Sunday, 13 October 2019

Looking back on the eDNA results




It has now been just over a month since Professor Neil Gemmell announced the results of his environmental DNA studies of Loch Ness to the world. I thought I would wait for the media frenzy to abate before I digested what data was available to the general public as well as asking Professor Gemmell to clarify some points for me.

So, as a believer in the Loch Ness Monster, what can I conclude from these results? In some sense, the survey follows on from two large scale searches of the loch over the last five decades and they feed into one another. First, we had the extensive surface watches of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau in the 1960s. This was followed by the sonar surveys typified by the large Operation Deepscan in 1987. Thirty years later, science has progressed to the point where actual animal material in microscopic quantities can be extracted, sequenced and matched to known animals.

Unlike the previous two searches, the eDNA survey was focused on a study of the flora and fauna of the loch, the other two were concerned with finding evidence of the Loch Ness Monster. Nevertheless, there was the hope to many that the creature would intersect with the study in some way.

THE DATA

But before I compare and contrast these searches, what can be said about the results of the DNA survey? At the time of writing, a series of results have been published by Otago University at their Loch Ness Hunters website. These results can be searched by species or location and it is the species-oriented results that have got the most attention. If you did not know by now, here is the pie chart of species found.



I base my comments on the assumption this is a complete record of vertebrate matches. As I understand it, Arctic Char, Sea Trout and Brown Trout are not explicitly mentioned as they are likely included under "Salmon" as members of the salmonidae family alongside Atlantic Salmon. Perch are not explicitly mentioned either, but will come under the family name of percidae (which suggests an exact species match was not achieved). Some species appear to have been missed, namely otters, newt, carp and roach. The last two are actually unconfirmed by "official" sources, but people claim they are there.  So does their absence from the DNA record dismiss their existence? That depends if you believe people's anecdotes about them!

No reptile DNA was found though reptiles do live by the loch such as adders. lizards and slow worms. They can enter the water, but it is assumed that such ventures are too rare to leave any traceable DNA. The same could go for the amphibian newts. However, we know otters live by the loch and enter the waters, but they have been missed by the sampling regime. This will simply be down to the fact that sampling did not occur near places of otter activity.

Some results were surprising such as sample "Ness 10" in the middle of the loch being identified as 100% pheasant DNA! It was proposed by Professor Gemmell that this was likely due to some birds defecating into the loch at that point.

You will note there is no mention of plant life or microscopic life, one assumes they were not included in the public results. The main point here is that most but not all species were detected and that was down to the element of uncertainty in choosing the best sampling sites. In total, about 250 samples were taken at the loch at depths from 0.5 to 200 metres. However, if one looks at the public data, only 56 samples are listed.

That perhaps should give me pause for thought if not all the data is available. Professor Gemmell told me all the data would come in the scientific paper he intends to publish around the end of the year. But with that limitation in mind, I will proceed.

I also note that some of the sample results are not complete. For example, if one looks at sample location "Ness 2", there were three samples taken at 0.5m, 100m and 200m. The results are stated as 321 for humans and 1 for toads, but it does not state which applies to what depths. Clearly, the human result would be for the surface (perhaps human waste from a cruise boat), but at what depth was the toad DNA retrieved?



This brings to mind a headline from 2007 when a deep water survey team found a toad in Loch Ness at a depth of 98 metres (above). The depth of the loch at the point of sample "Ness 2", north of Inverfarigaig, was about 220 metres, so the team must have sampled the water at best 20 metres above the surface. One wonders how common this amphibian is at these depths? But until I see the depth data, the toad DNA could have been retrieved at the surface.

Looking at the public database, 11 of the 56 samples were taken at depths of 100-200 metres. I am not sure if this is a proportionate representation, in which case there were about 50 deep water samples taken. If not, we have 11 to work with and it is my guess, having eliminated terrestrial and pelagic creatures that next to no vertebrate matches were made at these depths which we call the Profundal Zone.


DEEP WATER MONSTERS

However, it may be that any data for these 11 samples are simply missing or too scarce because it has been established that fish do inhabit this zone as per the capture of a potentially benthic form of Arctic Char at 200m by the Loch Ness Project. Now the reason I am most interested in this depth data is because I believe the creature spends most of its time at these depths, generally not moving around, with occasional forays up the sides of the loch walls.

This can be established from the witness database. If we filter out the spike years of 1933-1934, we are averaging about 10 sightings per year since then - and that is before one decides what proportion of these are misidentifications and hoaxes. Clearly, this is a creature which does not surface very often which leads to the conclusion that it is not a creature that spends much time in the shallower pelagic zone.

The surface watches of the 1960s confirmed this and the more penetrating sonar surveys, though they do produce occasional sonar hits of the creatures, it is clear that it is in the deepest depths that these creatures must be sought. This is not so easy for sonar due to beam attenuation and widening, but this has been my belief since 2012 that any searches in the pelagic zone will be generally fruitless. 

But if only 11 deep water samples were taken, would much be picked up? The public data suggests nothing, but I await further information as surely some known lifeforms were detected. I would point out a further potential problem with eDNA surveys at these depths. The relatively inert nature of the abyssal plain does not lend to distribution and scattering of DNA due to the higher water pressure at those depths and the lack of disruptive water movements such as the higher thermocline. As Adrian Shine says:

In contrast to the turbulence and variety of physical conditions among the stones of the shoreline, the fine and relatively rich silts of the abyssal regions offer remarkable stability. In an environment of great hydrostatic pressure, constant darkness, and a scarcely changing low temperature of 5.6C, high oxygen levels (over 80% saturation), permit surprising variety in the profundal community of the 200m deep basin floors.

I am not sure how one gets around this more difficult sampling region. I had suggested prior to the team's arrival that they actually sample the silt itself which may preserve more DNA, but that did not happen. Note higher oxygen levels are a boon to the survival of bottom dwelling creatures. So the jury is out for me on what was detected and what was detectable at these extreme depths and I await Professor Gemmell's scientific paper.


