Sri Lanka has more than its fair share of mythical creatures – from the Riri Yaka Blood Demon and the Devil Bird to the rumoured,but never seen honest politician.
Honest politicians are as rare in London as Colombo – but the University of Bath says the existence of Britain’s most famous legendary creature, the Loch Ness monster,is ‘plausible’.
It comes after researchers found fossils of small plesiosaurs – long-necked marine reptiles from the age of dinosaurs – in a 100-million- year-old river system that is now Morocco’s Sahara Desert, suggesting they may have lived in freshwater.
Loch Ness monster enthusiasts have long believed that the historic Scottish folklore could be a prehistoric reptile with a small head and long neck, similar to a plesiosaur.
However, cynics have argued that plesiosaurs could not have lived in Loch Ness as they needed a saltwater environment.
Now the findings, published in the journal Cretaceous Research, suggest the plesiosaurs were adapted to tolerate freshwater, possibly even spending their lives there, like today’s river dolphins.
The fossils include bones and teeth from three-metre-long adults and an arm bone from a 1.5-metre-long baby.
They indicate that these creatures routinely lived and fed in freshwater, alongside frogs, crocodiles, turtles, fish, and the huge aquatic dinosaur Spinosaurus.
David Martill, co-author of the paper, said: “What amazes me is that the ancient Moroccan river contained so many carnivores, all living alongside one another. “This was no place to go for a swim.”
The plesiosaur teeth appear to show heavy wear similar to that of the Spinosaurus, suggesting they were eating the same armoured fish that lived in the river, rather than being occasional visitors.
Dr Nick Longrich, lead author of the University of Bath paper, said: “We don’t really know why the plesiosaurs are in freshwater. It’s a bit controversial, but who’s to say that because, we, palaeontologists have always called them ‘marine reptiles’, they had to live in the sea? Lots of marine lineages invaded freshwater.”
But what does this all mean for the Loch Ness Monster? On one level, it’s plausible. Plesiosaurs weren’t confined to the seas; they did inhabit freshwater. But the fossil record also suggests that after almost a hundred and fifty million years, the last plesiosaurs finally died out at the same time as the dinosaurs, 66 million years ago.
In an email to Motherboard Dr Longrich wrote that the Loch Ness Monster is certainly ‘fun to think about’ but added that the odds that a freshwater plesiosaur is lurking in the Scottish lake are very low.
“Is the existence of a plesiosaur in Loch Ness likely? Unfortunately, no,” Longrich said. “The existence of freshwater plesiosaurs removes one major obstacle — could a marine lineage survive in a freshwater loch? Yes! But you still have all these other obstacles to overcome.”
“Could a population of plesiosaurs survive in a lake the size of Loch Ness? Doubtful,” he continued. “It’s 22 square miles in area. The only lake with a marine mammal today is Lake Baikal, which is home to the Baikal Seal. It’s 12,000 square miles, over 500 times as big as Loch Ness. You just need a large area to hold a viable population of animals as big as a plesiosaur, and Loch Ness probably couldn’t hold more than a few plesiosaurs.”
Longrich also noted that Loch Ness is only 10,000 years old, a mere baby compared to Lake Baikal, which is about 25 million years old. As a result of its ancient origin, Lake Baikal has “had time to evolve its own weird, endemic fish families, creating this weird lost world ecosystem that exists nowhere else,” he said.
“But Loch Ness isn’t that old. 10,000 years ago, Scotland was covered by a vast ice sheet. How does Nessie survive under a glacier?”
But the researcher admits that science doesn’t have the answer to everything.
“The thing is there are things out there. I guarantee you there are new monkey species in the rainforest, strange things in the ocean. And of course, the fossil record – there were plesiosaurs in a river in Africa 100 million years ago, which we didn’t even know about. And I guarantee we’ll find other things.”
“Still,” Longrich conceded, “it’s not quite the same as a lake monster.”
By Michael Gregson