Thursday, September 27, 2012

Creature of the Month - Lake Monsters by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart

Lake Monster at Loch Ness. Model by Oberon Zell

Large and as-yet-unidentified creatures inhabiting the murky depths of Loch Ness, Loch Morar, and around 250–300 other peat-filled lakes, lochs, swamps, and bogs of Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and other countries throughout the world have aroused both curiosity and controversy since at least the year 565 ce, when St Columba of Iona (521–597), the first Christian missionary to Scotland, had a legendary encounter with “a certaine water monster” on the banks of Loch Ness.1

Nearly all of the bodies of water said to be inhabited by these monsters are extraordinarily deep and icy cold, which refutes the popular assumption that these creatures are reptilian. During the last glacial epoch most of these lakes were also connected at some time with the sea, and are on the spawning routes of such fish as salmon and eels.

Long-necked “Orms”
Several distinct types of monstrous, lake-dwelling creatures have been described by eyewitnesses, including animals that are clearly identifiable as gigantic sturgeons, eels, and catfish. But the most frequently-reported and enigmatic of all mysterious creatures is the long-necked Lake-Monster, or Orm (“worm”). Despite countless eyewitness reports spanning many centuries and even a number of photographs, no actual specimen or other substantive evidence of its existence has yet been produced.

It is commonly described as an immense, serpentine creature with a head and neck proportioned similarly to that of a horse or camel, complete with ears. Some witnesses, however, identify these appendages as horns, so the same animals may also be called Horse-Eels, Water-Horses, Horse-Heads, Water-Bulls, Sea-Goats, or Horned Serpents. Sometimes they are said to have glowing red or yellow eyes, great fangs, or even the ability to breathe fire!

They move in vertical undulations, and often show one-to-several keeled humps above the water. A single hump looks very much like an overturned boat. They normally range in size between 15 and 30 feet long, but specimens more than twice that size have been reported in a few instances. Small front flippers have sometimes been seen, rarely rear ones or tails.

The iconic poster child of this class is the famous monster affectionately referred to as Nessie, inhabiting the murky 755-foot depths of 23-mile-long Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. Its bulky, undulating body has been reported as being up to 30 feet long, sometimes showing several humps above the surface. Its head and neck, when seen at all, are said to be proportioned similarly to those of a horse or giraffe, and are topped with small, hornlike projections. The earliest recorded appearances were in 565 and 690 ce, and have continued sporadically through the centuries. But the number of sightings increased dramatically after the construction of a public motorway along the Loch in 1933. Some sightings have even occurred on land near the Loch.

Fig. 2. Sketch by Margaret Munroe of the animal she saw on Borham Beach, Loch Ness, on 6/3/34. (Witchell, p.100f)

Lake-Monsters of similar description have been reported in at least 265 bodies of water around the world. These include virtually every loch in Scotland, as well as countless other similar habitats across all of northern Europe, Russia, Asia, Canada, and even further afield, including sub-Saharan Africa and the United States.

Unfortunately, as with so many so-called fringe phenomena, the history of Lake-Monsters has been plagued with notorious hoaxes that have seriously damaged the credibility of all witnesses, and embarrassed and discouraged serious investigators. In December of 1933, big-game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell discovered enormous tracks on the shore of Loch Ness leading down to the water. Investigators from the Natural History Museum determined that these had been made with a dried hippopotamus foot, such as were popular at the time as umbrella stands.

Humiliated, Wetherell struck back: A few months later, on April 19, 1934, a highly respectable British surgeon, Colonel Robert Wilson, claimed to have snapped the famous photo that became the iconic image of Nessie for the next 60 years. (Fig. 3)

But in 1994, just before his death at the age of 90, Christian Spurling, the last living conspirator, revealed that, at the request of Wetherell, he had rigged a toy submarine with a carved monster head. This was taken to Loch Ness, photographed in the water, and the photo given to Wilson as a credible witness to present it to the world.2

Fig. 3. “The Surgeon’s Photo” of Loch Ness Monster, taken April 19, 1934.

