Monday 5 December 2016

Is the Loch Ness Monster a Sturgeon?

The theory that the Loch Ness Monster is an Atlantic Sturgeon is not something new and has been doing the rounds since the early days of the modern Nessie phenomenon. The earliest reference I can find to this theory is from The Scotsman of the 4th November 1933 where a correspondent states the following:
That was about six months since the Aldie Mackay report in the Inverness Courier. The leading expert at the time, Rupert T. Gould, in his 1934 book, "The Loch Ness Monster and Others", examined the various theories to explain the reports that had been coming from the loch since the year before and addressed the sturgeon idea which he said was "in some ways ... rather attractive". His drawing below drew out some ideas.
The first being that the sturgeon's snout could, in theory, be mistaken for a long neck. Likewise, the bony plates along its back may be misinterpreted as a line of humps. In that light he considered it a theory worthy of examination. However, serious objections were finally raised by Gould. Firstly, that the claimed size of the Loch Ness Monster was up to three times longer than the biggest sturgeon known.
Secondly, the bony plates may be construed as humps, but their rather fixed configuration does not allow for the rather more pronounced double humps and so on, let alone the classic upturned boat scenario. However, Gould eventually went with his itinerant sea serpent idea and any thought of a sturgeon finding its way into Loch Ness largely fell by the wayside as more exotic theories won the day.
It was only when we entered the sceptical 80s and 90s that the theory began to gain traction as leading Loch Ness researcher, Adrian Shine, revived the idea with the suggestion that some sightings could be accounted for by errant sturgeon making their way along the River Ness from the North Sea into the loch. In an article for the BBC in 2012, he sums up this line of thought:

"I think it could be the occasional navigationally challenged Atlantic Sturgeon," he says, with a mischievous smile.
Known to grow to over 4m long, the fish, which has reptilian scaled plates along its back and a long pointed face with tusk-like barbells hanging from its jaws, is not indigenous to Scotland. It could conceivably make its way up River Ness and into the loch in the search for new breeding grounds.

"It could very easily have swum into the loch, been spotted and left again leaving nothing behind save an enigma," he says.

Adrian's thinking on this certainly goes as far back as Operation Deepscan in 1987 where he mentioned the possibility. However, it was the publication of a paper in 1993 for The Scottish Naturalist that caught the attention of the press and went worldwide. This clipping from the Times Daily of the 30th December 1993 sums it up.
Now, it is not to be denied that sturgeon have been caught in the general area of the Highlands for centuries. Some old clippings will suffice here and also show the typical size of such creatures. The first is from the Inverness Journal of the 31st July 1846 and then from the same journal of the 14th August 1812:

Note that even in the less consumer strained times of the 19th century, this creature was regarded as a rare visitor to the more accessible waterways. The near 11 foot specimen mentioned above weighed in at over two hundredweight which equates to over 16 stones or 100 kilos. Quite a beast in its own right, though a bit worrying for this theory that I could not find more modern stories.


Having said all that, I have yet to find a newspaper article from any year talking about a sturgeon being caught in Loch Ness. That does not mean that such an event has never happened, but the clippings above suggest that such an event would undoubtedly receive local newspaper coverage (angling was a big sport in the Highlands with newspaper carrying frequent reports on angling news).

The thing about this theory is that it is a bit player. It is not a theory crafted to explain many sightings, for in the world of scepticism, the monster is a motley mosaic of so called ordinary objects seen in so called extraordinary circumstances. My opinion is that such extraordinary circumstances are rare to the vanishing point. The sturgeon is offered as an almost monstrous monster to explain accounts which go beyond the simplistic boat wake or floating log.

But the problems with this idea of an itinerant sturgeon are greater than that for an exotic monster. I heard of an old Chinese proverb asking what is the most cunning animal. The answer is the one that is yet to be found. Whilst the disputed behavioural characteristics of the Loch Ness Monster allows it fulfil that age old puzzle, the same cannot be said of a sturgeon.

The point being that no sturgeon has been caught, let alone a verifiable photograph or video clip of one. You can take that thought two ways. It can either mean that this proves no sturgeon has ever entered Loch Ness or it means that large water breathing creatures can enter the loch and remain largely undetected.

The counter argument on that point is that the sturgeon is an in-out creature. Adrian's comment above that the said sturgeon would ultimately leave the loch seems an unlikely proposition for this type of creature. However, if a sturgeon did enter the loch and inevitably become loch bound, it again says rather a lot for the general monster hunt paradigm that even this type of well known creature cannot be detected in Loch Ness.


But the problem for this theory is its application. Given that scepticism so easily forces the round peg of monster sightings into the square holes of waves, logs and birds with the hammer of confirmation bias, it is perhaps no surprise how Adrian handles certain monster sightings. I quote from his aforementioned 1993 paper: 
In November 1933 Lt.-Commander R.T. Gould (1934: 30) listened to the account of Mr. John McLeod, who, some 20-30 years previously had seen, at the mouth of the River Moriston beneath the lowest fall, a creature with a "head like an eel and a long tapering tail". This is how a Sturgeon might appear from above. Another witness, Miss K. MacDonald, spoke of a "crocodile"-like creature, 6-8 feet long, ascending the River Ness and heading for the Holm Mills weir, in February 1932 (Gould, 1943: 38).