THE UNIDENTIFIED DNA

Which brings us to the data that was certainly not in the data. It was stated that 25% of the DNA was not amenable to identification. When I asked Professor Gemmell about this his answer was that unexplained DNA sequences were generally short DNA sequences that can not be accurately attributed to any specific species or taxonomic group with statistical certainty. Most metabarcoding and eDNA studies have portions of these sequences so he did not see any significance in that data.

The more relevant piece of data in regard to this was the study conducted at the nearby lochs of Cluanie, Oich, Duntelchaig and Ashie. When I asked how much unidentified DNA was present in those loch samples, he said it was largely the same. In other words, we should not look for monsters in that unprocessed set of data.

It also has to be said that there was another indeterminate region in which low samples of DNA, though processable, were too small to produce enough confidence and hence were discarded. In other words, anything that came up with fewer sequences than was detected for any species in the negative control were discarded. 

As an aside, it had been mentioned in pre-trip publicity that Loch Morar would form part of the "control" lochs. Professor Gemmell informed me that the loch in the end did not get sampled, which was a pity given its monster tradition.


PLESIOSAURS AND GIANT EELS

As said before, no reptilian DNA was detected and that would eliminate extinct animals such as plesiosaurs right away. But if reptile DNA was detected, how could one zero in on a plesiosaur identification? Professor Gemmell's approach was to use a rough DNA composite somewhere between crocodiles and birds. Some have suggested plesiosaurs lie closer to turtles by relation and this was conceded by Neil, though it is a moot point given the absence of reptilian DNA.

The matter of giant eels was the main takeaway from the conference given by Professor Gemmell. However, the truth of the matter is that the eDNA survey had only failed to eliminate giant eels as a monster candidate as giant eels could have the same DNA sequence as smaller ones. Indeed, it could never eliminate giant eels in the same way it could not eliminate giant salmon, giant dogs or giant toads! I suspect that conclusion was more a sop to the worried Highland tourism industry. 

My own take is that giant eels are not the main explanation for Loch Ness Monster sightings. They could not possibly account for long necks, land sightings, semi spherical humps or sustained surfacings. This would only be possible if these features are explained by other non-eel causes. I do concede the historical possibility of large eels in the loch, perhaps of the order of two or even three metres long. Whether these have played a part in surface sightings is indeterminate, but certainly not the corpus of accounts.

My own question to Professor Gemmell was how the eels had been identified in the loch as some identifications from DNA had only been accurate to the family level and not the species level. His confirmation was that the species anguilla anguilla had indeed been matched and that is where I think I will leave that theory.


CONCLUSIONS

In the broader scheme of things, Professor Gemmell's eDNA survey did not produce anything unusual from a cryptozoological point of view. He did mention some "surprising" results, but one must assume those surprises were confined to the microscopic level. I was not expecting anything from the majority half meter samples unless he struck lucky and a benthic monster had passed by that way in the last few weeks. Indeed, one may have passed that way close to June 2018 according to Gary Campbell's sightings register:

28 May - Morag Connor and her friend were driving north out of Drumnadrochit between 11 and 11.30 am. They saw a creature with a long neck with some humps behind it sticking about 7-8 feet out of the water and about 50 m from the shore. The creature had an all dark body but with no discernible head. They were unable to stop as they were driving and there was no place to pull over.

One suspects that if this was genuine, the creature's DNA had degraded by the time Professor Gemmell's team had started, even if he had intersected with its widening DNA dispersion trail back into the abyss. Be that as it may, we know that not all creatures were identified and that was purely down to the coverage of the loch not being complete and no one is blaming anyone else over that herculean task.

The Loch Ness Monster is a non-abundant species, just as I suspect the missing otters, newt, carp and roach are. It likewise did not intersect with the survey and that's just the way it statistically falls out,  especially if this species spends most of its time in the inert silt 200 meters or more below. But I will defer final judgement until I see the complete data when Professor Gemmell's paper comes out.


The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com







Tuesday, 1 October 2019

A Review of "The Loch Ness Sea Lion"




Author Rob Cornes is better known for co-authoring the cryptozoological work, "The Seal Serpent" which investigates the possibility of a currently unclassified long necked pinniped being responsible for some sightings of aquatic cryptids. In that book he also mentions the possibility of some known pinnipedia playing their part in this mystery and that has been developed in this smaller book devoted to the Loch Ness Monster and seals with a diversion to other Scottish water monsters.

Two families of pinnipeds are discussed, the first being the phocid family which are classed as earless seals and includes the harbor seal which lives near Loch Ness, The other is the otariid family which are the various species of sea lions and are characterised as having pointed ears and being more slimline. However, sea lions are not indigenous to the North Atlantic.


Phocidae: Harbor Seal

Now, Rob is a sceptic insomuch that he gives no credence to the idea of an indigenous air breathing cryptid in Loch Ness, but neither does he go down the road of ascribing all monster sightings to known phenomena at the loch. In other words, he thinks that some sightings, especially in the 1930s, were down to an outside visitor to the loch he believes to be a sea lion.


Otariidae: California Sea Lion

But, as just stated, these animals are not known in the waters around Great Britain. Rob suggests this objection can be resolved by the history of captive sea lions from zoos, circuses and private collections escaping into the seas of the United Kingdom. That such escapes have occurred he proves from newspaper articles dating before the 1930s and beyond. Many were recaptured but it is reasonable to assume some forged out into the seas and survived. Rob reckons at least a dozen made their way into European waters.

So, we are taken through some of the well known land sightings of the Loch Ness Monster from the late nineteenth century onwards and some features are noted as sea lion like such as the waddling motions described by some witnesses or a caterpillar like or lurching motion. The MacGruer incident of 1919 is speculatively correlated with the Mackintosh Bell sea serpent sighting of that period and a recently escaped sea lion. Could these three incidents be one and the same creature?

Meantime, Rob speculates further that the Alfred Cruikshank event of 1923 was more likely a resident phocid of the old bull male variety due to the apparent absence of a long neck. What was more irreconcilable to seals was the Fordyce sighting of April 1932 which looked more like a grey camel with next to no head. But I do feel Rob overindulges in speculation by linking the event to a large rail delivery of livestock to a show in Inverness and therefore the escape of some kind of non-local cattle. 

