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DNA Survey of Life in Loch Ness Will Hunt for Its Monster Resident

The goal is to catalog the lake’s diversity of life—including any oversized, prehistoric reptiles

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If the Loch Ness monster exists—and it's not some pan-dimensional creature from the fairy world—it should have DNA.

Like other creatures that lurk in watery realms, that DNA should be floating all over its lake home, Loch Ness, in Scotland. Scientists can use this genetic material, known as eDNA, to track elusive beasts. And now researchers are turning that powerful method on Loch Ness to create the most comprehensive biodiversity catalog of its residents yet, Reuters reports. And it may or may not include “Nessie.”

Almost every creature that touches a body of water leaves DNA-filled traces behind. Ducks may leave skin cells and feces, fish shed scales and urine, amphibians shed mucus, and even mammals like deer leave some saliva when they bend down to drink. And as the price for DNA testing has plummeted, comprehensive surveys of water bodies have become more feasible.

Researchers have used to the technique to help determine the presence of invasive bullfrogs in France and the movements of invasive Asian Carp in the Great Lakes. It’s even been used to monitor fish migrations around New York.

The Loch Ness researchers hope to create a similar catalogue while surveying the lake’s DNA. The researchers have been collecting samples since April, Michael Greshko writes for National Geographic and they’ll start extracting the DNA this June.

“While the prospect of looking for evidence of the Loch Ness monster is the hook to this project, there is an extraordinary amount of new knowledge that we will gain from the work about organisms that inhabit Loch Ness,” team leader Neil Gemmell of the University of Otago in New Zealand, says in a press release. The team expects to release their findings in January of 2019.

Gemmell is going into the work with an open mind. “I don’t believe in the idea of a monster,” Gemmell tells Martin Belam at The Guardian. “But I’m open to the idea that there are things yet to be discovered and not fully understood. Maybe there’s a biological explanation for some of the stories.” The DNA could support alternative explanations for Nessie sightings, including giant sturgeon or catfish.

Even if Nessie’s genetic fingerprint doesn’t show, the search will still be worthwhile. New species of bacteria may hide in the deep, dark loch. And the researchers hope to track the spread of invasive species.

“There’s been an awful lot of people taking an awful lot of gear into Loch Ness over the years,” Gemmell tells Alison Gilchrist at Scientific American. “There’s suggestions that there’s an invasive shrimp species from the southern United States in Loch Ness. There’s been reports recently of pink salmon, which is of course a Pacific salmon, in the Ness River.”

Overall, the chances of Nessie turning up are pretty slim. As History.com reports, stone carvings of the beast date back to 500 A.D., likely created by the Picts, a group of indigenous inhabitants of Scotland. But over the years, efforts to locate the beast have failed.

In 2003, the BBC funded a massive expedition using satellites and 600 sonar beams but didn't find any signs of the beast. A marine drone that scoured the lake in 2016 also failed to turn up evidence of a monster. (But the probe did find a Nessie replica used in the 1970 film “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.”)

As Reuters reports, the most convincing bit of evidence is a 1934 image dubbed the “Surgeon’s Photo.” But six decades after it was taken, it was revealed to be a hoax.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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