Hugh Gray was taking his usual walk after church around Loch Ness in Scotland on a Sunday in November 1933.
But he stopped his walk when he saw something floating in the water, less than a meter away from him.
Gray quickly took several photographs of what he described to the Scottish Daily Record newspaper as “an object of considerable dimensions”.
A few months earlier, in April 1933, local hotel owner Aldie Mackay and her husband had described a whale-like animal to the Inverness Courier newspaper. And in the Scottish summer of 1933, a man named George Spicer claimed to have observed “the closest form to a dragon or prehistoric animal that I have ever seen in my life.”
He described a creature two to three meters long, which carried “a ram or other species of animal” for dinner.
Since the first sightings, recorded in the second half of the 6th century, the animal has been considered a popular legend. But when Gray captured that floating, tailed, animal-like mass, the image was considered the first photographic proof of the existence of “Nessy” – the Loch Ness Monster –, inspiring a kind of craze for the monster.
It’s been 90 years since that photograph and the obsession to find the Loch Ness Monster remains.
As a paleobiologist, I would like to clarify whether what we believe to be Nessy can really exist and whether we should continue looking for the monster.
There are many fish in Loch Ness, which indicates an abundance of food.
The space is also large. The lake is huge, with 7.4 million cubic meters of water and 227 meters deep.
The water in Loch Ness makes up half of the fresh water in all the lakes in England and Wales. In other words, there is a lot of water to hide in.
Our idea of what the Loch Ness Monster looked like is based on an iconic photograph taken a year after Gray’s image. It shows a long neck stretched over the black waters of the lake.
It gave rise to the notion that the Loch Ness Monster is a living relic of the age of dinosaurs, struggling to live a solitary existence in the depths of the lake.
It turns out that image is not what it claimed to be. It turned out, decades later, that it was an elaborate hoax.
The famous photo, taken a year after the first image, formed the popular notion of what the Loch Ness Monster looked like. Today it is known that it is a forged photo.
But there is evidence that indicates the existence of three-meter-long monsters reasonably similar to the Loch Ness monster. These reptiles are called plesiosaurs, but they disappeared in the mass extinction that occurred at the end of the Cretaceous period.
Discoveries of plesiosaur fossils indicate that they may have lived in freshwater. The fossils include three-meter-long adult bones and teeth and a 1.5-meter-long arm bone from a baby plesiosaur.
But the Loch Ness Monster is unlikely to be a plesiosaur.
Unfortunately, the truth comes down to biology. There may be enough food and space in the lake, but there are no other Loch Ness monsters alive that could create a viable population of animals and enable Nessy to exist.
Why do we look for Nessy and other monsters?
In August 2023, Inverness (the closest Scottish city to Loch Ness) was visited by several monster hunters. They swept the lake with drones equipped with hydrophones and boats emitting sonar signals – all in hopes of proving Nessy’s existence.
They found nothing, which is a strong indication that Loch Ness remains monster-free.
The monster hunting craze isn’t restricted to Loch Ness. There is another mythical aquatic beast called Mokele-mbembe, which supposedly lives in the Congo River basin in Africa. He looks like a dinosaur. Like Nessy, I also doubt he exists.
But I’m not a complete party pooper. I think people should continue their searches for apparently extinct creatures.
The Tasmanian wolf, for example. The last of its species was believed to have died in captivity in the 1930s.
But recent research has concluded that it is possible that the Tasmanian wolf became extinct much later than previously thought. It may have lasted until the 2000s.
And, in fact, researchers indicate that small groups of Tasmanian wolves may have survived.
Sometimes animals we thought were extinct end up returning to the modern world. The most famous example is perhaps the coelacanth.
This fish has a very long fossil record, ranging from the Devonian period to the end of the Cretaceous. Then he disappeared.
It was believed to have been lost in the same event that destroyed the dinosaurs and plesiosaurs. No coelacanth fossils have been found in Paleogene sediments to date.
But in 1938, ichthyologist (marine biologist who studies different species of fish) Marjorie Courtney-Latimer (1907-2004) found a single specimen, caught by fishermen, in a market in South Africa.
Its discovery gave rise to a search that lasted for the next 20 years, to find the population of the species (be sure to read the excellent book A Fish Caught in Time in this regard). And now we know of two species of coelacanth in populations living near Indonesia and southern Africa.
Moral of the story: don’t let anything stop you from going in search of thrills, not even monsters. You might just make a fabulous discovery.
Neil J. Gostling is professor of evolution and paleobiology at the University of Southampton, United Kingdom.
*This article was originally published on the academic news website The Conversation and republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the version here original in English.