By Michael Knapp 07/09/2019 10


Earlier this week, my colleague Neil Gemmell released the results from his year-long hunt for the Loch Ness monster.

As expected, the story attracted enormous media attention. Also, as expected, it attracted some criticism from fellow scientists pointing out how unnecessary it is to conduct such a large-scale experiment to find something that every sane person and certainly every serious scientist will agree is not there. Much of this criticism comes from colleagues who I greatly respect and whose work I admire, and the criticism will not change that.

But, dear colleagues, on this particular occasion you are wrong. Studies like this are not only necessary, but overdue.

To understand this, we need to look a bit more closely at what this study was meant to achieve. On a scientific level, it is one of the most exhaustive biodiversity surveys of multiple Scottish Lochs, which provides a baseline for future monitoring of these sensitive ecosystems. It provides insights from microbial diversity to the impact of invasive species, it was conducted by some of the leaders in this field of research and I expect that it will be published in a high-profile peer-reviewed journal. Great! Woohoo!

BUT, how many kids will read it, let alone be inspired by it to become a scientist? How many teenagers will look at a paper on “using environmental DNA to reconstruct the biodiversity in Scottish Lochs as a basis for future biomonitoring” and think: That’s what I want to study?

I am sure most people will agree with me about the importance of providing such inspiration. But if you are unsure why it should be important to get children excited about science, let me give you some examples. In fact, let me give you close to a thousand examples currently seriously ill in Auckland alone with a disease (measles) that could be extinct by now if there was not a sufficient number of people that rather believe in a global conspiracy of scientists, politicians and the pharma industry than in unequivocal scientific evidence.

And how can a person be elected the leader of the free world who claims there is no climate change, while scientific evidence on the matter is clear and, in fact, people in the Pacific are already losing their homes to climate-induced sea level rises.

We desperately need people that understand the value of science. And what better way to raise awareness, than to get the next generation excited about science. What better way to get the next generation excited about science than using a proper scientific approach to test a question that many can relate to: “Is there a Loch Ness monster? How can we test this scientifically?”

I am sure we are all convinced of the importance and seriousness of our work, but sometimes what it takes to make an impact is to loosen up a bit.

I am now going to prepare my little one’s birthday party, and I am sure he and his mates will love this story, and maybe some of them will ask their parents afterwards: “How can I become a scientist”. And that is when you know this study was all worth it.


10 Responses to “The Loch Ness monster – and why it matters”

  • On this basis, we should investigate dragons, unicorns and the easter bunny since each of these things is likely to be very appealing to at least some young people. There is no doubt that we should talk about our science and think about ways in which it can be made interesting and capture imaginations, but that is an outcome of what we do, not the reason for doing it.

    • I see your point Craig, but does it have to be black and white? Does our motivation for doing a study always have to be the scientific outcome first or can communication sometimes be the first motivation – at least as long as a tangible scientific outcome is still part of the study? That is a point I was trying to raise. It is essential that we communicate our research effectively to the public. Most of the time, we get a result which the public can relate to more or less, and then we do a press release or write a blog almost as an afterthought. The Loch Ness study already included the communication in it’s design. But, at least in my opinion, that does not reduce its scientific value. It simply has an added value. It will produce a scientific paper on the biodiversity of Scottish Lochs, baseline data for future biomonitoring, and a high profile TV documentary that explains in layman’s terms – and using the Loch Ness monster as example – how a globally emerging technology (eDNA) works. For me that sounds like a win-win, no matter whether the science was first or second motivation.

  • I dont c the point as money could have been spent to find a cure for cancer and lots of other illnesses long live the lockness monster

    • But the same can be said about every single other research project that does not look into curing an illness. Does that mean anything else than medical research is worthless? Using this argument, we for example wouldn’t understand how pathogens change to become drug resistant, because Darwin’s theory of evolution originated from bird watching. And while the Loch Ness study did not re-discover evolution, a contribution to obtaining baseline biodiversity data to monitor change in a warming world could have a significant value to humanity as well.

    • Personally, I’d be all for looking into the drop bear. The thought of a vicious carnivorous koala that mauls people without warning is very cool. 🙂

  • Like most things, I don’t suppose something like this is ever clearly black or white, and I don’t dispute the idea that the appeal of an idea should have a role in deciding whether to do it. Appeal of this kind, should not, in my view, be the primary reason for choosing a project and it should never be used as the primary justification for doing it. In the Loch Ness work, it is true there is now some baseline data about organisms that are present, but I wonder if there is anything new here. As a colleague of mine commented, an assessment of biomass in the loch might have offered better data about the existence of a monster based on whether there was enough for it to eat. I don’t think the e-DNA study gives us that kind of information.

    • Evaluating biomass is one of the big weaknesses of eDNA at the moment. There are a number of studies that show some correlation between proportion of reads and biomass, but there are too many variables for this to be reliable at the moment. So, yes, eDNA does not do biomass at this stage and looking at biomass is an alternative approach that would have been useful here. I wasn’t involved in the study design, so Neil is the person to discuss this, but my concern would be that using the biomass approach we would already make assumptions about the monster being a monster, whereas Neil’s approach was to assume nothing. The hypotheses for explaining the monster ranged from Greenland sharks to eels and they have very different nutritional requirements, they need very different amount of biomass to survive on. In that context a brute force screening of biodiversity in the Loch would seem a more suitable initial step.

  • That seems a very reasonable position with regard to biomass, but I guess I come back to the original point: why introduce the Loch Ness monster at all? I don’t think the study design can be entirely neutral since that was the focus of much of the publicity both at the time of sampling and now that the data are analysed. I’m not sure why you would want to know about the biomass in Loch Ness (or any other Loch) but I expect that reflects my lack of background in this area.
    I still think that invoking Nessie was a mistake. It certainly attracted attention but at least some of that was hostile and the link with Nessie made that criticism easy to stick.

  • As a counterpoint to some of the misguided criticism here, I’d like to say that I think the project is a fantastic example of engaging the public with cutting-edge research. I agree with your argument Michael, and think we need more research like this – great work!