Loch Ness Monster Theories: The European Eel

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European eels, cryptid-looking animals in their own right, have recently risen to prominence in the effort to find the Loch Ness Monster, or Nessie. In September 2019, scientists from New Zealand published a study identifying DNA samples taken from Loch Ness. Scientists failed to find large marine animal DNA, but plenty of eel DNA surfaced!

In January 2020, Nessie was spotted on one of Loch Ness’s cameras, and 55-year-old Nessie watcher Eoin O’Faodhagain submitted the sighting. Gary Campbell, who runs the Official Loch Ness Monster Sightings Register, confirmed it. 

Though very difficult to see, the video below shows the sighting. 

The European Eel

Before analyzing the evidence, let’s talk about eels, specifically the ones that live in Loch Ness. The European eel lives in freshwater and tops out at over 3 feet in length and nearly 15 pounds.  It can be found in the rivers and lakes of Europe, including the Scottish lochs. Males will spend 6 to 12 years in freshwater, while females spend 9 to 20 years there. Life doesn’t simply end here for them, though; they travel 3000 to 5000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to spawn.

The Sargasso Sea is an area in the Atlantic Ocean with boundaries defined only by ocean currents. It touches no land and is known for its floating patches of seaweed. It is in this region that the European eel spawns. Once spawning occurs, the eels die and their spawn begin the long float to the European coast to swim up the brackish rivers and into the lakes to repeat the cycle. 

Sargasso Sea Map
Image Credit: NOAA

Most people, in an attempt to prove that they couldn’t possibly be responsible for Nessie sightings, offer misinformation about eels. Commonly, it is asserted that they only live on the bottom of the ocean. As mentioned already, eels also live in rivers and lakes. Furthermore, they will travel to all depths of these bodies of water in search of food, which consists of anything they can kill and swallow. This includes breaching the surface of the water and, on a damp enough day, slithering across moderate distances of land like a snake. 

Another common misconception is that they are way too small to look like the way Nessie is generally described. While many of the 800 species of eel are quite small, the European eel grows to several feet in length. As always in the animal kingdom, outliers are possible. In fact, the Conger Eel, which lives around Europe in the oceans and seas, can grow to 10 feet and 130 pounds. Recognizing that these two species share a habitat for, at least, a small part of their lifespan, the European Eel may be able to grow quite large. 

Finally, with these animals being migratory, how can they be responsible for so many sightings? Eels only die naturally once they spawn. While peak spawning season is the month of February, recent evidence shows that not all eels migrate at the same time. In fact, they don’t even take the same route. This is likely an adaptation to prevent a single critical loss of the species. As such, occasionally an eel might not feel the urge to migrate within the typical timeframe. 

This man from Sweden claims the eel in his well lived for 155 years! The article also cites known eels that lived 50, 80, and even 100 years. Any eel that opted to stay in Loch Ness, instead of leaving to spawn, could grow to a massive size and could be responsible for some of the sightings.

Whether it is one eel that has outlived the rest or several eels, the European Eel is a great candidate to be responsible for some Nessie sightings. 

Loch Ness Study

Professor Neil Gemmell of the University of Otago in New Zealand studies population genetics by sampling large areas of water and running the samples for DNA analysis. He and his team performed this research in Loch Ness, the home of the Loch Ness Monster. While the study was not intended to find Nessie, it does support the plausibility of the European eel theory. 

Loch Ness Lake
Image Credit: Dave Conner

The study revealed a lot of eel DNA, which was found in almost every sample. The DNA cannot tell us the size of an individual eel, but with the number of specimens likely very high, an oversized eel wouldn’t be surprising. It also showed a lack of evidence for other common Nessie theories; among these are sturgeon, catfish, plesiosaurs and seals. 

A summary of the published results can be found here. It is obviously possible that Gemmell missed some DNA, but this study shows that the European eel should certainly at least be considered when discussing Nessie theories. 

First Loch Ness Monster Sighting of 2020

The first Loch Ness Monster sighting of the decade is finally here! If you didn’t watch the video above, it may be pertinent to do so now. What we see is a dark object at the top of the water. This object then appears to go below the surface, and then, reappear. After reappearing, it changes shape before the video ends. 

So, what does this do for our theory? Well, an inanimate object like a log may surface and disappear, but it won’t change direction. Similarly, waves won’t change direction. The spotter claims the object is approximately 10 feet long by 4 feet wide. While we have shown this may be in the range for an old, large eel, it is also possible the spotter is mistaken in his estimate. We are unsure just how far off the coast this is, and there aren’t objects of known size around to compare. Thus, the claim of size is hard to substantiate. 

This sighting does not confirm that Nessie is an eel, but it sure doesn’t confirm that the monster isn’t.

Conclusion

While the theory that Nessie is an eel was once popular, it lost favor to dinosaurs and inanimate objects. This research and most recent sighting firmly reestablishes the eel as a favorite candidate for the Loch Ness Monster, or at least a few of the sightings. The specific species, the European eel, is critically endangered per the IUCN Redlist. If we help these eels to bounce back, Nessie sightings may become much more common. 

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