As he gets into the busy Nessie period of 1933-34, Rob makes some statements that can be challenged. He attributes the seminal Aldie Mackay report as no more than a "mild disturbance in the water" which is not the case if one reads Gould's interview of the witness. Moreover, a sighting by three anglers in 1930 is dismissed as an embellishment while a follow up letter describing a "very large seal" is accepted because it has the relevant keyword "seal" in it. Should one set of witnesses be discriminated against another on this basis?

Rob toes the sceptics' canonical line that a combination of events such as King Kong, untrained eyewitnesses, sensationalistic journalism all contributed to a fabricated monster. So, for example, the Spicers are dismissed as seeing only an otter. Interestingly, he also mentions the old tales of water horses as being part of the kindling that ignited the phenomenon. Most others look to contemporary influences as the only factors. 

As suggested above, sightings which report seal like features are given greater credence such as those by Janet Fraser and Mrs MacLennan which are shown below from contemporary sketches. In these cases, the protuberances on the Fraser creature are suggested as like the ears of the sea lion and the tail on the MacLennan creature is seen as possible rear flippers of said creature.




And herein lies the conundrum of the sceptical position. On the one hand, sightings of large creatures are dismissed as inaccurate due to inexperienced eyewitnesses and wishful thinking. However, Janet Fraser is presented as an eyewitness who could have discerned seal ears from half a mile and MacLennan gave a credible description of rear flippers. The problem is obvious - if they are credited with getting those smaller details right, then why not the rest of the description?

Indeed, if one or more seals did venture onto the shores of Loch Ness over the years, why is there not one report from anyone saying they saw seals on land? Is the "expectant attention" effect so pervasive that no one was ever capable of simply reporting a bona fide seal? I think not, and perhaps it is safer to conclude seals were never seen on land by anyone (though that does not preclude seals beaching on the loch with no eyewitnesses).

But the story that gets the most attention is the famous account by Arthur Grant in January 1934. Rob is correct in taking the view that Grant did encounter an aquatic animal. Investigators of the time plumped for a tuskless walrus which is the only surviving member of the other pinnipeds, the odobenidae family. Rob plumps for the otariid sea lion and notes (among various points) the bounding action described by Grant is reminiscent of that seal.

I concede that is true but the main issue is that what Grant describes does not look like a sea lion and again we visit the issue of eyewitness reliability. Rob gets around this by suggesting Grant knew what he saw but embellished his account with a cryptic clue when he said the creature looked like a plesiosaur-seal hybrid. This is somewhat contradicted when Rob further suggests the webbed feet described may have been misperceived hind flippers. In my view, unintended misperceptions and intended embellishments do not usually co-exist.

But the nub of the argument for me is size. Sea lions are relatively small compared to the beasts described at Loch Ness and, as said before, some eyewitnesses to terrestrial sightings had one outstanding frame of reference - the road. Or, if you like, the creatures were moving over a giant ruler.

So the challenge before any investigator is deciding what is inaccurate and what is not. Unfortunately, that is susceptible to selection bias, If you are prone to a given theory, then features described by eyewitnesses which favour your theory can be deemed to be accurate. Those which are not tend to be ignored or dismissed. It is a condition that afflicts all of us.

Did a sea lion once make its way into Loch Ness and confound the people around the loch decades ago? Rob cannot prove it, but neither can I prove what Arthur Grant perceived, misperceived or embellished, so it is really down to the eye of the beholder and their own degree of intellect and emotion.

What I would ask is whether he considers his other theory of a possible large and long necked pinniped being the alternative explanation for monsters seen at Loch Ness? Rob has given a book with some novel thinking and some interesting tales of creatures known and unknown from newspaper reports of old. It also helps to add to the store of knowledge on the seal as Nessie theory. So, I am happy to include it in my library of books and recommend it to others.


The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com









Friday, 20 September 2019

Review of eDNA Documentary




On the heels of the recent eDNA results announced at Loch Ness came a documentary on Sunday covering the whole undertaking as well as the mandatory history of Nessie and her detractors and proponents. The name of the program was "The Loch Ness Monster: New Evidence".

Like a movie, the cast of Neil Gemmell, Eric Verspoor, Charles Paxton, Gordon Holmes, Val Moffatt, Loren Coleman and Steve Feltham (below) is introduced. Others will follow but the groupings are there to see with scientists, sceptics and believers with eyewitnesses in the middle somewhere. Will any of them offer a reasonable explanation as to what these people saw?

Neil Gemmell will feature throughout the documentary measuring rope lengths, surveying the scene and collecting water samples. The results will come at the end of the hour and a half program where we judge if it merits the subtitle "new evidence".




Four hypotheses are considered, two hundred and fifty water samples were taken and eighty five years of Nessie history is covered as a tale familiar to many who read this blog is once again recounted. Not surprisingly, the story begins with Marmaduke Wetherell, his fake Hippo tracks and the controversial Surgeon's Photograph. It seems every Nessie program must feature that photograph and being the most iconic image of the mystery, this is no surprise.

Everyone denounces it as a hoax except Loren Coleman (below) who puts a defence for the "hoax is a hoax" theory. Some. but not all, of that theory's points are raised, including the matter of when plastic wood was around. I covered that topic some seven years ago. The only curious matter for me was why Alistair Boyd was not on doing this as he was the man most responsible for exposing this fraud?




Having introduced the monster in an albeit negative way, the subject of cryptozoology was explained by Loren and we saw Steve Feltham as such a researcher at the loch recounting his only sighting to date. That happened in his first year, which encouraged him into thinking it was only a matter of time before the next sighting. Twenty eight years on, Steve has seen nothing more to this day as the loch refuses to yield up any more to him. Monster hunters throughout the years will know that feeling well.



Being slightly out of step, the documentary realigns to the beginning of the modern story with the Aldie Mackay sighting reported on May 2nd 1933. Adrian Shine (above) took us through this seminal event and makes an error by first stating that Aldie saw some ducks fighting. This is not true, she told Rupert Gould she initially thought it was two ducks fighting only to dismiss it. However, Adrian did state they saw a "humped body" or to be more precise a two humped body (from Gould). It was not televised what Adrian though they saw and to be fair to the producer, a lot of potential sceptic negativity seems to have ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor. Indeed, this mystery should appeal to a broad audience, not just those dedicated to its destruction.