Okay, what is this, really?
Popular conceptions of the phylogenetic identity of Nessie and other Lake-Monsters of her ilk have invariably been based on plesiosaurs. Plesiosaurs (Greek, “near lizard”) were long-necked aquatic reptiles contemporary with the dinosaurs, and exterminated along with them 65 million years ago. Ranging in size from 15 to 50 feet long, they had squat, flattened bodies, short tails, and four flippers. (Fig. 4) But any similarity between reports and photos of modern Lake-Monsters and fossil forms is superficial at best. It seems to me that researchers attempting to identify these creatures with known vertebrates are just not taking all the observations into account. I would like to attempt to apply some simple logic in hopes of unraveling this mystery, and propose an identification which, if not yet provable by an actual specimen, at least makes zoological sense.

Fig. 4. Plesiosaurus.

First and most obvious, these creatures must breathe under water, because surface appearances are extremely rare—years apart in most cases. This faculty is restricted to all fish, some amphibians, and many invertebrates. Any reptiles or mammals would have to appear frequently at the surface to breathe, as with marine iguanas, crocodiles, seals, otters, sirenia, and whales. Plesiosaurs were marine reptiles, living much as sea lions do, which some of them resembled. A colony of them in a lake would hardly be inconspicuous! Likewise, ancient whales (archaeoceti) would be as prominent at the surface as modern whales or dolphins. The very rarity of sightings argues irrefutably against Lake-Monsters being air-breathing animals.

Second, all the long-necked Lake-Monsters are invariably reported to move in vertical, rather than horizontal, undulations. This is crucial. Among vertebrates, only mammals and birds are capable of vertical flexion of their bodies. This is why cetaceans and sirenia have horizontal tail flukes, as opposed to the vertical fins of fishes. Again, plesiosaurs were reptiles, and their bodies, like those of crocodiles, moved side to side, not up and down.

Fig. 5. Photos taken in Feb. 1976 by Mary F. on Falmouth Bay, Cornwall. She described the creature as 15-18 feet long.

Third, the long neck for which these creatures are noted precludes gills, which are an integral part of the skull and jaw structures of fish and amphibians; no gilled vertebrate has ever had a neck. This feature also eliminates whales, including the Eocene archaeocetid Zeuglodon or Basilosaurus, as all cetaceans—even elongated prehistoric ones—lack necks. Some ancient reptiles, such as sauropods and plesiosaurs, did have long necks, which is, of course, why they have so often been proposed as candidates. But their horizontal flexion and need to breathe air disqualify all reptiles.

Although all mammals have only seven cervical vertebrae, a few, such as the giraffe, do have long necks. Indeed, the “horse-head” profile so often described seems very mammalian. And mammals have vertical flexion, another point in their favor. But unfortunately for their case, all mammals must breathe air, and thus aquatic mammals are highly visible at the surface.

This leaves birds, which have both vertical flexion and long necks. Many are quite aquatic, and some, such as loons (Gavia) and cormorants (Phalacrocorax), both of which sit very low in the water, have been proposed as monster candidates, albeit on a very small scale. Some reports have even described the necks of Lake Monsters as “swan-like.” But birds breathe air, and none is known to even remotely approach the average reported 15- to 30-foot lengths of Lake Monsters, let alone the much larger individuals occasionally cited.

So let’s review the relevant features of all aquatic vertebrates (marine and extinct species are included, and sizes given are generous):

Animal     Flexion           Neck              Breaths      Max Size
Monster       Vertical      Long               Water        30–70 ft. ??     
Fish             Horizontal   None              Water        30–50 ft.
Amphibian   Horizontal   None              Water/air   6–9 ft.
Reptile         Horizontal   Short/Long     Air             5–50 ft.
Mammal      Vertical       None/Short    Air              5–120 ft.
Bird             Vertical       Short/Long      Air             5 ft.

It should now be abundantly clear that no vertebrates, extant or extinct, could account for the reported sightings of long-necked Lake-Monsters. So what is left? In the words of Sherlock Holmes, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In the case of the Loch Ness Monster and similar creatures around the world, the only remaining possibility is that they are some sort of gigantic invertebrate. But which kind?

