Sunday 27 January 2013

What Is Nessie? The Long Neck Problem

Steve Plambeck has updated his "The Loch Ness Giant Salamander" blog with further thoughts on how a salamander of suitable size can be harmonised with the sightings record. The article is here

One major block to a salamander interpretation is the traditional long neck of the creature. Salamanders do not have long necks. Steve however suggests that the long tail of the salamander can account for this apparent problem. I can see merit in that idea and have no problem believing that a long tail can be mistaken for a long neck by eyewitnesses. The main question is whether this theory can account for all (or a persuadable majority) of such sightings and so we await his next instalment.

Having pointed out the eel-like head in the Hugh Gray photograph over a year ago, I have to admit I have presented myself with a problem as the picture does not seem to offer the possibility of a long neck. The part of the body where the neck is presumed to be is actually obscured by a water cascade shooting upwards. However, the obscured region between head and main body is not wide enough to accommodate a long neck anyway.

So how does that reconcile with long neck sightings and how often are long necks reported by eyewitnesses? Tim Dinsdale in his 1961 book "Loch Ness Monster" conducted a study of 100 reports of which 45% had head-neck descriptions. However, 15 years later, Roy Mackal conducted a more extensive study of sightings for his book "The Monster of Loch Ness". He analysed 233 sightings from 1933 to 1969 and I estimate 70 or 30% were classic head-neck.

The problem here is cherry-picking and I believe there may be a tendency for long neck sightings to be placed ahead of other types of sightings. Over Mackal's sample period of 1933-1969 there is at least 600 documented sightings across the literature. A simple calculation suggests that at worst head-neck sightings would be about 12% of all sightings but it is probably more.

But on the short neck versus long neck issue, one speculation I had was that the neck is somehow extensible. Some vertebrates can extend their necks (or give the impression of it) but it is pretty limited. There are exceptions such as turtles which can extend their necks out to a good proportion of their main body length. Check out this Jeremy Wade clip where the turtle's neck goes out an amazing length!

A truly extensible neck or equivalent is more to be found with invertebrates due to the obvious lack of impeding vertebrae. So can the Loch Ness Monster retract its neck into its body? The answer is "yes" if some eyewitness reports are to be believed. Going back to the invertebrate theory as espoused by F. W. Holiday,he wrote an article for "The Field" magazine of February 1976 entitled "The case for a spineless monster". It's a fascinating read and you can find it in our Rip Hepple archive in the June 1976 issue (No.16).

Holiday mentions two cases thus:

"It's neck went up and down as if on elastic" someone told Commander R T Gould. The head changed shape while you watched. Two Scottish visitors who had binoculars on the monster near Dores told me "From the end of the neck sprouted a head. One second it had no head; then it did have a head".

An intriguing and virtually unknown aspect of monster lore you may well say. I investigated further. The Gould sighting that Holiday refers to is taken from page 96 of the 1934 first edition and recounts the sighting of a Miss K. MacDonald between Lochend and Abriachan on the 1st May 1934. The actual quote is:

The head was quite small. Head and neck undulated up and down "as if by elastic".

That left me slightly confused as Holiday may have somewhat misquoted the text. Was the elastic movement of the neck an illusion brought on by the up and down movement in the water or an actual physical change? The interpretation is ambiguous to me. I could not find the source for the Dores sighting so it may be there in the literature or The Field magazine was its public debut. Perhaps a reader could help here.

However, the saga of the elastic neck does not end there as I stumbled upon another sighting of this genre elsewhere. It comes from the book "The Great Monster Hunt" by David and Yvonne Cooke written in 1969. On page 61 a previously undisclosed sighting is unveiled as Mr. Cooke interviews a man by the name of Kenneth Ross who recounted a strange experience on his boat opposite Invermoriston in 1936.

As they were motoring in their boat they presumed to see a boat nearby but as it approached to within 200 yards a head and neck of several feet was noticed. Taking up his story:

Then all of a sudden this huge glistening body came out of the water and the neck disappeared into the shoulders or into the body of the creature. Then the monster struck the water with one of its floppers and there was a whirlpool and it disappeared.