We were told the construction of a new road in the 1930s opened the loch up to new sightseers. It did indeed, though it has to be pointed out it was not a new road but an existing road which was upgraded. However, it was near the old southern road that the first photograph was taken and finally -  finally - a documentary showed the best version of the Hugh Gray attributed to a Mr. Heron-Allen. Mind you, did anyone consulted see fit to mention the eel like head in the picture? Either that or the producer saw fit not to mention it. But given how the rest of the program panned out, I doubt that.  But for all you fans, here it is once again, grinning back at you. Is it the face of a giant eel? I couldn't possibly comment.




It was time to speak to some people who had claimed to have seen the old beast, and, after all, it is the likes of them that are the lifeblood of the mystery. We were regaled by tales from Val Moffatt, Karen and Gordon Taylor, and Richard White. We would also hear later from a Mamie McDairmaid. Val had featured on some documentaries before (e.g. Jeremy Wade's "River Monsters") and Richard White took some well known photos back in 1997 (below).





I don't think most of the witnesses were given much time to say anything at all, so here is Richard's account from the Nova PBS documentary from years back:

Right, I'm driving along the Loch side, glancing out of the window. You can see the rock formation, I was just down on the road there, it just rises. I saw this boiling in the water. I thought, "No, it can't be anything," and I carried on a wee bit. Then I looked again, and I saw three black humps. I mean, you know, there's the chance, I've seen something in the water. But what is it?

So I'm gobsmacked, I'm looking out the window, I just didn't know what it was. Then the people came behind me, and they obviously wanted me to move. But I didn't want to lose sight of this thing. So I just pulled over to the side, grabbed my camera, and I thought I was being very cool and very nonchalant and took two or three photos. In fact, as I say, I had taken nine or ten, without realizing, I just punched the button. It was just a pity it was a small camera.

NOVA: Did anybody else see anything?

WHITE: Yeah, the other two people who were there—I was just so excited I didn't get their name and address or anything—they saw it exactly the same as me. Because the wee wifey, who would have been a lady in her fifties, on holiday, she was Scottish, she said to me, "I've not been in the bar this morning!" And her husband said, "Ach, it's an eel! It's an eel!" And I said, "There's no eels that big!" And he said, "Ach, it's otters!" And I said, "You don't get otters swimming out like that!"

I saw what I saw, and I'm not going to be dissuaded. It wasn't just an imagination. I'm a sane guy, and I've got no ax to grind. As I say I sell pet food! What use to me is the Loch Ness monster? Unless I can invent a food called, I don't know, Monster Munchies perhaps?


Back to the documentary under review and we moved nearly 30 years into the 1960s beginning with Tim Dinsdale's famous film. Little was said about the classic photos apart from the Surgeon's photo. We had flashes of the Lee, Stuart, MacNab and Gray pictures with no mention of the Cockrell or O'Connor pictures. On the other hand they were not really dismissed either, mainly fulfilling the role of eye candy for the viewers.

Naturally during this period the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau was discussed along with Dan Taylor's mini submarine (which Loren said collided with Nessie - cough!) and the arrival of a young fame seeking Adrian Shine. His statement that this "should have been the end of it" after the failed attempts of the LNIB, Robert Rines and others ushered us into the 1980s and the Loch Ness Project's experiments with sonar culminating in Operation Deepscan in 1987.

The three sonar contacts that were not there when revisited were mentioned which led into a discussion on seals which come into the loch every few years. Since it is unlikely a seal was in the loch plus the fact that they spend about 20% of their time at the surface allied with the fact that a whole fleet of cruisers were on the loch for the operation suggests this is not a persuasive theory.

At which point the documentary took a left turn down a dark alley and by that I mean paranormal theories about the monster. This led us into talk about wormholes, a hollow earth entry point, a spaceship lying at the bottom of the loch, Saint Columba's supernatural control of the beast and the demon raiser, Aleister Crowley. Another attempt was made to link him with the mystery, though he left the loch about 100 years ago. I take the view he had nothing to do with it because we have people claiming they saw strange creatures in the loch before Crowley was born.

It was then onto the home straight and back to modern times as we revisited Gordon Holmes' 2007 video of a strange object in the loch. Neil Gemmell reviewed the video with Gordon and admitted to a "torpedo shaped" object moving through the water. It seems he wasn't accepting the strange theories about wind devils some have come up with to get rid of this troublesome video. Giant eels were mentioned in regard to this video and I knew where this was leading to!




Before the program got into the final results, Charles Paxton (above) was brought in to talk about his statistical analysis of monster sightings. This is a project he started quite a while back and hopes to publish. What he said on the documentary was brief and not given to critique and we shall wait for that to come out before saying anything else (I have seen his draft paper and have my own draft reply).

Finally it was on to the eDNA result and they occupied about seven minutes of the entire documentary! If you didn't know already, there was no reptile, sturgeon or catfish DNA detected. There was, of course, eel DNA found and so the best one could conclude was that giant eels could not be excluded (or proven). This would appear to be the "new evidence".

In conclusion, Neil Gemmell admitted the experiments could not guarantee 100% coverage of the loch and guesswork always enters into the areas which have not been examined. Adrian Shine added that eyewitnesses were honest and accurate - but I think he and I have different ideas about the meaning of the word "accurate", but I will cover that in another article.

The program ended by pointing out that there had been more than two dozen sightings of the monster since Professor Gemmell had been to the loch and there was the matter of  about 25% of the sampled DNA being unidentifiable.  It seems between these two sets of data, the monster will continue to have quite a bit of wriggle room, I will cover than in another article summing up things for me.


The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com








 












Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Two Books of Interest




First up is a new book by Rob Cornes entitled "The Loch Ness Sea Lion". Rob is the author of the larger work, "The Seal Serpent", but here he focuses on a more conventional theory in which he argues that an itinerant sea lion was responsible for some sightings since 1933. The cover showing the Arthur Grant episode shows you that this may well be involved in the book. I have a copy and will review it in the near future. The book can be purchased from amazon.com.




