Tuesday 25 April 2023

Enigma Documentary: DNA, Giant Eels and an Unseen Film

A new documentary aired on Channel 5 some weeks ago looking into the enigma known as the Loch Ness Monster (link). This was one of the better programs on the subject as it focused on the search for the creature in the matter of the DNA samples taken from the loch in 2018 and the results released to the world in September 2019 which was covered at the time on this blog. A documentary was televised on the UK Discovery Channel devoted to the subject which I reviewed here.

The program opened with the well known faces of Willie Cameron and Steve Feltham and the story beginning all the way back in 565AD with Saint Columba and his water beast in what the original Latin text called the Lake of the River Ness. The tales of old flashed back to the modern day as drone technology was employed to take some excellent shots of the loch from on high. What would Columba have made of all this? Or would he yet have found the monster of the loch a more fabulous sight to behold?

But every story has a beginning which brought us to monster researcher Gary Campbell who took us through the early days of the 1930s, the first photograph of the creature taken by Hugh Gray, then the one taken by a certain Kenneth Wilson and a peek at what looked like an impressive collection of old newspaper clippings. This switched to various scenes such as water bailiff Alex Campbell being interviewed in the 1950s, the Loch Ness Investigation of the 1960s right up a young Steve Feltham arriving at the loch in 1992.

Eyewitness Richard White told us about his pole like neck sighting from 1996 (below) and Gary Campbell's own sighting which ensnared him around that time. Such seemed to be the summary of the last ninety years of the hunt. At this point I noted there was a near zero acknowledgement of evidence from the 1930s to the 1990s. No classic photos apart from the two above, no Dinsdale film or any of the like. Was this down to brevity of time or making it all seem more relevant to the modern viewer?

This moved us seamlessly on in a chronological manner to the environmental DNA quest of Professor Neil Gemmell four years ago. While his team were seen on their boat collecting water samples, the talk turned to what the mysterious animal could be, because the hunt was now on for a sample of its DNA. Familiar theories abounded such as deer, sturgeon, catfish, eels and the venerable plesiosaur. So just how would one recognise the DNA of a plesiosaur? The professor suggested something between bird and crocodile DNA. That sounded reasonable though the implication was that if you did have plesiosaur DNA, there was no way to verify that was the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

This brought us to the contrast between this new brand of "monster hunter" and the old brand which we were told is dying out. To be fair to Professor Gemmell, he was not presenting himself as any kind of monster hunter - that would be professional suicide. He was at Loch Ness to promote the science of environmental DNA, but if some unexpected strands turned up, they would then be firmly in the domain of science and some serious analysis could begin.

Adrian Shine chipped in and said nothing had been found in fifty years of searching. It was a failure which to him meant they were all either useless at looking or there was no monster. But there was those three sonar contacts he saw during Operation Deepscan in 1987. He again admitted that he did not know what they were although that did not mean to him that they were monsters.

I do not agree that the traditional monster hunter is dying out. Their numbers are certainly down on the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s, but dying suggests a process that ends in death rather than a process which may have bottomed out. Who knows? We look to a newer generation to continue that particular form of the hunt. But the documentary then moved back to the theories.

Steve Feltham talked about the front runner theory which ticked the most boxes for him - the Wels Catfish. He suggested a dozen or so juveniles may have been released into the loch decades before the whole Nessie media circus exploded in the 1930s. It is entirely reasonable that those fish could have grown to large proportions in time for 1933 onwards but I am not convinced the Loch Ness environment was suitable for breeding and so they are all long gone. As others have said, this does not explain long neck sightings or land sightings. I suspect one solution there is to discount these other genres as explicable by known phenomena around the loch. In which case, why not just explain the remainder in the same manner?

Gary Campbell was more attracted to the giant eel theory and recounted a tale from fifteen years ago when an eyewitness saw something evidently large and eel-like swim past and under them and was longer than their fifteen foot boat. It was appropriate at this point that Gordon Holmes' 2007 video of something long and slender was displayed, though the man himself did not make an appearance.

All these large but known creatures were discussed by Adrian Shine and Neil Gemmell as they assembled some seriously long ropes to gather those important water samples from the lowest possible depths at about 200 metres down. As the program approached the point where the DNA results would be revealed, various points of view were expressed on topics such as what DNA may or may not be found, what if it wasn't recognised and the urgency in getting samples into a protected environment as they can degrade quickly.

