion and e-DNA in Loch Ness

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