I would also like to draw readers' attention to a biography of the late Erik Beckjord written by Molly Squire and entitled "Beckjord: Biography of a Cryptozoologist". Some may be aware of Erik's involvement in the hunt for the Loch Ness Monster in the 1980s and his assertion that Tim Dinsdale was a Nessie paranormalist, just like him. Perhaps the book will also have something new to say about his film taken at the loch in 1983. I covered a few items on him in the past, which you can find here and here. The promotional text of the book says:

Biography of Bigfoot and anomaly researcher. Adventures of Jon Erik Beckjord, MBA, in woods, on Indian Reservations, Area 51, in the United Kingdom at sites of Crop Circles, at Loch Ness, with analysis of material evidence and 35 photos in text.

The book can be purchased here.


The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com


Thursday, 5 September 2019

Loch Ness eDNA results released




The results are out and you can view the press conference here and the eDNA results are officially published here.

Having now watched the whole feed, the gist of it to me was that they did not find any unusual DNA, certainly no reptilian DNA. He did say all the expected fish DNA were found including lots of eel DNA, in fact a surprising amount of such data, which led him to suggest that Loch Ness could harbour a giant eel.

This was not concluded from the eel DNA as the experiment (he said) could not distinguish between large and small eels. Also, no seal or otter DNA was found. Again, I do not find that surprising as the seal is an itinerant visitor to the loch and otters may have specific locations not visited by the samplers. Adherents of the itinerant Nessie theory will not be surprised by this. Neil Gemmell did say that about 20% of the DNA they found could not be identified, though the main issue there may be that such fragments were not amenable to analysis. To that end, he related the story of how 40% of DNA samples taken from an American subway station (?) were not identifiable. Is there a loophole there for some believers as any sequence not matching the species database would be set aside?

You may wonder about any catfish or sturgeon DNA results. No such DNA was found, but again for sturgeon, the itinerant theory can be invoked. For catfish, the only hope for such adherents is that the population is so small, perhaps even one individual, that it was missed in the sampling (a limitation of the sampling that Neil readily admitted to).

Personally, my own view from some years back that we have an exotic fish of some sort remains viable. Neil Gemmell implied that the degree of accuracy of the analysis was not species level but some level above. I would like to know more about that. The related giant eel theory has received a boost, though that theory needs further work to explain features not usually associated with eels (e.g. raised humps).

My second favoured theory of itinerant/trapped visitors was never going to be touched in this regard and Loch Ness will continue to receive visitors of all sorts, usual and unusual now and from centuries past.The fact that the experiment failed to identify any visitor species was a bit of a surprise and made me wonder if migratory salmon or trout were missed.

May I also say I was particularly interested in one DNA find and that was "a bacteria most commonly associated with salty waters in the freshwater loch". How did such a specimen get there? Once again, that reopens the discussion as to whether there is a subterranean path to the sea from the loch. Also of interest to me was whether these results can help towards estimating the total biomass of the loch or relative abundances of species - a item of data important in predator foodstocks.

In the end, the professor was not suggesting this disproves the Loch Ness Monster and the "legend" will continue and people will continue to report strange things. Indeed, there was perhaps a bit of the old spin in the conference because not only are scientists and cryptozoologists interested in these results, but local and national tourism interests. The experiment did not prove giant eels but it also did not disprove them. I am sure VisitScotland will be happy with that!

The Otago team will put a searchable species database online soon and there will a documentary on the UK Discovery Channel on the 15th September while Neil Gemmell hopes to publish a peer reviewed article for a scientific journal by the end of the year. The BBC has published a summary with reactions at this link.

The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com




Monday, 2 September 2019

Large eel like object in River Ness?





Something large seems to have passed by one of the underwater cameras that the Ness Fishery Board employs to monitor salmon runs. It has all the appearance of a large eel. It's a bit indistinct due to our helpful peaty water but it looks alive and big. Not quite a 30 footer but easily outsizes the salmon in the foreground which gives the impression of backing off from this object before moving back in.

Assuming this was taken at the weekend when we had a lot of rain and rivers were in high spate, something seems to have taken advantage of this high water level. I assume from the motion of particles in the water and the salmon that the flow is from left to right indicating Loch Ness is to the left and the Moray Firth to the right. In other words, this object is heading from the loch towards the sea.





The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com


Friday, 23 August 2019

Professor Gemmell sets the Date

Credit: Graham Sellers @G_S_Sellers


So the date has been set and it is 10am on Thursday 5th September at the Loch Ness Centre in Drumnadrochit. The eDNA work and conclusions of Professor Gemmell and his team from Otago University in New Zealand and beyond will be announced to the world. An article from the BBC website sets the scene and quotes Prof Gemmell: 

There have been over a thousand reported sightings of something in Loch Ness which have driven this notion of a monster being in the water. From those sightings there are around four main explanations about what has been seen. Our research essentially discounts most of those theories, however, one theory remains plausible.

This hearkens back to a statement he made back in May when some perhaps exuberant headlines were written:

Just to clarify, at this point, we can't rule out one of the common theories used to explain the monster myth ... For the record, we are still investigating the data. Most popular hypotheses seem unsupported; one cannot yet be excluded.

This was in response to some articles which quoted him thusly:

Is there anything deeply mysterious? Hmm. It depends what you believe. Is there anything startling? There are a few things that are a bit surprising.

Of course, "surprising" may refer to something unrelated to large monsters directly, but perhaps indirectly (e.g. food chain). But my own thoughts were on this quartet of monster theories he mentions but never divulges. Was it a generic quartet of fish, amphibian, reptile and mammal? Or perhaps a cryptozoological quartet of plesiosaur, giant eel, long necked pinniped or ... well I am not sure what would be number four.