The Orm
The only possibility among known invertebrates is a phylum that includes what may be the largest animals on Earth: the Mollusca, of which some representatives—for example, the Colossal Squid (Mesonychoteuthis)—may reach lengths of more than 100 feet (including arms), and thus easily encompass the reported dimensions of Lake-Monsters and their marine analogs, Sea Serpents.

In studying accounts of Lake-Monster sightings, especially close-up encounters, it is striking how often the creatures are described as wormy, slimy, and/or repulsive. Of the creature she saw swimming up Logh Fadda in 1954, Georgina Carberry reported that it was “wormy. You know—creepy. The body seemed to have movement all over it all the time.”3

George Spicer, who, with his wife, saw the Loch Ness Monster crossing the road on July 22, 1933, said the animal was “horrible—an abomination.” Its skin was a “terrible, dark elephant grey, of a loathsome texture, reminiscent of a snail.”4 Spicer said it had “an undulating sort of neck, a little thicker than an elephant’s trunk,” which was contorted into half-loops, and that it looked like “a huge snail with a long neck.”5

 Fig. 6. Creature seen by George Spicer on July 22, 1933. (Holiday, p. 49)

Regarding his sighting of creature on shore of Loch Ness, on September 30, 1974, Dick Jenkyns said: “I felt that the beast was obscene. This feeling of obscenity still persists and the whole thing put me in mind of a gigantic stomach with a long writhing gut attached.”
Engineer-commander Richard Meicklem, who had a clear, 3-minute view of its hump on August 5 of that year, described the skin as “knobbly and warted,” and certainly granulated. Tim Dinsdale notes that “those who have had a close sighting have generally agreed that it is rough, or warted like the skin of a great toad.”6

 Fig. 7. Commander Meicklem’s “hump.”

The ancient name for these creatures was, in fact, “worm,” or orm—a term widely applied to Dragons. Ancient and medieval Dragonlore frequently mentions that the bodies of slain orms “melted away,” leaving nothing but the teeth, which would explain the lack of fossils or bones in the lochs or elsewhere. In northern Wales, local legends tell of the Ceffyll-Dŵr (“water horse”), a glowing, grey Lake-Monster that haunts waterfalls and mountain pools. It was said that anyone brave enough to attack and kill this evil creature would find no solid body, but only an amorphous, fatty mass floating on the water.

Another feature that becomes apparent upon examination of many reports and drawings is the rubbery elasticity of the neck and body, which may extend to become long and thin, or contract to become short and stubby. The length of the neck, in particular, may vary “from two or three feet to as much as ten feet in length, and a foot in diameter.”7

Rare sightings of the creatures on land often describe their movements as vertical and “caterpillar-like.” During the night of September 30, 1965, two motorists independently saw a 20-foot-long creature “humped like a giant caterpillar” moving slowly on the road verge, not far from the River Tay on the A85 road between Perth and Dundee in Scotland.8

 Fig. 8. Drawing by Torquil MacLeod of his sighting on February 28, 1960.

This flexibility is clearly apparent from the series of drawings made by Torquil MacLeod based on his sighting through binoculars of the creature, which was partially out of the water upon the opposite shore of Loch Ness, on February 28, 1960.9 Similar proportions and apparent flexibility can be seen in one of the few unambiguously authentic photos of Nessie, taken by Hugh Gray in November of 1933.

 Fig. 9. Drawing based on photo of Loch Ness Monster taken by Hugh Gray, November 1933. (Holiday, p. 49)

Also, both eyewitness reports and photos of the head (Fig. 10) have indicated extensible, hornlike antennae similar to those of snails and slugs. Indeed, Tim Dinsdale notes that “sometimes, on top of the head two small projections are seen like ‘the horns on a snail,’ and the eyes (which are not often seen) are like ‘slits in a darning needle,’ and they are ‘bright and glittering.’”10

Regarding a sighting of Feb. 22, 1968, in a beat bog called Lough Nahooin in Connemara, Ireland: “Both Mr and Mrs. [Stephen] Coyne agreed that the creature was about 12 feet long and both agreed that they saw no eyes. Mrs. Coyne told us that she noticed two horn-like projections on top of the head.”

