Loch Ness Sea Monster Fossil a Hoax, Say Scientists

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
July 29, 2003
The world's favorite monster stole the headlines again this month, when the remains of a giant sea creature were discovered in Scotland's Loch Ness. But instead of hailing the find as possible evidence of the monster's existence, scientists now think it a hoax.

The fossil belonged to a plesiosaur, a fearsome predator that ruled the seas between 200 and 65 million years ago. Measuring 35 feet (11 meters) head to tail, with a long, serpentine neck, the reptile eventually died out with the dinosaurs.

Or did it? Many people believe it alive and well, if rather shy, having sought refuge in Scotland's largest freshwater loch. These days it goes by the name of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster.

Of course, there are still plenty of skeptics, and four fossilized vertebrae, complete with blood vessels and spinal column, is the sort of thing that could help convince them.

The fossil was found by retired scrap metal dealer Gerald McSorley, from Stirling in Scotland. The pensioner said he chanced upon it when he tripped and fell in the loch.

He told the world: "I have always believed in the Loch Ness monster, but this proves it for me. The resemblance between this and the sightings which have been made are so similar."

His discovery was confirmed by staff at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Yet they still had their doubts.

Lyall Anderson, one of the museum's palaeontologists, said: "The fossil is definitely that of a plesiosaur—a very good example. And I believe Mr. McSorley when he says he found it where he did. But there's evidence to suggest it came from elsewhere and had been planted.

"The fossil is embedded in a gray, Jurassic-aged limestone. Rocks in the Loch Ness area are much older—they're all crystalline, igneous and metamorphic rocks."

Anderson says the nearest match for this limestone is at Eathie on the Black Isle, some 30 miles (50 kilometers) northeast of Loch Ness.

Seashore Theory

He added: "The stone has been intensely drilled by marine organisms. It seems likely the specimen was on a seashore until relatively recently."

Others agree with Anderson.

Richard Forrest, a plesiosaurus expert at the New Walk Museum in Leicester, England, said: "The fossil's general appearance, and the presence of holes made by burrowing sponges, shows it has spent some time in the sea, probably [with] beach pebble[s]. Yet Loch Ness contains freshwater."

Gary Campbell, president of the Official Loch Ness Monster Fan Club, added: "I think it's almost certain the fossil was placed there deliberately. There are very few public access points to the shore and the fossil was found by a layby where lots of tourists stop. As far as we're concerned it was left for someone to find."

Campbell, whose life is insured against him being eaten alive by the monster, to the sum of £250,000 (U.S. $400,000), says numerous other Nessie-inspired hoaxes have taken place in this area.

Two years ago conger eels were dumped in the loch after being caught by sea fishermen, presumably in the hope they would be mistaken for miniature monsters. One measured over six feet (two meters) long.

However, Forrest says there could also be an innocent reason why the fossil turned up here.

He said: "A plesiosaur limb bone was found near the same spot some years ago. It turned out it belonged to a local tour operator, who used the fossil as a demonstration piece. He'd left it on a rock and forgot about it."

With Nessie's true likeness still shrouded in mystery, Anderson says the plesiosaur is the creature that most commonly springs to mind, adding: "It's an image many people are familiar with and they often try to pin it on the Loch Ness monster."

But palaeontologists say this is wishful thinking. While plesiosaurs died out many millions of years ago, Loch Ness is less than 12,000 years old, having been glacially excavated during the last ice age.

Forrest gives other reasons why the two aren't one and the same.

Cold-blooded Reptiles

He says plesiosaurs, being cold-blooded reptiles, wouldn't generate enough internal body heat to survive the loch's cool temperatures. And even if they could, there wouldn't be enough food for them to survive.

Forrest also points out that plesiosaurs breathed air and would need to surface several times a day, at the very least.

"Despite this, I haven't heard of any sightings that sound anything like a plesiosaur," he said. "People usually refer to a series of undulating humps. The plesiosaur, being a reptile, wouldn't undulate but move from side to side. Such sightings are much more likely to come from mammals—such as a row of otters swimming across the loch."

Forrest concludes: "My own view is that reports of the Loch Ness monster are very good for the Scottish tourist industry, but not backed up by any real evidence. One thing is for sure: even if there is a large animal in Loch Ness, it's not a plesiosaur."

The Loch Ness monster legend is said to date back over 1,400 years, when Saint Columba encountered a strange water beast in the region. But it kept a low profile until 1933, when a new road made the loch more accessible and gave clear views from its northern shore.

A flood of reported sightings soon followed, the first coming from an innkeeper at Drumnadrochit.

That same year saw the publication of the most famous picture of Nessie—its neck and head rising from the loch's murky waters. Taken by a respected gynaecologist, Colonel Robert Wilson, the monster became an overnight sensation.

In 1994 Wilson's photograph made the front pages again—when exposed as one of the greatest hoaxes of the 20th century. Christian Spurling confessed shortly before his death that the grainy, black-and-white image actually showed a piece of plastic attached to a toy submarine.

Spurling made the model for his stepfather, Marmaduke Wetherall, who, along with Wilson, wanted something to show for their monster hunting expedition.

It seems the hoaxers have been trying to match their success ever since.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.