Can eDNA identify the Loch Ness Monster?

The identity of Nessie is an ongoing mystery...can eDNA solve it?
10 August 2021

Interview with 

Neil Gemmell, University of Otago


Loch Ness


Neil Gemmell from the University of Otago went hunting for the Loch Ness Monster using eDNA tech, as he told Sally Le Page and Phil Sansom, and Beth Clare from York University and Eske Willerslev from the University of Cambridge weighed in...

Sally - Talking about imagination. We promised you that we would unveil the mystery of the potentially imaginary animal Nessie, the Loch Ness monster.

Phil - Don't say that, no, you're going to break my dreams in half.

Sally - But we don't know Phil that's the thing, but maybe with eDNA we can find out if Nessie is imaginary or not. Geneticist Professor Neil Gemmell took water samples from all over Loch Ness in Scotland, to look for the Loch Ness Monster. Phil, let's put you out of your misery and work out one way or the other who or what, or even if, is Nessie.

Neil - We went to Loch Ness to prove the power of environmental DNA for studying the biodiversity of our natural world. And the sort of big hook was that, of course, if Loch Ness has a monster, environmental DNA may give us some insights into what might explain the monster and the myth that has been so pervasive in our recent history. But, really it was just a great way to showcase the power of environmental DNA and how we could better understand the biodiversity of places that are special like Loch Ness. And, you know, if you like, we might've found a monster. And we didn't find it. We found all the fish that we expected to find in Loch Ness. Found a whole bunch of other species that we knew were in the area, their total species count. And it's hard to know if these are species, but I guess the distinct DNA sequences that we could identify, there's about 3000 of those. So, if you like then, about 3000 species, and most of those are tiny little things like nematodes. So, roundworms, rotifers, phytoplankton, small crustaceans, those sorts of things. And then of course the bigger things like the fish, salmon, pike, eels, sticklebacks, those sorts of things that we knew were present in Loch Ness. We found all those. We went looking to test a variety of ideas that people had considered. So, the plesiosaur was one, some giant catfish and other giant fish species, sturgeons. And one that we actually can't put to bed at the moment, was the idea that there might be a very large eel or some eel-like creature present because we do find eel sequences in Loch Ness, unsurprisingly. But, whether they are a giant eel or just an ordinary European eel I couldn't tell you. You know, people say to me, does that mean the Loch Ness monster idea's dead. And the short answer is no, people are going to believe what they want to believe. And we joined a very long list of projects that have gone to Loch Ness with the intention of showcasing the latest technologies to see if they could find the monster and found actually no evidence of it, but that doesn't stop people going there.

Phil - It could be a giant eel.

Eske - It could be a giant eel, who knows.

Sally - Phil there's still some hope there.

Phil - The hope's alive and I'll take it.

Beth - But, he was also right when he said it's, those kinds of stories are a really good way for us to showcase how these technologies can be used. And so what he did was real science, just because the motivation is something that's fun and gets people's attention. He's able to demonstrate the value of what he's doing.


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