Recounting a sighting in Loch Ness on November 17, 1976, which he photographed, Cornish Wizard Tony “Doc” Shiels noted: “The head had horns, stumpy little things…the head was extremely ugly, like a big snail’s head with those odd little stalks.”11

 Fig 10. Head of “Nessie” from underwater photo taken August 9, 1972, by the Academy of Applied Science
Drawing by OZ.

And perhaps most telling of all, a Welsh legend of a local “Wyvern” (dragon) first translated into English in 1921, states: “At times one could see it creeping with hateful, stealthy movements, here and there upon the fertile slopes of Moel Offrum, jerking its cumbersome form into uncanny humps as it made its way in quest of food, and leaving a slimy trail behind it.”12  Such slimy trails are uniquely characteristic of snails and slugs.
For these reasons, I conclude that Nessie, Chessie, Champ, Morag, and the like, with their long necks and two “horns” like those of a garden snail, are most probably giant aquatic slugs, perhaps with a variety of subspecies.

The Opisthobranchia (sea slugs) are a highly evolved order of gastropods with hundreds of radically diverse species, of which only marine forms are currently recognized. They have small eyes and several sensitive, hornlike feelers at the fronts of their heads, used for orientation and olfaction. The sides of the foot have evolved into fleshy, wing-like outgrowths called parapodia. In several suborders, such as the Thecosomata and Gymnosomata, these are used as fins to move in a swimming motion.

Here is a comparison of the relevant features of these invertebrates with those reported of Lake-Monsters:

Animal              Flexion            Neck           “Horns”            Breathes           Max. Known Size
Monster           Vertical            Long             Yes                 Water               30-70 ft. ??
Opisthobranch  Vertical            Extensible     Yes                 Water               30 in.- ??

In 1975, based upon underwater photos obtained in 1972 by the Academy of Applied Science, the official name of Nessiteras rhombopteryx (“Ness wonder with diamond-shaped fins”) was bestowed upon the Loch Ness Monster by Sir Peter Scott. Interestingly, the Greek word pteras (“fin”) also means “wing,” suggesting a basis for legends of winged Dragons. But if these creatures are actually giant aquatic mollusks, as I believe them to be, the highly-positioned diamond-shaped fin for which they are named is probably an operculum (Latin, “little lid”)—a flap covering the gill opening, which in sea slugs is located below the neck and just behind the heart, rather than behind the head as in fish and amphibians. This is exactly the position indicated in the photos, drawings, and eyewitness reports.

 Fig. 11. Nessie “fin” from underwater photo taken August 9, 1972, by Academy of Applied Science.

A Reconstruction
In 1987, I sculpted a model of the Loch Ness Monster based on a synthesis of all recorded descriptions and drawings. (See opening graphic) I believe it to be as accurate a representation as possible until we can manage to obtain a physical specimen. Furthermore, I believe that the erroneous assumption that these creatures are vertebrates (in particular, plesiosaurs) has misdirected previous attempts at capture. And lacking a boney skeleton, they would also be largely transparent to sonar. Future efforts might search for larval stages more productively by dredging the bottom muck of the lochs—or even better, some of the many Irish bogs and marshes rumored to harbor smaller and probably related Bog-dogs, Horse-eels, or Kelpies. This is the approach currently being undertaken by marine biologist Steven O’Shea in his successful search for Giant Squid (Architeuthis) larvae amid oceanic zooplankton.

 Fig. 12. Speculative internal anatomy of Nessie, by Oberon Zell.

Assuming that these monsters are actually gigantic aquatic slugs, what other correlations can be made with historical traditions and accounts of Orms? One of these characteristics is the Orm’s vile toxicity, which is said to burn the skin and poison wells, springs, pools, and the very ground beneath it. The slimy skin of many opisthobranchs contains distasteful and sometimes toxic chemicals as a defense against predation. Others have special stinging cells or toxic glands, which in some cases are used to paralyze their prey.14

A recurring theme in myths (such as the Argosy) is that of “Dragon’s teeth”—seemingly the only recoverable remains of an Orm or Dragon, as no skulls, skin, bones, or other expected trophies have ever been exhibited by dragonslayers. A slug’s teeth—its only hard parts—are not set in jaws, as they are in vertebrates, but on a flexible tongue, or radula, which is a ribbon of precisely arranged teeth, like those on a rasp, used for scraping or grasping its food.15 A dead slug simply dissolves into a disgusting glob of goo, and only the teeth remain.

