Loch Ness monster: Why we can't let science kill mystery

A team of scientists is planning to hit the icy depths looking for the mysterious sea monster that has so far existed only in stories.

 |  8-minute read |   24-05-2018
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On a Saturday night in the early spring of 1996, a young girl and her father, talking by the fireplace in the remote Ziro valley of Arunachal Pradesh, heard an unusual shuffling sound coming from underneath the wooden floor of the house built on raised stilts. For a moment, they both stopped talking and listened quietly — the rustling didn't stop, as if a huge reptile was waking up from its slumber.

Later that night, the young girl saw the dreaded Buru, a gigantic 15-foot-long reptile, slithering out from the ground under. She was dreaming.

And, in her dream, the Buru, as she had heard in all those stories by the fireplace, had come back to invade her valley, ravaging every bit of it, tearing apart her young heart and all those dreams tucked inside it.

More than two decades later, the internet is abuzz with a similar mythical monster — the Loch Ness monster. Again, a little girl thinks she saw the fabled monster, lurking in the depths of the Loch Ness lake in Scotland. She even filmed footage that looks like something long and thin at a distance splashing around in the lake.

The Loch Ness monster has been a part of not just lore but some scientific and not-so-rational outings too. A team of scientists is now planning to hit the icy depths, looking for the monster's DNA footprint.

Hunting the unseen

According to this Reuters report, scientists will use environmental DNA (eDNA) in an experiment that may discover whether the legendary "monster really does, or did, exist".

The same report says, the use of eDNA sampling is already an established tool for monitoring marine life based on the movement of creatures as they leave behind tiny fragments of DNA from skin, scales, feathers, fur, faeces and urine.

loch_052418044224.jpgHidden secrets: Loch Ness lake in Scotland. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

“This DNA can be captured, sequenced and then used to identify that creature by comparing the sequence obtained to large databases of known genetic sequences from hundreds of thousands of different organisms,” team spokesman professor Neil Gemmell of the University of Otago in New Zealand was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Gemmell though warns us not to get our hopes too high because he too is not so sure if the Loch Ness monster actually exists.

"The evolutionary genetics professor has been quite candid that he’s using the legend as a hook to attract interest in a study of the lake’s biodiversity," says a report in The Washington Post.

This is not the first time the monster is being searched for. In fact, just two years back, a high-tech marine drone did find a monster - but not the one it was looking for. It was a replica used in a 1970 film — The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

But between the rubble of replicas and the layers of folklore, the sea monster has continued to intrigue the human mind, teasing scientists and laymen with imaginations and apparitions for more than 2000 years.

The first written record of the monster, according to Reuters, goes back to the 6th century. Irish monk St Columba is said to have banished a “water beast” to the depths of the River Ness.

But it became a sensation in the 1930s after a road was built along the lake shore and locals began to report an enormous creature splashing around, according to PBS.org. "Their account was written up by a correspondent for the Inverness Courier, whose editor used the word 'monster' to describe the animal."

The Loch Ness monster, according to PBS, has been a media phenomenon ever since. An excited team of The London Daily Mail even hired a "hunter in 1933 to track down the monster", PBS says. The "hunter", true to their expectations, came back with unbelievable stories of "the beast and plaster castings of its four-toed footprints". This was soon revealed to belong to a hippopotamus.

Not quite Nessie - the famous loch ness ‘monster’. Photo for representation: PTINot quite Nessie - the famous loch ness ‘monster’. Photo for representation: PTI

If that was not enough, the next year, the Daily Mail published the iconic “surgeon’s photo” of the Loch Ness monster — showing the head of "Nessie" on a long neck emerging from the water. Sixty years later, it turned out to be a a hoax. What was actually used was a sea monster model attached to a toy submarine.

There have been countless attempts to track down Nessie, including one in 2003, a BBC-funded scientific search using 600 sonar beams and satellite tracking to sweep the full length of the lake.

The findings of the proposed expedition next month are expected to be presented in January 2019.

“The world has waited more than a thousand years for an answer,” the project website says. “It’s only months away.”

Other Nessies

While no one knows what to hope for under the bubbling waters this time, human curiosity has never stopped such expeditions from taking place. And why should it? Not all mythical creatures or cryptids are always mythical. Many animals that people dismissed as "imaginary" have been proven real — in their full fury and weirdness — just as we expected and heard of. Like the Narwhal, the Platypus or the gorilla. It wasn't until 1847 that scientists officially identified the species — gorilla.

Cryptozoology — the study of hidden animals whose existence has not been proven — for long has kept many of us busy hunting for the unseen. The term Cryptozoology was coined by Belgian zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans in the late 1950s. In a very interesting description, Michael Shermer in the Scientific American writes that cryptids (hidden animals) "begin life as blurry photographs, grainy videos and countless stories about strange things that go bump in the night. Cryptids come in many forms, including the aforementioned giant pongid and lake monsters, as well as sea serpents, giant octopuses, snakes, birds and even living dinosaurs".

Of course, as Shermer says, anecdotes alone do not make science. But, just like Gemmell said in a video earlier this year, you can’t help but wonder, especially "when so many swear black and blue that they saw these things, that there might be a biological basis for them". “It really does resonate with people of all cultures all around the world. I honestly don’t know why.”

ziro_052418044402.jpgHow green is my valley: The fish-cum-paddy culture, full of fables and facts, that is unique to Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

So how do we brush aside those countless accounts and mysterious "sightings" — from Scotland's Loch Ness monster to Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest and, closer home in the Himalayas, the fabled Yeti or the little-known Buru in Ziro valley?

The Buru

The Buru, like most "mythical" monsters, is said to have lived in lakes. Described to be bluish-white in colour and around 15 feet long, with a skin like that of a fish but with no scales, sharp teeth, claws, stumpy legs, some say a snout too, and a long, long tail. An aquatic reptile.

It was Austrian anthropologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf — who is known for his thought-shaping contributions in explaining India, especially the Northeast to the world — who first wrote about how the Buru might have looked like even though he had never seen it. His description was mostly based on the stories narrated by the Apatanis during his visit to Ziro valley sometime in 1947.

Many people after Haimendorf wrote about the Buru. But one thing remained constant in all accounts — the chilling description of the long extinct Buru, passed on from one generation to the next.

apatani_052418044507.jpgFrom one generation to the next: The Buru continues to live amid stories among the Apatanis. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

Apatanis believe when their ancestors migrated to Ziro, a marshy valley then, it was full of Burus. Despite that, they decided to settled down mainly because the land was fertile. (That it used to be marshy makes complete sense when you see the unique paddy-cum-fish cultivation that the Apatanis still practise.)

The Burus, of course, were not very welcoming as the Apatanis started to clear the marsh of its water to chase away the hiding monsters. They say some of the monsters died, some went underground, some others hid in springs.

Long after they vanished, a young woman saw such a "monster" gleaming in a spring one night. She had gone to draw water. She told her father, who told a few neighbours to help seal the spring. Those few told some more, and the story continued.

Don't kill the buzz

Of course no one knows if there ever was a Buru, or a Nessie, but everybody likes to believe a good myth, to spin some more yarn and keep adding to the spool.

Do we really need science and scientists to settle all the mysteries in life, to kill all those childhood stories, even to slay some of our most thrilling chills and fears?

As for the young girl in Ziro valley, she still sees the Buru sometimes in her dreams. She wonders how would it feel to live amid such monsters, only to be jolted out of her sleep into the real world and its much-seen monsters.

Also read: Blaming RSS for Tuticorin killings is a cheap shot by Rahul Gandhi

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Sanghamitra Baruah Sanghamitra Baruah

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