Or is is a more mixed bag of sturgeon, catfish, giant eel, plesiosaur? I suspect the last list but when he says the "fourth" one cannot be excluded and remains plausible, I presume that means there is identified DNA fragments in Loch Ness consistent with such a theory. Well, I look forward to the event, but as said before, fans of paranormal and itinerant Nessies will be less moved by such events. Adrian Shine, whose Loch Ness Centre will host the event said:

We are delighted to welcome Prof. Gemmell back to the Loch Ness Centre on 5th September where he will announce the results at a press conference. Undoubtedly, many will be waiting to see if any of these results shed light upon the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster. Prof. Gemmell, in a press invitation yesterday, claims to have dismissed a number of monster theories but has promised that ‘one remains feasible’. Naturally, we look forward to much discussion and debate!

As an aside, I was in email communication with a media company who were asking me for Loch Ness Monster information for a documentary which they said would likely air on September 15th on the Travel Channel. He was a bit coy about their access to the eDNA results. So perhaps that will be worth watching in regard to this latest scientific venture into Loch Ness. I also asked Otago University's PR team about live streaming the press event, to which they said wait and see.

In conclusion and as said before, various past ventures have seemed to promise much and delivered little, such as the LNIB surface watches of the 1960s and the sonar-led Operation Deepscan of the 1980s. The shortcomings of the former were laid out by Ted Holiday in his books while the latter did have its contacts but it became clear that interpretation could turn the raw data into anything.



The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com

Thursday, 15 August 2019

A Word on Paul Harrison




As readers may know, Paul Harrison is a well known author on matters pertaining to the Loch Ness Monster. Most enthusiasts for the subject will have a copy of his "Encyclopaedia of the Loch Ness Monster" and may also have his other cryptid work, "Sea Serpents and lake Monsters of the British Isles" on their bookshelves. However, it is in true crime writing that he had established his name writing a plethora of books and engaging on a career devoted to that subject.

But it was with sadness and regret that I recently read of allegations by the Sun newspaper that he had lied about and fabricated interviews with famous serial killers Peter Sutcliffe and Ted Bundy amongst others. Paul has made some sort of confession and has now withdrawn from social media and other activities awaiting whatever happens next.

In blog posts over the years, I have intimated that Paul said he had the manuscript for a book concerning one or more interviews he held with infamous monster hunter, Frank Searle, whom he said he tracked down to his home in Lancashire in his latter years. A book on a serial hoaxer would have fitted in well with his books on serial killers I surmised.

But now in the light of these allegations, I must question whether such an interview took place at all and whether it was just a fabrication like those interviews conducted with famous serial killers. The fact that Paul repeatedly put off publishing such a book despite saying he had the manuscript all but ready does not fill me with confidence either.

Now Paul may well have tracked down Frank like he said he did and there is still a book to be read. But the onus is now on him what to do or say next about this matter. I won't pre-judge him and neither will I contact him as I suspect he has a lot on his plate to deal with and Frank Searle will be the least of his concerns.

So I will just leave it at that but thank him for the research he has contributed to the great subject of the Loch Ness Monster over the years.


The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com




Sunday, 11 August 2019

A Review of an Interesting Book



I thought I had just about all the Loch Ness Monster books listed on my booklist, but then I discovered another one recently. It is more an A4 booklet running to just under 60 pages and it describes an expedition to the loch by the senior school pupils of Blackdown High School in Leamington Spa back in 1971 and 1972.

One may assume this would be a publication more worthy of juvenile books that I generally avoid and not even list, but this book is a delight, well researched and written and, as you can see from the table of contents below, has its own highlights. In fact, the book begins with a foreword by none other than influential author, Constance Whyte. She offered a lot of help to the pupils in their research into the topic. Her foreword does not say much that Nessie researchers do not already know, but her anti-scientist stance (not anti-science stance) included a hope that these bright young things would augur a better future for Loch Ness Monster research.




That was over-optimistic in hindsight, but let me go over some of the nuggets I found whilst digging into this snapshot of Loch Ness research in the early 70s. Most of the notable researchers of the time were talked to or got a mention. That list includes Ted Holiday, Alex Campbell, Frank Searle, Tim Dinsdale and so on.

Obviously, Frank Searle has been exposed since then, but he comes across as being helpful to the kids including giving them a copy of his first "monster" photograph from October 1971 and a sketch of a tail he claimed he have seen on August 8th 1971. Now I am not actually sure I have seen this photo before. I included most of his photos in my most recent book, but not this one, so I include it here for readers' interest, though the quality of the reproduction is not great.



What was most interesting was their interview with monster aficionado, Alex Campbell, at his cottage in Fort Augustus. A few interesting points came out of that chat. As usual, he recounted his only sighting of a head, neck and humps in Borlum Bay back in 1933, but what I was always unsure of was his father's experiences, as he was the previous water bailiff. 

This was clarified when he said his father had also seen the creature multiple times and had warned him as a kid not to go into the loch due to the water horses that resided there. However, what caught my attention the most was that Alex Campbell "expressed some doubts about land sightings". That surprised me as one might assume that those who believe there is a monster in the loch would tend to accept the possibility of it coming ashore.

Apparently not, and we can now add Alex Campbell to a list that includes Frank Searle, Alistair Boyd and whomsoever else. Campbell's reasoning was that he would have expected to have seen evidence of more compressed vegetation, some which I presume he expected to have seen as the roving water bailiff.

Moving on, all the classic black and white photographs are discussed except for one - Peter O'Connor. In fact, it is not even discussed in dubious terms, I presume it was the only photo dismissed by the LNIB and others when the school kids were discussing evidence. The survey of sightings show some sketches done for the kids. This includes the classic Gregory Brussey neck sightings but also a sketch supplied by Ted Holiday of his August 26th 1968 hump sighting (which I believe was his penultimate sighting).




To my own interest, I found some sightings which were not on my own list of eyewitness reports, though it is not clear whether these have appeared elsewhere in the literature. These are a head and neck sighting by a Mrs. Scott of Foyers in November 1969 seen from a bus on the way to Inverfarigaig which stopped to see the 4-5ft neck approach to within 200 yards of the observers.

