UPDATE [added August 1st 2011]: The Telegraph have apologised, and have removed the offending article. Various versions based on the Telegraph’s piece are still out there of course.

Since all the hubbub associated with that recent Zoological Society of London cryptozoology meeting, I’m intending to leave the subject of cryptozoology well alone for a while: better to stick with frogs, obscure birds, Mesozoic dinosaurs and other stuff. But I’ve just had my attention brought to an article that appeared yesterday in the online version of The Telegraph. It states that “Loch Ness monster is more fact than fiction claims paleontologist” and “The Loch Ness monster may be more fact than fiction, one of the UK’s top dinosaur experts has claimed” (quite why a British newspaper decided to go with American spellings is a bit of a mystery). This article now seems to have been taken up by other news outlets, all quoting the same stuff.

Aww, crap.

Here is why talking about cryptozoology is so often a bad idea: journalists are often looking to twist your words to make a more sensational story. No matter what it says in the article, while discussing cryptozoology at the ZSL I never said anything positive about the ‘Loch Ness monster’, nor do I think there is anything substantive to the Loch Ness monster legend, nor do I think that the eyewitness evidence for the Loch Ness monster stacks up to much.

If you read the quotes in the Telegraph article, you’ll see that I (and Dr Charles Paxton) are both talking about sea monster accounts. In fact, the article specifically quotes me as saying “The huge number of ‘sea monster’ sightings now on record can’t all be explained away as mistakes, sightings of known animals or hoaxes”. Yeah: sea monsters. And I stand by what I’ve said: sure, a great many ‘sea monster sightings’ represent hoaxes and mistakes of various kinds (people have mis-reported natural phenomena like waves, wakes and water spouts, and they’ve also misidentified known animals like seals, whales, turtles, crocodiles and so on), but at least some (SOME) of the sightings are good enough and reliably reported enough to indicate that (1) a real animal was seen, and (2) that real animal didn’t correspond to anything we know of. One of the great classic examples is the Valhalla encounter of 1905, where biologists Edmund Meade-Waldo and Michael Nicoll observed an unusual long-necked, tall-finned animal through binoculars. Nicoll wrote of his conviction that the animal was a mammal, but noted that he based this conclusion on the overall look of the animal and its soft, ‘rubbery’ dorsal fin. Maede-Waldo and Nicoll were so impressed and perplexed by their encounter that they wrote it up for the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (Maede-Waldo & Nicoll 1906) (see also Nicoll (1908)).

So I’m very unhappy with the Telegraph’s assertion that I have positive feelings about Loch Ness monster accounts. I don’t. My thinking on Loch Ness is that – while people have seen and do see all manner of weird stuff on the loch – they are basically seeing assorted phenomena and objects, and naively identifying those phenomena and objects as ‘monsters’ because they visit the loch loaded with preconception. Here I will quote myself from a 2007 article that I published on Tet Zoo ver 2

I shall begin with a bold proclamation: there is no good evidence supporting the existence of any large unknown animal in Loch Ness, and I am of the opinion that sightings and photographic and sonar evidence can be satisfactorily explained as mistaken or embellished encounters with known animals (including swimming deer, water birds, seals, and small cetaceans), waves, or other phenomena. I say this, not because I’m a knee-jerk debunker who cannot accept the idea that a big unknown animal might exist in a big body of water, but because I am familiar with the evidence, such as it is, and find it wanting. The expectation that there is an unknown animal in Loch Ness almost certainly explains the recent history of sightings from the loch - in other words, any weird bump or lump or shape that emerges from the loch is identified as a monster - but, contrary to some sources, there is no tradition of sightings, nor are there old historical reports pre-dating the 1930s (Magin 2001).

So, shame on you, The Telegraph, you’ve made me look silly (or more silly than I already do, anyway). By the way, I do recognise the possibility that the bit about ‘Nessie’ was added by someone other than the journalist who wrote the piece.

There are a few other annoying things in the article, besides the Loch Ness stuff. Describing me as “one of the UK’s top dinosaur experts” might be a bit of a stretch and, while I may or may not be a “boffin” (wtf?), I don’t lecture at the University of Portsmouth (rather, I’m a research affiliate there, not - alas - a lecturer). What was that I was saying about “Cryptozoology: avoid at all costs”?

For previous Tet Zoo articles on lake monsters, sea monsters and such, please see...

Refs - -

Maede-Waldo, E. G. B. & Nicoll M. J. 1906. Description of an unknown animal seen at sea off the coast of Brazil. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 2 (1906), 719-721.

Magin, U. 2001. Waves without wind and a floating island – historical accounts of the Loch Ness monster. In Simmons, I. & Quin, M. (eds) Fortean Studies Volume 7. John Brown Publishing (London), pp. 95-115.

Nicoll, M. J. 1908. Three Voyages of a Naturalist. Witherby & Co., London.