Science Channel’s 10-part series, Mythical Beasts, has come to a close. In case you got caught up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays and missed out, we’ve got you covered.
The final episode explores the origins and possible existence of Scotland’s famous Loch Ness monster with a familiar face, Dr. Joy Reidenberg, the comparative anatomist who has been involved in every episode of the series. There’s a lot of information packed into the small, hour-long block, but Reidenberg makes it fun and is great at keeping the momentum going.
The show opens (naturally) in Scotland, where Reidenberg begins trying to unravel the mystery of Nessie. There have been over 3,000 sightings since the sixth century, documented testimonies, and even photos of the supposed creature.
Sea monsters aren’t anything new to mythology, but to have one that exists even now in the modern world is fairly unique. Thinking open mindedly, Reidenberg begins her journey saying, “Stranger things have happened and we have to keep an open mind because there are, after all, lots of stories of sightings.”
The search for similarity
Being a comparative anatomist, Reidenberg first attempts to find an explanation by looking at similar animals to the ones described in documented accounts and photographs. There are tons of variations through time, but one of the most pushed narratives is that Nessie is a plesiosaur.
A fossil of a plesiosaur in Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum examines the orca-sized creature, but skepticism quickly takes over Reidenberg. She points out that the spiny processes on the plesiosaurs neck would limit its movement, and therefore wouldn’t match up with any of the photographic evidence.
Beyond that, the fossil in the Hunterian Museum is millions of years old. Is it even possible for a plesiosaur to be alive today? Paleontologist Steve Brusatte says it’s extremely unlikely.
While Brusatte has studied plesiosaurs and found fossils of them near Scotland, dating back 170 million years, not one has been found in the geologic record after the mass extinction event that occurred about 66 million years ago. He says while nothing is impossible, he is 99.9% sure all plesiosaurs are extinct.
Reidenberg knows that all species have evolved and changed, but have similarities to their prehistoric ancestors. For example, she examines the 330-million-year-old Bearsden shark fossil and shows how it’s similar to modern dogfish.
She mentions that coelacanths evolved before dinosaurs and were thought to be extinct until they were “re-discovered” in the 1930s, The Indian ocean fish exists today with only the slightest evolutionary differences from their prehistoric selves.
So, in light of that, Reidenberg presents an alternate theory: a colony of plesiosaurs got stuck in the loch as ice age water receded, and through time and evolution somehow managed to survive. Though admittedly unlikely, this allows her to turn her attention to the loch itself, which seems to provide just as many answers as it does mysteries.
Should have started with that
Mythical Beasts says the early history of Loch Ness is a mystery, yet it’s widely accepted that it formed after the last Ice Age, during glacial retreat. It isn’t made clear in the show what the mystery of Loch Ness actually is.
The origin of Loch Ness in folklore is the tale of a plush valley with a deep water well. A young woman is said to have left the lid off by accident, which allowed water to begin flowing up and out, eventually flooding the entire valley.
Biologist Eric Verspoor gives an overview of how massive the loch is (23 miles long and about 600 feet deep), and takes Reidenberg out on Loch Ness. He drops a reflector into the water on a rope, and by 10 feet below the surface, the reflector can no longer be seen.
Verspoor says the water is made murky by peat, but has little algae growth. The smaller the amount of algae, the smaller amount of fish it can support. He believes 20,000 – 40,000 fish is about as sustainable as it could be, and with such food scarcity, it’s virtually impossible to support anything the size of a plesiosaur.
Reidenberg explores the idea of other sea life being the cause of Nessie sightings. The accounts over the years have been so varied that she suggests it wasn’t just one creature, but more likely several different creatures and other phenomena that collided with the human imagination and desire to explore their fears.
Some accounts she attributes to sturgeon or lampreys, others to lost sea mammals that may have been unknown to the area or photographed at just the right moment. She photographs seals on the North Sea to attempt to replicate some of the Nessie photos, and provides plausibility for that idea.
Perhaps some sea monster sightings could be due to the unique geography of Loch Ness. The banks are rocky and they reflect inward, which could cause waves to collide and make strange appearances on the water. A lab test of water behavior is performed in a wave tank by researcher Gareth Williams, which shows how cresting water could look like a large hump, possibly even seeming to stand still.
The end of the myth
Stefan Sveinsson is the President of Fljotsdalsherad City Council and knows all about sea creature myths; there is an identical folktale in his hometown in Iceland. Over more than 700 years, sightings of a water monster occur before tragic or scary events.
He, like Reidenberg, feels that it’s just a human creation. To Sveinsson, it boils down to learning respect for the water, like a message passed down to draw attention to hidden dangers. It’s the primal fear, fear of the unknown, blended into the desire to entertain a good story, that keeps these myths going.
The whole series and this episode of Mythical Beasts can be summed up by sociologist Margee Kerr when she says, “[A mythical beast] is likely based on real creatures. We often find a hint of truth in our monster stories, and then our imagination and creativity go to work, and we get these amazing beasts.”
The whole series is based on understanding how groups of people use fear, both as a gesture of power and control, and as a means of safety, as they learn about their natural world. Fear is a strong motivator, but also a fantastic deterrent.
Something that’s large and terrifying is much more likely to be recalled and repeated than a generic warning or statement. It makes sense that these super large and menacing tales would last, especially the ones in previous episodes that were mixed in with religious indoctrination.
Putting your fears to rest
Mythical Beasts as a whole is genuinely a great series to dive into the inner workings of how fear works in human nature, and also how incredibly well fear can be wielded as a control mechanism. It’s been an interesting journey from beginning to end, and though Loch Ness was a great episode, it didn’t end with a huge bang.
The episode ended rather gently and abruptly, as if to give the viewer a moment of gentle reflection. Having Reidenberg close out the series was a fantastic idea. She brings something special to the show with her palpable excitement and kind smile, which almost balances out the terrifying nature of the presented myths.
We need more shows like this, ones that attempt to seek truth through scientific experiments, archeology, documentation, etc., rather than using the old trope in which lack of evidence is proof enough that something strange could be out there. Admittedly, this series had its moments of confusion and concern, but it’s only the beginning.
Cheers to Science Channel and everyone that worked hard to make Mythical Beasts a reality. You can check out full episodes at the Science Channel website anytime.