By Debbie Kay
In a bizarre week of surprising discoveries, like fossil proof of the unicorn living alongside man (article found here), a second fantastical animal is not only getting scientific attention, it is getting the blame for declines in Scottish fish populations. That’s right, Nessie is not only back with DNA proof, there is a lot of mounting evidence that she’s a fish eater.
Sarah Polly, a Ph.D. student from the University of Glasgow in evolutionary biology, made the critical discovery while testing the lake’s waters for different species of environmental DNA, or eDNA. These samples are created from skin and other cells that are shed from living creatures in the water, and are used to detect the presence of rare animals in water bodies. In this case, Polly found an unaccounted-for DNA that seem to be most closely linked to hippopotamuses. A large sample of what is presumed to be fecal matter was found along a dry shoreline, and contained a large number of fish along with the same DNA. The lab in Glasgow is currently doing a full genome on the DNA to try and discover more about this mystery creature.
Why Nessie Wasn’t Found Before
The discovery that Nessie is a mammal is surprising to some, though the hippopotamus is one of the closest relatives to whales, dugongs and manatees. Scientists are beginning to look to the life cycle of the manatee, who spends much of its time at sea, and will retreat into freshwater areas when the ocean becomes too cool for their preference. If Nessie also prefers both salt and freshwater, then the sonar in the lakes would not detect her off-season. As Loch Ness also offers passage to and from the Atlantic, then summer surveys for her may have been a matter of bad timing. Weekly DNA monitoring is being proposed to try and find the lake’s Nessie season, followed by more sonar to finally catch her.
Nessie and Fishing
Conservationists in Loch Ness have noticed a distinct drop in sea-run salmon and brown trout populations in the lake, and Polly’s discovery is having them question the idea of whether the mystery DNA is linked to the drop in fish populations. Another marine mammal of similar size in the area, the orca, is known to eat around 500lbs of food per day. If one, two, or more Nessies had returned to feed in the lake, they could do a lot of damage within a few months to fish numbers. This has put local anglers and conservationists at odds, as there is already an online movement starting to secure Loch Ness as a Nessie conservation area. This would limit anglers even more, and has led to some heated debates in Scottish town halls. The Scottish Fishery Protection Agency has remained silent on this, saying that they are waiting for the next steps in discovery to be certain.
If this mythical creature turns out to be much more, the scientific community is giving the naming rights in Latin to Ms Polly, as the first person with true evidence of the creature. With no other close relatives, she gets to choose both genus and species, a rare honor today. When asked, she has confirmed that she already has the name picked out: Aprilus foolius.