Another "new" sighting was actually two reports from a Miss Mackay of Foyers. Her first encounter with the beast was in 1955 as she was cycling to work at about 7am. Assuming an awful noise of splashing was a boat, she looked at the loch to see a big black hump in mid-loch. It had the classic upturned boat appearance only to submerge and reappear as a "big black heap" whereupon a second submergence led to a final re-appearance which now included a very small head on a long neck. The sighting lasted 10 to 15 minutes with the creature moving at a fast pace.

She had a less spectacular second sighting years later and also commented that her father had seen a whale like creature in the loch and she knew of the old tales of the monster from her childhood. As it turns out, the school group had two sightings of their own on June 22nd 1971 and July 2nd 1972. The first was seen in Foyers Bay, being a hump seen at the centre of a pool of ripples, though it was at 600 yards in rain for ten seconds.

The second a year later from the same spot involved a four foot long dark object moving at speed from the Foyers Bay towards the Hydro-Electric plant. It moved 80-100 yards in 13 seconds to give an average speed of 14 mph. In a sobering lesson in monster hunting, no photos or film were taken (some equipment being lent by the LNIB).

So, plenty of excitement for our young hunters, and by way of example of those days, the school had access to the LNIB records of accepted sightings and they randomly took 1968 as their year and from this they tabulate 15 sightings, Of which six were single hump sightings, four double humps, two of three humps, one was two pairs of humps  and two involving a head-neck (one of which was a hump-head-neck).

When the media talks about a record 11 sightings this year, the quantity is comparable to 1968 but the quality is well short. So, the school's report hearkens back to a time when activity was high at the loch and so it seems was the monster itself. At some point, I will scan all the pages in allowing all to study this document from 47 years ago.

As an interesting appendix, Frank Searle mentions helping out the school in his unpublished work, "Loch Ness Investigation". However, he is not very complimentary of a teacher from the group whom he accuses, amongst other things, of passing information onto ex-LNIB members. The teacher himself later accused Frank Searle of plagiarising a chapter from this very school report in his 1976 book, "Nessie, Seven Years in Search of the Monster". To Searle's chagrin, his publishers settled with the teacher and let Searle's book lapse out of print. Never a dull moment with Frank!


The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com




Sunday, 4 August 2019

Latest Loch Ness Monster Sonar Story



Let us now look at another recent Nessie event when Mike Bell, captain of the cruise boat, Nessie Hunter snapped this sonar hit when near Urquhart Castle on the 27th June. The account from the Sun newspaper is quoted below to give a flavour of what happened:


LOCH SHOCK

Loch Ness boat skipper claims he’s finally found Nessy as sonar image shows ’25ft monster lurking beneath waves’

A BOAT skipper claims he's finally found the Loch Ness Monster lurking beneath the waves in Scotland. Mike Bell captured the remarkable sonar image which he reckons shows 25ft-long Nessie. The sonar picture, taken while he was taking a group of tourists for a trip on Loch Ness on June 27, shows the bottom of the loch, a fish and a long, thin object about 115ft below the surface. But when the 24-year-old skipper took readings at the same spot the mystery object had vanished. Mike, from nearby Drumnadrochit, said:

“I would like to think this is our creature, Nessie. It’s my first year being the skipper in the boat in five months and I’ve never seen it or had something that big on the sonar. My dad is the more experienced skipper who has been doing this for a few years and has said he’s never seen it that big before on the sonar. It’s my first sighting of Nessie and I think my dad is a wee bit jealous as he has never seen it. The standard size on the sonar is usually a sharp prick suggesting a small fish. The large line about 35 metres in the water was about 10-25 feet. An object of that size I would think is way too big for the normal species in the loch. It must have been about five or six minutes we spent trying to pick up this creature again.”




Now I wasn't sure if this was the same Nessie Hunter boat associated with the infamous George Edwards. Perhaps it is or was, but it doesn't matter as this is a different person with a different story to tell. What can we tell from the sonar image at the top of this article? Three targets are circled in the picture and the first one at the bottom coincides with the depth measure of 101m at the top left and so we can take this to be part of the loch bed.

There are two objects in mid water, one elongated and one more compact in shape. Since there is a depth scale on the right, we can estimate the depths and apparent sizes of the objects, The shallower object is at a depth of 18 metres with dimensions of about 2m wide by 3.5m high. The deeper object is at a depth of 32 metres with dimensions of 17m x 3.5m. 

That suggests objects of notable size in the range of a sonic nine feet high and not likely to be fish or a group of fish (because fish do not shoal into larger aggregates in Loch Ness). Below is a Fishfinder screen for what fish tend to look like. Here the depth is in feet and not metres and is shallower at 30 feet deep. You can see the fish as crescent images generally taking up a height of less than a foot.




But let me point out again that though the vertical axis denotes depth, the horizontal axis denotes time and that is why this should not be interpreted in the same manner as an optical image. In real time, the sonar screen moves from right to left, with the sonar returns on the right being the most recent data.

Does this imply a creature with a body thickness of nine feet, which is big even by Nessie standards? Well, we do not know the orientation of the object or whether it changed over time, so that is unknown. Also, the 17 metre (54 feet) extent of the image suggests that the object is moving in roughly the same direction as the boat for no more than 17 metres before moving out of the sonar beam.

However, if a true elongated object was aligned with the boat's length, then as the boat passed over such a stationary object, then the trace would be consistent with its true length. Whether this is a stationary or moving object trace is hard to say. Meantime, one interpretation of the shallower compact sonar image is that it could be an elongated perpendicular object which is either stationary or moving away from the sonar sweep.

Note that the false colour scale of each object is also a measure of the object's density. The lighter the colour, the stronger the return of the sonar echo. What one can deduce from that in this image is unclear, but in the case of fish, it is the swimbladder that returns the strongest signal and the lungs for mammals and reptiles. Opinions are divided on whether the Loch Ness Monster has lungs, swimbladders, other air sacs or nothing at all which would give them a weak sonar signal.


WHAT WAS IT?

Having said all that, what kind of objects could produce this kind of trace? What about waterlogged tree trunks which have achieved a degree of mid water buoyancy? I am not sure these would account for the thickness of object traced and we are told the objects could not be found on a rescan of the area.