Rather more recently, in 1993, Mrs Marion MacDonald described to the author an experience at the Fort Augustus Abbey harbour. She saw what she first thought was a log, because of a distinctive 'scaly' bark pattern, but which then developed a wake and moved off to submerge, while she called her family. After she had sketched her impression (Figure 2, 8K) she was shown an illustration of a Sturgeon's bony plates, and considered the pattern to be reminiscent of what she had seen.

Three eyewitness reports are brought forward in support of the sturgeon theory. What struck me was how these sightings were not consigned to the usual sceptic dustbin of more mundane explanations. After all, we are repeatedly told that eyewitnesses practically forget all the important details by the next day, the newspapers exaggerate stories or it is just the locals having a laugh.

Yet, here, suddenly, the clouds of poor memory depart. The perception of the eyewitnesses becomes lucid and their descriptions are as sharp as a tack. The 1993 report would have normally been written of as a log. John MacLeod's sighting would have been told he saw a seal and Miss MacDonald's encounter was not even in Loch Ness!

Here we have an example of sceptics having their cake and eating it. Sightings are anecdotal garbage ... unless they are useful in promoting your cause. Try and tell me this is consistent and unbiased critical thinking!


It would be remiss of me not to mention the saga of Adrian Shine's pet sturgeon at this juncture.  It transpired back in 2000 that Adrian was rearing his own sturgeon in a pond at the Loch Ness Centre in Drumnadrochit. It seems it had grown to six feet long and Adrian was a bit peeved it's existence had been revealed as he was conducting experiments as to how visitors described it when it surfaced.

Other Loch Ness researchers were a little less sympathetic when they wondered what would have happened to the fish when it got too big. Would it be secretly dumped in the loch, caught and then declared to be Nessie? Conspiracy theories aside, what exactly was Adrian trying to achieve as viewing a sturgeon at a few feet away hardly constitutes a sighting reproduction. One also wonders what the endgame for the sturgeon really was? Fish and chips or fish and ships?


That a sturgeon may or may not have entered Loch Ness is not the point of the debate. They may have, but given the recent sceptical disdain for dolphins getting into Loch Ness, I doubt they could be of the opposite mind with sturgeons. Rather, such a creature is not a good fit for what is described and is actually just a debating tool to lift the sceptical debate above the banality of waves and birds. Indeed, sceptics admit such a creature would only explain a small percentage of sightings.
The situation is best summed up in the cartoon I saw recently which shows a dinosaur like Nessie snacking on a tiny sturgeon, to which eyewitnesses holler "WOW! There really IS a sturgeon in Loch Ness!". In other words, there are bigger fish to fry in Loch Ness.

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  1. The food chain for the sturgeon might well be suited to the loch, molluscs, worms, shrimp, and small bottom dwelling fish to name a few.

    I consider Gould's drawing over exsaturates the length of the 'snout' and consider also, the girth of the snout (sturgeon 10ft long) about 5-6 inch in girth. A neck!!! From a distance??? I doubt it.

  2. If the snout in Gould's drawing was indeed the 6 foot length often reported, then we're dealing with a 40 foot sturgeon here. Capable of submerging vertically, suddenly, and also capable of great speed. I don't know how old a sturgeon would need to be to attain that size, but certainly speed would diminish with age?

  3. I do not buy the 'sturgeon' theory since sturgeon are bottom-feeders and spend all their time on the lake or river bottom. There are several accounts of sturgeon leaping from the water and injuring - even killing - boaters but for the most part they stay on the bottom and are rarely seen at the surface.

    1. Something that spends all its time on the lake bottom and is rarely seen at the surface? That is part of my definition of the Loch Ness Monster...

  4. I don't think even the sceptics will exert much energy defending this.

    1. A skeptic would say that we don't need to identify "the Loch Ness Monster" as a single species. Rather, we need to show that the evidence can be explained without postulating an unknown species. Sightings, photos and movies may have a range of explanations, as is certainly true for UFO's. I don't see why a sturgeon - possibly a transient visitor - would not explain some sightings by people not accustomed to judging distances over water.

  5. I remember the story of Adrian Shines pet sturgeon, and I remember the rival visitor centre saying it was almost certainly designed to be smuggled into the loch.

    So does anyone know what actually happened to it? Is it still in the pond?

    1. Adrian probably put it in the loch to prove his theory ,unfortunatly,Tuckers Elasmosaurus ate it.

  6. How can the snout of a sturgeon project vertically while moving through the water and with a head at the top turning from side to side? And in the case of the upturned boat type sightings what becomes of the sturgeon's dorsal and tail fins? Surely they would project above the water's surface along with the upper back. As fish for Nessie contenders go the sturgeon has the size - but little else in it's favor!

  7. Hmmm I'm not sure what Adrian gains from a sturgeon being pulled out of the loch and the mystery being de facto 'solved'.

    He has a vested interest in keeping the enduring myth going. That's why even as a noted sceptic he stops short of stating there is no Nessie, unlike some of his contemporaries.

  8. With is big fish theory Shine has kept the door open a crack for something unusual being behind some Nessie sightings. On the Loch Ness and Morar Project site he acknowledges that not all sightings can be explained by his sightings key.

  9. I dont know if its true but i was told a few years back that someone from Inverness had a sighting of a 10ft hump in the Loch. After chatting with Adrian Shine who knew he was a reliable guy he was invited to the pond to see the sturgeon to see if it resembled what he saw, after a long wait the sturgeon appeared and the guy said no it was nothing like the hump he had seen.