So in Holiday's account, a head sprouted from the neck and in this account the opposite happens as the head-neck retracts into the body. What are we to make of these two extraordinary and unique reports? Is this a display of retractibilty akin to our turtle above or something completely different? I say that because there does not seem to be much of a head to speak of. If we had more details on the two sightings, a better picture may emerge but two models present themselves. The head-neck retracts like a turtle or this is not a head-neck at all.

The first model appeals but if it is not a head-neck then what is it? I see no reason why this should be a retractable tail unless someone can point to a known precedent in nature? Neither do I think it is a phallus and paranormal advocates could have a field day with subconscious archetypes here (I think of Tom Bearden's work here)!

Could it be a retractable appendage such as a flipper? The Ross sighting above describes a separate flipper but it is possible though I cannot quite think what the advantage of such an ability is apart from protection. The problem here is that the witnesses are presumably correct in placing the "neck" where the neck would normally be in the creature morphology.

So a mystery within a mystery presents itself. Add to this curious feature of humps changing appearance before witnesses' eyes and one wonders how malleable and flexible this creature is (but such wondrous "floating islands" are for another day and another article).

Comments are welcome and if any can find similar instances of retractable appendages send me a comment.


  1. The descriptions here put me very much in mind of the way a slug or snail retracts and extends is various features, and I have to say that such a process does describe the movements of the unidentified object I captured images of from a webcam – which were submitted to this website for discussion.

    1. If I remember correctly Ted Holiday suggested this as a possibility in his book The Great Orm of Loch Ness. One of his ideas was that the creature was a giant variety of the garden slug and that such creatures were once 'quite common' in the UK and gave rise to many accounts of Dragons.

  2. GB, I presume you've read a piece on Nessie that was published in Fortean Times during the late seventies which was called 'Mother Natures Jumbo Jet'
    It was written none other by Tony 'Doc' Shiels, the man responsible for the 1977 'Loch Ness Muppet' photo. The article proposed that Nessie could be an, as yet, undiscovered species of freshwater squid/cuttlefish.

  3. Hi GB!

    Recently re-reading Tim Dinsdale in preparation for the article, I was having a hard look for where he came up with his 45% estimate (45% of all sightings may be classified as head-neck). Unfortunately he didn't include a table as Mackal did in his own book later. I think Tim may have come up with that by counting anything other than a hump sighting as head-neck (meaning he counted sightings that mentioned a neck but no head, a head but no neck, and any long appendage that could be taken for neck or tail). In his sightings accounts he covers heads seen protruding from the water, and heads reported connected to short necks too. I think ALL of the above factored into that 45%. Also he was working with a smallish sample of 100, so any stats would be more subject to skewing.

    With Mackal's tables there's a similar problem in that any head, neck, head+neck, and possible tails are also in one single column, but the cell contents and the remarks to all can be read to sort it out. The only sightings that are counter to my theory are of course those where a small head is reported atop a long neck. These are amazingly infrequent (recall how many report a "neck" with no visible head!)

    I tallied THESE sightings to be on the order of just about 5% of all sightings. Now I've gone and misplaced the tally sheet, so the whole number count eludes me. But it's there in the table for anyone to figure out. I'm not up to rereading the remarks to 251 sightings just at the moment.

    In any event, part 2 of my article tackles the headless neck head on, and disdains any conscious cherry-picking. Text and diagrams done, but badly in need of some more edits :) Unfortunately I may be kept away from working on it for several days.

    Steve Plambeck

  4. A minor mis-quote on my part, actually Dinsdale said 43%, not 45% of accounts mentioned the head-neck. Or more properly I think we should be saying "head AND/OR neck OR headless appendage that might or might not be a neck".

    Not sure that's a correction worth posting. He did however say separately that he counted people saying they saw a "tail" in 11% of sightings.

