Loch Ness Monster DNA Proof Would Activate Government Plan

An artist pictures the Loch Ness monster. Will scientists track down the legendary beast? Getty Images

A new DNA survey of Loch Ness doesn't expect to find evidence for the Loch Ness Monster, but there's a Scottish government plan in place should they find genetic material from the elusive cryptid.

Neil Gemmell, Professor of Reproduction and Genomics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, lead a team of researchers to search Loch Ness for traces of environmental DNA (eDNA) in 259 water samples, which could contain fragments of skin, spores, feces and other shed biological material. While the primary aim of the survey, according to Gemmell, "is to produce a census of life in Loch Ness," the possibility of DNA from the unknown creature known as Nessie adds an abnormal allure.

"I am not a believer, but open to being wrong," Gemmell wrote for The Conversation.

Gemmell's survey has brought renewed attention to a code of practice created by Scottish Natural Heritage in 2001, with SNS telling the BBC it would "dust off" that plan should compelling DNA evidence of Nessie emerge.

Under the code of practice, all research projects on Loch Ness must commit to a catch-and-release policy, taking DNA samples only.

The plan was originally drawn up to protect the Loch—and whatever may reside in its 1.8 cubic miles of water—from overzealous monster hunters, though Natural Heritage now describes the plan as more of a lark. Nick Halfhide of the SNS described the plan to the BBC as "partly serious and partly for a bit of fun."

But at the time, the code was controversial among monster hunters, with Gary Campbell of the Loch Ness Monster Fan Club warning the BBC that the code of conduct "might drive the 'loony fringe,' for want of a better word, underground. They might not publicize their plans and do something that could be a danger to themselves, the environment and Nessie."

The Scottish Natural Heritage protocol was originally developed in response to a plan by Swedish journalist and monster hunter Jan-Ove Sundberg to trap the monster. Loch Ness researcher Adrian Shrine, who aided in the recent eDNA survey, documents on his site a long history of similar plans, including a 60-foot trap funded by the Vladivar Vodka company and installed by helicopter in 1984. Similar attempts to dredge the floor of the Loch in search of Nessie bones were also unsuccessful in turning up evidence of the creature.

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Loch Ness expert, Adrian Shine (right), had dredged the deep lake many times and is now helping to sample DNA traces of life. Kieran Hennigan

As Shrine points out in The Conversation article, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, though Loch Ness Monster hunters have tried their best to stretch the maxim to the point of absurdity. Decades of expeditions, echo soundings and underwater photography have failed to turn up convincing evidence. In 2003, the BBC deployed 600 sonar beams and satellite mapping to comprehensively survey the loch for a TV special called Searching for the Loch Ness Monster. The survey, capable of identifying anything larger than the size of buoy, failed to find evidence of a large animal in Loch Ness, negating even more realistic proposals for the true identity of Nessie, like the oft-proposed giant sturgeon or giant eel.

While the new eDNA survey could provide a fuller picture of the Loch Ness biome, Scottish Natural Heritage won't need to dust off its monster contingency plan any time soon.