Cool research came out this week showing some species of plesiosaurs likely lived in freshwater lakes and rivers rather than the ocean. Like dolphins, a few species adapted to that environment even though most live in saltwater. But somehow that simple scientific article led to a whirlwind of “the Loch Ness Monster is plausible” headlines. Which it’s not. Though sightings still roll in from time to time, DNA studies show the most likely culprit is eels. Or Photoshop. So what happened?
The headline, which we first saw in Newsweek, covers a study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Cretaceous Research. But the addition of the Loch Ness monster aspect seems to have come by way of a press release from the University of Bath, where some of the scientists work. After noting that reconstructions of Nessie often use aspects of plesiosaur anatomy, the final paragraph reads: “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.”
One of the authors also wrote an explanation behind the research on his blog, never mentioning the Loch Ness Monster. The study found fossilized teeth and bones in the Kem Kem beds in Morocco. It’s known to be a Cretaceous freshwater river system because of the wealth of amphibian fossils found there. Those species couldn’t have lived in saltwater or brackish (mixed salt and freshwater) environments. More investigation is necessary, but because of the prevalence and condition of the fossils, the researchers believe these particular plesiosaurs adapted to lived in freshwater.
Scientists have discovered over 100 species of plesiosaurs. While many of the previous fossils were found in ocean environments, some were from fresh or brackish water. Including in areas of the United Kingdom. But they are all extinct and have been for a long time. Still, it’s interesting to note that something Loch Ness shaped could have lived in the Scottish Highlands, even if none of us would have been around to see it.
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.