  5. Some of them salamanders do have remarkably long tails, but you hardly find them holding it up like a giraffe-like neck. And given its possible weight on a specimen as large as Steve suggests, I have hard time believing that it could kept in erect position throughout a say, one minute long neck & head sighting.

    Nevertheless, interesting posts from both of you.

    A slightly off-topic question: can you give me some information about Doc Shiels' infamous high-concept "elephant squid" theory? Is a detailed publication available about it online? And will this blog discuss it in the future?

    1. Chris,

      Yes, I will do the squid thing at some point. This blog's long term aim is to cover all the bases in the Loch Ness Mystery.

      There are two main sources for Shiels' squid theory. He covers it in his own book "Monstrum!" and he wrote an article for Fortean Times way back in the 1980s I think. I have a copy so will look up the reference.

  6. Laurence Clark Crossen2 February 2013 at 13:12

    I admit I accept the Surgeon's photo was a fake. Among other considerations it is necessary to take into account the fact that surgeon's were at the height of their fame as scientists par excellence. They were likely to have a strong conceit that a belief in the monster was something for yokels.

    I think the correct explanation is there are two creatures, one long necked and one short necked, a lacustrine plesiosaur and a basilosaur descendant.

  7. Another thought I posted elsewhere:

    "Yes, I think the varying lengths of Nessie necks (or whatever it is) points to retractability. I am also of the mind that Nessie is an opportunistic predator that lies camoflagued waiting for fish to pass and just shoot out the head/neck to grab them. This is more efficient than constantly swimming around for food. Being placed some feet down on the shoreline grabbing the salmon and trout as they do their runs is one particular mode of hunting I am thinking of."

  8. Laurence Clark Crossen6 February 2013 at 11:04

    It seems more likely that Rupert Gould was correct. He thought the creatures occasionally enter the loch from the sea.

  9. It's a bit late to come back to this thread, but then my full article on the neck and tail issue wasn't finished and out until Feb 28, shortly after the previous comments here.

    GB - I do correct (refine?) my earlier quote of Mackal's stats that appeared here. Going back to his tables I recounted the surface sightings that mention a long neck, or any neck unless it was explicitly stated to be short. Also excluded from my tally were any sightings where the witness actually called it a tail. Included were those that mentioned a small head, or no visible head on the end of the "neck". In the final count, only 38 of the 251 surface sightings (15%) fall unequivocally into long neck reports. Another 3.3% of the sighting descriptions were too fuzzy to say one way or the other whether they belonged in the long neck category or not. So the real frequency (for this sample) falls between 15 and 18% -- far fewer long neck sightings than I imagine most people assumed, and leaving a mere 38 cases to be reinterpreted as tail sightings. And several of those 38 were made at extreme range, which was Mackal's given reason for not wanting to call them necks in the first place.

    To Chris L: I'm not proposing the tail is held up in a giraffe or swan-like posture when it's seen above water. Rather that the tail is still parallel to the long axis of the body, but that the whole body is pitched downwards at an angle. Also what's showing above water is rarely if ever the ENTIRE tail, just the last few feet of it. I think we're talking about a truly massive animal at the other end of the 1 to 6 feet of tail tip visible in these cases, which is plenty of anchor for the part showing.

    And to Laurence C: It's not absolutely impossible there are two distinct unidentified species in the loch, but the odds against that are simply astronomical. It's far more likely to be a single species, the morphology and behavior of which has been unexpected enough to confound and confuse us fallible humans.

    1. Steve,

      I am still not convinced the head-neck is a real head-neck especially when pole-like objects are reported with barely much to speak of head wise.

      Is it a tail? That has to be judged on a case-by-case basis.

  10. This comment is not intended to be published but to point out a grammatical error on the page at paragraph 16:
    "So in Holiday's account, a NECK sprouted from the NECK and in this account the opposite happens as the head-neck retracts into the body."
    Obviously, one of those necks is supposed to be a head. :)