The legend of Scotland's Loch Ness Monster is getting a good shakedown.
The elusive plesiosaur known as "Nessie," who is said to have first appeared in Britain's largest lake 13 centuries ago, may be nothing more than an illusion caused by earthquakes, according to an Italian scientist.
Luigi Piccardi, a geologist at the Italian National Research Center, presented his theory today at the Earth Systems Processes conference in Edinburgh.
Piccardi deduced that seismic activity in the Great Glen Fault, which runs underneath Loch Ness, releases gas bubbles, resulting in a violent commotion on the water surface. That commotion, says Piccardi, could be mistaken for sightings of Nessie.
A Small Sample of Reports
Although there are more than 3,000 known reports of Nessie sightings, Piccardi analyzed fewer than 40 of those incidents.
"When you look at the reports of people who saw the monster, they say we heard a great noise, saw a large commotion in the water, and that the waves rocked," says Piccardi. "They say we couldn't see the beast because the water hid the creature. The usual sighting is humps moving in the lake and normal waves, which can be related to the seismic effect."
Even the earliest account of the monster, from the seventh-century Life of St. Columba, pointed to an earthquake as the source, according to Piccardi. While walking along the shore of Loch Ness, the saint, who warded off the monster by "forming the saving sign of the cross in the air," experienced strong shaking.
But Piccardi will have a hard time swaying the staunchest Nessie-believers. Gary Campbell, president of the Loch Ness Monster Fan Club in Inverness, Scotland, disputes Piccardi's findings.
"Most of the sightings involve foreign objects coming out of the water. There's two most common — one's a hump, and the other is a head and neck," says Campbell. "At the end of the day, there's still sightings that are inexplicable. There's something physical in there."
The first locally recorded sighting of Nessie took place in 1868 and spoke of a huge fish, but the phenomenon of Nessie sightings didn't take off until 1933, when a Mr. and Mrs. MacKay reported seeing a massive creature frolicking in the lake.
Piccardi points out that the spate of sightings in 1933 and 1934 took place just before the last major earthquake in 1934.
The researcher, who specializes in finding seismological explanations for ancient myths, believes that the magic of the Loch Ness monster will live on, despite scientific explanations. "This will demonstrate an important side of human culture. It shows how myths can be so easily believed in, because people still believe in them today."