It was then that we were treated to the Bobby Pollock film of August 2000. This is one of those films which tantalizes but getting a close look at it in terms of the whole film or a decent number of frames has proven elusive. We got about fifteen seconds of it in the documentary out of a total of three and a half minutes filmed by him. This is a film which would greatly benefit from some video stabilization due to the shakiness of the filming and perhaps after that some further image enhancement to clarify the object of interest.

The creature or whatever it may have been, was hundreds of yards away from Mr. Pollock, but there is something there to dig deeper into. For those unfamiliar with this film, the Glasgow Herald of 12th March 2002 gives the account:

The three-and-a-half minute video was filmed by Mr Pollock, 45, from Crookston, as he walked at Invermoriston Bay with his wife, Catherine, 41, and three-year-old son Robert. Mr Pollock claims he saw the creature rise around five feet out of the loch and that it was jet black in colour. The video has won him (pounds) 500 from bookmaker William Hill for the best recent Nessie ''sighting''. The Official Loch Ness Monster Fan Club administers the annual award on behalf of the bookmaker.

Mr Pollock said: ''We stopped at a place called the stone seat overlooking Invermoriston Bay for our lunch and I saw an object floating on top of the water, and it started moving off towards Fort Augustus at quite a pace. You could say that it was a seal or a deer in the water, but I've seen things like that in the water and it definitely wasn't one of them. I've never seen anything like this in 12 years. It's very strange."

Mark Stewart, curator of marine mammals at the Scottish Sea Life Sanctuary in Oban, Argyll, studied the video 30 times. He said: ''Sometimes it looked like a seal, sometimes it did not look anything like a seal. It was moving quickly - it was pretty quick - I felt too quick for a seal.''. Mr. Stewart said he showed the video to experts and staff at the sanctuary, but no-one knew what it was.

Though Mr. Pollock captured the images in August 2000, he held off for more than a year before bringing them to the attention of Gary Campbell, president of Inverness-based Loch Ness Monster Fan Club. Mr. Campbell said Mr. Pollock did not release the video because he ''feared ridicule''. He added: ''But when I saw it, I realised that what he had was probably one of the best pieces of footage ever. We have spent a long time analysing this video. After careful analysis, we concluded that whatever was in the water was definitely animate.''

I include a still taken from the documentary, it's the dot in the centre. It doesn't look much from here, but it looked better as a film sequence, yet still in need of enhancement. Single frames from video do not translate as well as a still image taken with a camera and then there is the problem with recording images of objects in Loch Ness from the shore as one could already be hundreds of metres away from the object of interest. Even the claimed five feet of neck or whatever it was would be a challenge at such distances.

After some wrap up comments on the monster legend, including the assertion that people who want to believe in monsters will see monsters and how King Kong may have influenced people, it was on to the DNA results. Professor Gemmell had spent a year analysing the sequences with the help of various labs and it was time for the news conference at the Loch Ness Centre to tell the world what the 250 samples had revealed.

First off, nearly 3000 species had been found and most of those would be of the microscopic variety. No reptile DNA was detected nor anything that was catfish, sturgeon or seal. To that could be added the absence of cormorants, mergansers, ducks and otters. I could quite understand why seal DNA was not found as they are not indigenous to the loch and are rare visitors. The other reason for absence of DNA was the low density of it in the water. I can see that as the land based creatures are not always in or on the water. 

However, the emphasis of the results was on the eels of Loch Ness. Large amounts of eel DNA were found in almost every sample taken from the loch which led the professor to speculate about the possibility of giant eels. The DNA samples did not prove the eels were gigantic, but neither did it disprove their presence in the loch. All this assumed giant eel DNA does not differ significantly from normal eel DNA. The other result that people took note of was that about 20% of the DNA remained unidentified due to errors in sequencing, samples being too short or temporal. I was not sure what temporal meant.

Various people then gave their opinions on these results. Steve Feltham said lots of eel DNA was a given, so what was there to say? Willie Cameron suggested the small amount of water sampled compared to the loch size plus the admitted absence of DNA for otters and so on left the mystery open. Gary Campbell focused on the amount of DNA samples which gave inconclusive results as another possible avenue.

As the programme closed, Professor Gemmell hailed the survey a success as it provided a platform to popularize science and I do not doubt that this was achieved. Despite the absence of what people had desired to be found, disproving a negative was not what he had set out to achieve. Environmental DNA surveys can only talk about what was found and not about what was not found. The absence of otter DNA did not imply that otters had disappeared from Loch Ness prior to 2018. Or then again maybe it did, but people were not accepting that implication.

