Field of Science

The Earth-shattering Monster of Loch Ness

The first purported photo of Nessie was published in The Daily Mail" on April 21, 1934.  The image, taken by a London surgeon named Kenneth Wilson, was touted for decades as the best evidence for Nessie — until it was admitted as a hoax decades later.

In 2001 Italian geologist Luigi Piccardi presented at the Earth Systems Processes meeting in Edinburgh a hypothesis, explaining the supposed appearance of the lake monster in Loch Ness as a result of the local geology. According to Piccardi, the historical description of the monster - appearing on the surface with great (earth)shakes and waves - could be based on seismic activity along the Great Glen fault. The Great Glen fault is a transcurrent fault where two bits of Earth - the Grampian Highlands, composed of early Paleozoic plutonic rocks, and the Northern Highlands, composed mostly of Neoproterozoic rocks with Palozoic sedimentary covers - are sliding sideways against each other.


Loch Ness is a 36 km long lake, located just above the fault zone. As the fault moves, earthquakes happen and cause bubbles and waves on the lake's surface. In an interview published in the Italian newspaper "La Repubblica" Piccardi explains:

"There are various effects on the surface of the water that can be related to the activity of the fault ...[]... the beast appears and disappears with great shakes. I think it's an obvious description of what really happened…[] We know that there was a period [1920-1930, a period characterized by many reported sightings of Nessie] with increased activity of the fault, in reality, people have seen the effects of the earthquakes on the water."

According to the biography of St. Columba, the scene described by Piccardi happened in the year 565. Trying to cross the river Ness the missionary is attacked by a beast. However, Columba implores the protection of god and the monster promptly disappears. The original text, however, is very vague and gives no detailed description of the event, stating only that it was an "unknown beast" and it approached with the mouth wide open and a loud roar. In the myth, the supposed lake monster is of much less importance than the ability of St. Columba to tame beasts and demons and doing so
to impress the local pagans. It is quite possible that the supposed encounter with the monster was added to make Colomba´s legend bigger than real life. The vague description presented doesn't really support any proposed scenario, neither seismic activity nor a presumed surviving plesiosaur, living in a lake formed by glaciers during the last ice age some 18,000 years ago. Modern sightings in Loch Ness can more reasonably be explained by a combination of hoaxes, misidentification of common animals or waves and the local tourist industry, keeping the myth alive to attract tourists. Research done in the lake has never produced any clue for the possible existence of a population of larger animals in the Loch.

Also, historic seismicity doesn't seem to support the existence of an earth-shaking monster in the Loch. Earthquakes along the Great Glen fault range between a magnitude of 3 to 4, too weak to cause any observable effects on the lake. Stronger events are exceptionally rare and were recorded only in 1816, 1888, 1890 and 1901. These earthquakes don't coincide with the years of supposed increased activity of Nessie, like in the decade around 1933.

Darwin's First Botanizing Steps Followed His Geological Ones

 “I collected every plant, which I could see in flower, & as it was the flowering season I hope my collection may be of some interest to you." - Charles Darwin in a letter to his friend and mentor John Stevens Henslow, 1836.

Charles Robert Darwin's interest in the natural world was widespread. As a student, he loved to hunt animals and collected bugs and minerals. His mentor and friend John Stevens Henslow, mineralogist and professor of botany, introduced the young Darwin to both disciplines. Darwin attended Henslow's botany lectures and field trips each year during his three years at Cambridge, visiting also private meetings at Henslow's home. Here he met with Adam Sedgwick, president of the newly formed Geological Society of London. During a geological field trip in the summer of 1831 with Sedgwick, Darwin collected and preserved also some plant specimens.

Herbarium sheet by J. S. Henslow with three plants collected by Charles Darwin in 1831 at Barmouth, North Wales. This is the earliest-known herbarium specimen collected by Darwin.

During the five-year-long voyage of the Beagle Darwin collected plants or seeds on the Cape Verde Islands, in Argentina, in Uruguay, in Chile, in Brazil and some of the visited islands, like the Falkland, Galápagos and Cocos islands. As Darwin had limited space on the Beagle, most occupied by rocks and animals, he limited himself to remote or poorly studied localities.

Darwin had prepared several thousand labels in different colors before the voyage to be applied to every dried plant (the labels including species, locality, date and his signature). Wet specimens, conserved in "spirits of wine", were tagged with a small, metallic plate. Henslow, who back in England managed Darwin's collection, however, removed most labels when including Darwin's specimens into the herbarium. Unlike the collected rocks and animals Darwin didn't number the plant specimens, so it seems a bit confusion sneaked into the collection. Another friend of Darwin, botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, lamented to Darwin that not all notes could be attributed to the preserved plants.

Darwin's plant collection is especially interesting as it includes many species from less visited islands of the Galápagos and the Cocos archipelago. Darwin was intrigued about the relationship of the isolated species found on the islands to the species found on nearby continents. Later Darwin conducted experiments with seeds, showing that some can survive salty water for months and so be dispersed by marine currents. Despite Darwin's plans, he didn't publish the collected plants in “The Voyage of the Beagle” (published in 1839), as a very busy Henslow didn't meet the deadlines for publication.

Darwin collected 756 different species, subspecies or varieties of vascular plants during his five years long voyage around the world, 220 species were new to science. Darwin was especially surprised by the variability displayed by plants. A collected grass species was divided by Henslow into fifteen different varieties! This was an intriguing observation, important for his later formulated theory of evolution, how one species can split over time in various new ones. Also, the relationship of plant species on islands to nearby continents was an important observation. The plants from the Galápagos islands showed, according to Hooker, a remarkable variability between the single islands, however some even more remarkable similarities to species from North America and Brazil. Would a divine creator not be able to create distinct, unique species on remote islands as he pleased? However, if seeds can be dispersed with marine currents and islands be colonized by plants from nearby continents, couldn't they also evolve there in new species?