The thermocline is also oft mentioned in such scenarios but would not such a large super structure produce more than a 17m blip on the screen? Indeed, what does the thermocline or logs or seals or other objects of interest actually look like on modern sonar screens? Surely an appropriate catalogue of such images would be a boon to interpreting such images.

The final explanation would be effects of false sonar images produced by reflection and refraction. However, this just begs the question again, what do such images look like? Are the possible variations in such spurious echoes so wide and varied that it becomes an unfalsifiable scenario? Again, proven comparison images are required here.

So, the account focuses on the deeper sonar hit, although one is inclined to include both images in the debate and I still have a query over the relative brokenness of the deeper image.  These could be images of two large creatures and they are certainly of more interest than the recent surface photography and ranks with a similar sonar image taken by Marcus Atkinson in 2012.

The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com




Monday, 29 July 2019

Recent Loch Ness Webcam Clip

Let us look at the latest webcam clip from Eoin O' Faodhagain who recorded what looked like two objects in the water estimated by him as 20 feet in length and about five feet out of the water. The clip was recorded on the 10th of July at 12.53 pm. A cruise boat can be seen making its way north at the top of the picture complete with wash.

Looking at the two objects throughout the two minute clip one can make out that they slightly move further apart and then closer together which gives the impression that they are merging into one larger object. As with Eoin's video of a long, shadow like object back in November 2018, I brought in a shot of a cruise boat from the same webcam and did some overlay measurements.


 

Once the two pictures were overlaid and the two objects dragged over to be underneath the boat image, some estimate of size could be attempted, though with a degree of error for the fuzziness of the objects. I low balled the numbers with this boat last time but one commenter said it was the 80 foot Jacobite Cruiser. If that is the case, then the objects are about three to six feet wide and six to nine feet from each other.

That gives a total extent across the water of twelve to twenty one feet, so Eoin was in the ballpark with the estimates. Since the objects look near spherical, the height of each object is roughly the same as its width. It is not possible from this clip to ascertain whether it is one single object or two separate ones. What could it or they be? Well, too big to be birds is an obvious interpretation or how about two kayakers moving with not so visible paddles?

Beyond that there is nothing that could be conclusively deduced from the images, though others are free to comment. I asked Eoin how the event panned out after the clip ended and he said the objects remained in view for at least another four minutes, but as the objects drew further away, one disappeared and then the other one or two minutes later. One question that was on my mind was how visible this webcam vista is from the busy Urquhart Castle area? Are the objects often brought up for discussion clearly visible to tourists at the castle? That is an important question, but one I do not have a ready answer to.

The Daily Mail article is below (link here), note the reporter erroneously states both objects are twenty feet long, when it is rather the total length of the objects and the space between them that is correct.

A veteran Nessie hunter claims to have filmed two 20ft monsters swimming together in the legendary Scottish loch. Eoin O' Faodhagain, 54, was watching a live stream of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands when he saw the beasts on Wednesday, July 10. He immediately started his own recording of the live stream, run by researcher Mikko Takala, to show the world what he had seen. The footage shows two dark objects moving closely together close to the shore in Urquhart Bay - which Mr O' Faodhagain believes are two Nessies.

He said: 'The day of the sighting was extremely windy, as you can notice from the trees moving over and back. When I noticed the two strange shapes first they were either side of each other and not behind each other, going in the same general direction. Never did I think it was two humps from the one animal, the sighting did not give me that impression.'

Mr O' Faodhagain, from Co Donegal, Republic of Ireland, added: 'The two strange shapes were identical to each other, and that also gave me the impression it was two separate objects. 'I was quite startled to see two possible Nessies on the webcam. I think it's a bit of a rarity to view this.'

Mr O' Faodhagain estimates the objects were both in the region of 20ft long and reaching about 5ft out of the water. He said: 'I have never seen two objects so close to each other on the webcam before and I have been watching for years. Their shape in the water is very strange.

Mr O' Faodhagain, from Co Donegal, Republic of Ireland, saw two dark objects moving closely together close to the shore in Urquhart Bay 'What are they, I don't know. They could be two Nessies.' Mr O' Faodhagain has now spotted the Loch Ness Monster four times altogether, and three times in 2019 alone. 


While we are on this article, the Mail quotes the owner of  the webcam, Mikko Takala: 

Mikko Takala, a computer scientist who has been researching Loch Ness for over 20 years, believes climate change may have effected the increase in sightings of the legendary creature. He said: 'There has been a slight increase in surface temperatures in Loch Ness due to climate change and it is possible that a cold blooded creature like Nessie may be encouraged to return and/or stay longer in the warming waters of Loch Ness.

'We believe that the recent winter was milder and less road salt was spread as a result (the previous winter saw thousands of tonnes spread locally during a long cold treacherous spell). 'It all finds its way down water courses and into the loch raising saline content and that may deter the monster(s) to the point at which they leave it until levels normalise again.' On the possibility of there being more than one Loch Ness monster, he added: 'I've always believed there has to be a family of unknown creatures in the loch, albeit a small one.

'It's too much of a stretch to believe that a single creature can live for hundreds, if not thousands of years or more. Also, there are cave like formations near Urquhart Castle, known as Edwards Deep and no attempt has ever been made to see if these are navigable.' 

Are Nessie sightings on the increase due to climate change? In a recent article I penned, I argued the exact opposite, sightings are down historically due to climate change. The problem here is relative, I am looking over the decades as there is a real drop since the 1960s where Mikko is looking at the recent uptick in reports. The problem for me is that a lot of the claimed sightings made in recent years do not come up to standard of older reports and I doubt would have made it past older researchers. It seems today any report that comes with a picture or video is automatically hyped by the media and gets logged as the genuine article.

UPDATE:

I had a look at the satellite images over Urquhart Castle to guess where this webcam might be. Based on the topography of the immediate area in front of the webcam, I have included this map to circle the area and the line of general sight (though that depends on the orientation of the camera). It looks like the camera is pointing over the busy area of the Castle. Why is the castle not visible? This is because the area in question is high above the castle and the main road which will be out of sight.



I could be wrong, but draw your own conclusions. This location is several hundered metres from the loch.
 


The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com