So the documentary ended and watching it cover those events of 2019 again gave me an opportunity to revise what my own thoughts were on the eDNA survey now compared to back then. The first point was that there were no catfish or sturgeon in Loch Ness for the same reason there were no seals in the loch. That is, there were zero catfish, sturgeon and seals in the loch and in the months prior to when sampling began.

That was the position I took, but on reflection one should not discount the other reason and that was due to an inadequate supply of their DNA floating in the water. If there was a solitary seal in the loch in the weeks up to the sampling survey, would it have been detected? My guess it it was more unlikely than likely unless the boat luckily sampled in the area it was most active over about 26 square miles. That is all a theoretical possibility, though I regard it as the second choice explanation.

Which brought me to the second point regarding DNA samples from animals which are indigenous but for which samples were not found. I refer to the otters, cormorants and ducks, etc. In that case, one can be pretty sure their DNA was in the water but it never meaningfully got into the sample bottles. That suggested to me that DNA shed by an animal does not travel very far from its point of origin. There are exceptions, such as if the animal in question was located at the mouth of a river, then the flow into the loch may spread its genetic code further.

But otherwise it seemed to me that if an animal or small group were fairly localized in their activity over a certain time period, their DNA would be harder to find. Does that mean the Loch Ness Monster(s) exhibit this behaviour? Well, as said above, one can only really talk about what was found rather than what was not found. As an aside, I read that no salmon DNA was detected from the fish farms near Dores. I found that a bit hard to believe and it was not stated in the documentary, but I would like to see a confirmation of that from another source. If that were true, then DNA really does not travel far and maybe tends to go down than across - probably because it is held within faeces.

The third point was on that 20% of DNA that was unclassifiable. Was Nessie hidden in that pool of data, once again hidden from our eyes? That was an argument that I never found convincing. If 20% of some  hypothetical Nessie DNA was too degraded to identify then I could accept that statistic but for 100% of an entire class of DNA to disappear down this black hole looked improbable. One animal's DNA was surely no more prone to degradation than any other animal?

Well, I still take that view but I thought it over and the only reason for a whole class of DNA being corrupted would be due to the animal in question moving in an environment that accelerated DNA loss. Nothing came to my mind that would allow this. What about the abyssal deep near the bottom of the loch? Was there a difference in acidity, water pressure, oxygen levels, silt density, temperature or light levels that could affect DNA? I was not persuaded either way and am no expert on DNA stability to take it further. But I will keep an open mind on that question.

Which brings us to those eels. Okay, so eel DNA was found in Loch Ness. No surprise there you might say as people have said there are millions of them in the loch. But Professor Gemmell expressed surprise that so much of their DNA was found almost everywhere. Now thinking again about it, he has a point. The eel in question is the European Eel or Anguilla anguilla and according to Wikipedia:

The European eel is a critically endangered species. Since the 1970s, the numbers of eels reaching Europe is thought to have declined by around 90% (possibly even 98%). Contributing factors include overfishing, parasites such as Anguillicola crassus, barriers to migration such as hydroelectric dams, and natural changes in the North Atlantic oscillation, Gulf Stream, and North Atlantic drift.

This would seem to be the reason for his surprise, was Professor Gemmell expecting samples consistent with a critically endangered species? If the number of migratory eels into Loch Ness has been dropping for decades, is there an unaccounted for surplus of non-migratory eel biomass in Loch Ness? Maybe, but the question is difficult to answer. I made an enquiry as to whether the amount of eel DNA collected gave an indication of the total eel biomass, but I was told it could not, which was a disappointment.

Moreover, I am not aware of any attempts to estimate that value from any survey in past decades. All I have found is statements that there are or were millions of eels in Loch Ness. Based on that 90%-98% drop, does that means there are now hundreds or only tens of thousands there now? There is nothing quantitative apart from past small samplings with nets and the latest eDNA results. There may indeed be a surprising amount of eel in Loch Ness and the excess could be found in the proverbial two tonne creature or two thousand equivalent normal eels.

I read that the eel population in Europe is now recovering after various conservation measures, but still well short of historical norms. That is good news for large animals eating the various fish of Loch Ness and if they are gigantic eels, there is still no way of telling if that DNA collected a few years back belongs to them or the kind pulled up by a rod,

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