The keeled humps reported in virtually all sightings of Lake-Monsters are particularly interesting in this context. (Fig. 7, and Addendum) The number of these varies with the length of the animal, as there seems to be a maximum length of about five feet for each hump. “Most peculiar of all, people have actually reported the humps changing shape.”16 Because the creatures are commonly reported to rise and sink vertically, these humps are most likely gas-filled flotation chambers, much like the swim bladders of fish. (Fig. 12) When the gas-filled humps are evacuated, they would flatten into the apparent dorsal “fin” occasionally reported, as in the monster of Lake Khaiyr, Russia.

In fish, these closed organs are precursors of lungs, and are filled with respiratory air extracted from the water. But in gigantic, muck-dwelling aquatic slugs, the gas that fills such chambers would more likely be derived from the digestive process, and would therefore consist of marsh gas, or methane. And, as everyone knows, this gas is highly flammable.

In order to sink vertically as described, the creature would have to evacuate gas; the most logical orifice for this purpose would be the mouth, which is not used for breathing. And if these creatures happen to possess bioelectrical faculties similar to those found in certain eels and other fish that inhabit murky waters (which utilize electrical discharges both to navigate and to stun prey), then electric sparks could be used to ignite the expelled gas, and we would have fire-breathing Dragons. What an impressive defense mechanism that would make!

The most convincing Nessie photograph ever:’ Skipper claims to have finally found proof that Loch Ness Monster exists.17
On Nov. 2, 2011, Loch Ness tour boat skipper George Edwards photographed a dark hump slinking in and out of the lake's waters from the deck of his boat, Nessie Hunter, before it vanished back into the deep. He claims the picture is the best-ever taken of the Loch Ness Monster and “proves once and for all that the elusive leviathan exists.” The image shows a dark brown keeled hump identical to the one reported by Richard Meicklem in 1974. It makes a wake as it moves toward Urquhart Castle in the distance. The impressive photo has been lab-analyzed and declared authentic. See full article and photos here

  1.        Reeves, William, ed., Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy. by Adamnan, Ninth Abbot of that Monastery, Edmonston and Douglas, Edinburgh, 1874.
  2.        Boese, Alex, The Museum of Hoaxes, Dutton, Penguin Group; New York, 2002.
  3.        Akins, William, The Loch Ness Monster, Signet Books, New American Library, New York, 1977.
  4.        Costello, Peter, In Search of Lake Monsters, Berkeley Medallion, New York, 1974.
  5.        Gould, Rupert T., The Loch Ness Monster, Geoffrey Bles, London, 1934.
  6.        Costello, Op cit.
  7.        Dinsdale, Tim, The Story of the Loch Ness Monster, Allan Wingate Ltd. & Universal-Tandem Pub. Co., Boston, 1973.
  8.        Bord, Janet & Colin, Alien Animals, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA, 1981.
  9.        Dinsdale, Op cit.
  10. .    Ibid.
  11. .    Bord, Op cit.
  12. .    Holiday, F.W., The Dragon and the Disk, Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1973.
  13. .    “Sea Slugs,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, (2007).
  14. .    Sea Slug Forum, (2007).
  15. .    Ibid.
  16. .    Dinsdale, Op cit.
  17. .    Blake, Matt, “‘The most convincing Nessie photograph ever:’ Skipper claims to have finally found proof that Loch Ness Monster exists.” London Daily Mail, Aug. 13, 2012. 


  1. Upon close examination, Hugh Gray's alleged monster photo looks suspiciously like a Labrador with a stick in its mouth.

  2. This is amazing I never thought of Nessie like that. Gives me new hope that one day we'll find her.


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