Fossils revive hypothesis about the ‘real’ Loch Ness Monster

“Nessie” is a classic of Scottish folklore, but it is above all the animal that inspired it that interests researchers.

Like Bigfoot or the Beast of Gévaudan, the famous Loch Ness Monster — Nessie for friends — is still one of the most famous legendary creatures in popular folklore. Over the years, this story has often come to the fore following various eccentric testimonies, when they were not simply fabricated.

But the work of a group of researchers may have just come closer to the origins of the myth… or rather the beast that lent its face to it in the collective imagination.

The plesiosaur, forever the face of Nessie

It all started in 1823, when paleontology legend Mary Anning stumbled upon a strange fossil. She described a strange prehistoric reptile with a small head perched on a long neck. Anning also documented the presence of fins, which left no doubt as to the creature’s living environment.

A sketch of the plesiosaur skeleton discovered by Mary Anning in 1823. © Mary Anning – Wikimedia Commons

This discovery fascinated his contemporaries and greatly contributed to his fame; many observers have probably seen the remains of one of the mythical monsters there which, according to local folklore, are said to prowl the bottom of Scottish lochs. But the story took a new turn in 1933.

It was on this date that the local newspaper Inverness Courier reported the testimony of a couple convinced of having seen a huge beast emerge from Loch Ness. The information spread like wildfire. A few days later, the entire British press hastened to dispatch an army of reporters to the field; the legend of the “Loch Ness Monster” was born.

To give substance to this story that fascinated its time, it was necessary to give a face to Nessie. And based on the original testimony, it was the plesiosaur described by Anning that became its embodiment; he largely inspired the way the collective imagination represents Nessie.

Sea water or fresh water?

For decades, amateurs and professional scientists have tried to track down the beast in hopes of confirming that it was indeed a plesiosaur; until proven otherwise, they have all drawn a blank. And more recently, new elements have come to question this theory; today, paleontologists consider these reptiles to be strictly marine animals. Information that seemed to drive the last nail in the coffin of this hypothesis.

Or at least that was the case until English and Moroccan researchers made an exceptional discovery. In the bed of an ancient river that flowed more than 100 million years ago, they found a whole pile of plesiosaur fossils.

© Bunker et al. / Nick Longrich

They did not find a complete and therefore particularly photogenic skeleton. On the other hand, they unearthed numerous fossils which belonged to a dozen different individuals. Too bad for the general public, but it is in no way a disappointment for specialists; for them, it is even a veritable gold mine.

These isolated bones tell us a lot about ancient ecosystems and the animals that lived there “, explains Nick Longrich, one of the authors of the study. “They’re much more common than skeletons, and most importantly, they give us more information to work with,” he says.

This is not the first time that elements of this type have been found in ancient bodies of fresh water. In 2013, the Scientific American already reported a similar discovery – and in England, moreover. But more evidence is needed to hope to reach a clear conclusion. After all, if sperm whales can find themselves trapped in the Thames estuary, one can easily imagine that a plesiosaur could simply have gone up a river by mistake before dying there!

But here, with a dozen individuals found in the same place, this interpretation seems much less satisfactory. And there is still a strong argument that resides in a particular type of fossil: teeth.

Researchers have found many. And unlike bones, this does not necessarily mean that the animal necessarily died there. They were even able to determine with certainty that some of these teeth belonged to animals still alive. They also found that these teeth were similarly worn.

The final conclusion will still wait

All of this suggests that these plesiosaurs would have shared a common freshwater habitat over a long period of time; in any case, these clues make the trail of an accidental loss much less credible. But they don’t rule it out entirely either. Because in the end, these elements are not yet conclusive enough to affirm that plesiosaurs lived well in fresh water.

We don’t really know, to be honest. This is how paleontology works “, explains Georgina Bunker, lead author of the study. ” All we can do is make educated guesses based on the information at our disposal. We will find other fossils. Maybe they’ll confirm those guesses…or maybe not. »

In any case, there is a conclusion that seems much clearer in these works; everything indicates that the last plesiosaur fossils date back to the extinction of the dinosaurs, more than 65 million years ago. Suffice to say that if the famous couple of 1933 saw Nessy in this lake, it probably wasn’t that animal…

The research paper is available here, and the University of Bath press release here. Those who wish to have all the details can also browse the blog of researcher Nick Longrich who wrote a fascinating and very complete article on the subject.

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