Scientists to Hunt for DNA Traces of Loch Ness Monster

Urquhart Castle, on the shores of Loch Ness, Scotland, on April 16, 2014. In June 2018, scientists will use DNA sampling in an attempt to settle the mystery of the Loch Ness monster. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The idea of a large lake monster living in Scotland's Loch Ness has fascinated people for decades. But no concrete evidence has ever been found for "Nessie"'s existence.

Next month, however, an international team of scientists led by Neil Gemmell from the University of Otago, New Zealand, will conduct an investigation into the waters of the famous loch which could help settle the mystery once and for all.

The scientists will sample the water using so-called environmental DNA (eDNA), which will enable them to identify tiny remnants of genetic material left behind by any life in the loch. This technique will allow them to create a detailed list of all the organisms living in the waters and determine whether anything unusual—a larger marine monster, for example—resides there.

Gemmell maintains that finding traces of such an animal would be extremely unlikely, but he is nevertheless intrigued by what his team might find.

"Large fish, like catfish and sturgeons, have been suggested as possible explanations for the monster myth, and we can very much test that idea and others," he said in a statement.

Looking for traces of a mythological monster is not the only goal of the upcoming research, though.

"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, the U.K.'s largest freshwater body," Gemmell said.

The project will help researchers to understand more about both native and invasive species in the loch, such as the Pacific pink salmon. Gemmell predicted that the team would uncover never-before-documented species, bacteria in particular.

Scientists have already used eDNA sampling to find rare aquatic species and as a tool to monitor sharks, whales and fish, among other animals. The effectiveness of eDNA can be put down to the fact that life leaves behind many different traces.

"Whenever a creature moves through its environment, it leaves behind tiny fragments of DNA from skin, scales, feathers, fur, feces and urine," said Gemmell. "This DNA can be captured, sequenced and then used to identify that creature by comparing the sequence obtained to large databases of known genetic sequences from hundreds of thousands of different organisms. If an exact match can't be found, we can generally figure out where on the tree of life that sequence fits."