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7 Proposed Explanations for the Loch Ness Monster

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It was 85 years ago, on May 2, 1933, that Scotland's Inverness Courier published a report about a local couple swearing they saw “an enormous animal rolling and plunging on the surface” of Loch Ness. It didn't take long for word to spread. Does a mysterious beast really patrol one of Scotland’s deepest lakes? Or do any of these less fanciful explanations hold water? Is the Loch Ness Monster real? You be the judge.

1. LAKE STURGEONS

Photo of a lake sturgeon
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Many Nessie witnesses have mentioned large, crocodile-like scutes (hardened plates) sitting atop the spine of the creature in question. At least one native fish matches that description perfectly: Sturgeons can weigh several hundred pounds and have ridged backs, which make them look almost reptilian.

2. SURFACING TREES

A photo of a tree emerging from a body of water
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When a mighty Scottish pine dies and flops into the loch, it quickly becomes water-logged and sinks. While submerged, botanical chemicals start trapping tiny bubbles. Eventually, enough of these are gathered to propel the log upward as deep pressures begin altering its shape. These bubbles finally start dissipating after a while, but their momentum allows the deformed wood to briefly surface before returning downwards to its watery grave. Such sudden bursts of arboreal buoyancy could easily be misinterpreted as huge animals coming up for air.

3. INDIGENOUS EELS

Some amazing eels live in and near the British Isles. For example, there’s the European eel, an endangered species that spawns after migrating all the way to the Caribbean. And while we’re on the subject, here’s one fish you don’t wanna mess with:

Conger eels can exceed 10 feet in length and sometimes take gruesome bites out of unsuspecting divers. Though they’re saltwater critters, two 7-foot specimens were found lying on a Loch Ness beach in 2001. However, these animals may have been deliberately planted there to generate monster-related interest.

4. MOUNTAINOUS REFLECTIONS

Mountains reflect a monster-like image into the water below
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On choppy days, lakes regularly distort the reflections of various objects (hills, trees, etc.) upon their surfaces. Looming over Loch Ness are several mountains which face similar treatment.

5. BIRD WAKES

When you’re looking at a floating object from some distance away, ascertaining its size can be difficult. Treading waterfowl can leave disproportionately large wakes, which seemingly come out of nowhere to onlookers who can’t see the actual avian.

6. SEISMIC ACTIVITY

A photo of a bubble in the water, caused by the tremor produced by a faultline
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A fault line rests directly beneath Loch Ness, producing small tremors that release vast columns of bubbles. Their violent, unexpected emergence might very well have spawned the area’s creature legends.

7. SWIMMING ELEPHANTS

A swimming elephant raises its trunk out of the water
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Could Nessie’s head really be a trunk? Despite their bulk, elephants are talented swimmers who are capable of paddling along for hours on end. When it’s time to take a few laps, their hose noses become top-notch snorkels, periodically jetting above the surface for air. According to paleontologist Neil Clark, this behavior might help explain some of Loch Ness’s early monster sightings during the 1930s. Back then, traveling circuses were a common sight throughout northern Scotland. Between shows, these groups were known to occasionally let their performing elephants play around in nearby lakes. Perhaps, Clark argues, a few peeping locals mistook these bathing behemoths for aquatic monsters.

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The Great Yanny vs. Laurel Aural War of 2018, Explained
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It's rare for people to disagree on the internet, but no amount of civility could be spared when a "social media influencer" named Cloe Feldman posted a four-second sound clip on Twitter on May 15, 2018 and asked followers whether they heard a voice say "Yanny" or "Laurel."

Maybe you hear "Yanny." Maybe "Laurel." Proponents of either one recognize a very distinct word, which seems like some kind of aural magic trick. 

Popular Science asked several audiologists to help explain what’s going on. Brad Story, a professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences at the University of Arizona, performed a waveform analysis, which is already more effort directed at this than at the ransom calls for the Lindbergh baby. Story observed that the recording's waveform displays the acoustic features of the "l" and "r" sounds, offering reasonable proof that the voice is saying "Laurel." Whoever engineered the track seems to have layered a second, higher-frequency artifact over it—a frequency that sounds like "Yanny" to some people.

But why do listeners hear one name versus the other? We listen with our brains, and our brains tend to prioritize certain sounds over others. You might be focused on hearing your child talk, for example, over the din of a television. Because "Laurel" and "Yanny" are on different frequencies, some listeners are subconsciously favoring one over the other.

Audiologist Doug Johnson of Doug Johnson Productions provided further proof in his YouTube video analyzing the recording. By isolating each track, it's clear listeners can hear both "Yanny" and "Laurel."

A bigger mystery remains: Who conceived of this recording? It wasn't Feldman, who said she picked it up from a Reddit conversation. According to Wired, the answer is likely Georgia-based high school freshman Katie Hazel, who was looking up the word "laurel" on Vocabulary.com, had the site play it back, and was confused when she heard "Yanny" instead. She shared the discrepancy on Instagram, which was picked up by school senior Fernando Castro. From Castro's Instagram, it landed on Reddit. The original recording was performed for Vocabulary.com in 2007 by an unnamed opera singer and former cast member of the Broadway musical CATS.

Vocabulary.com isn't sure if the singer will come forward to claim their role in this fleeting internet sensation. In the meantime, the "Yanny" and "Laurel" camps continue to feud, mystified by the inability to hear what the other can. Musician Yanni is in the former group.

[h/t Popular Science]

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A Digital Reconstruction Reveals the Face of Famed Murder Victim 'Bella in the Wych Elm'
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For people obsessed with the very specific sub-category of grotesque murder mysteries in wartime England, there’s no better story than that of Bella in the Wych Elm. On April 18, 1943, four teenage boys playing soccer decided to go for a walk in Hagley Woods, a forested area in Worcestershire. There, one of them wandered up to a witch hazel tree, a looming, storybook-sinister growth that was sometimes referred to as a wych elm. The boy, 15-year-old Bob Farmer, caught sight of a white protrusion from its hollow trunk that he thought was a bird’s nest. Peering closer, he realized it was a human skull.

Terrified, the boys backed away from their discovery, figuring the best course of action was to say nothing. By nightfall, however, 13-year-old Tommy Willetts broke down, telling his parents what he and his friends had stumbled across. They duly alerted police, and the next morning, detectives from the Worcestershire County Police and the nearby Birmingham force were on the scene, along with forensic expert James Webster. The team retrieved the skull, most of the skeleton, some decomposing clothing, a wedding ring, and a shoe. A right hand was found 100 yards away, with the other matching shoe nearby.

Webster quickly concluded the remains were the work of foul play, a scenario supported by eerie graffiti that began to spring up near the Hagley site. The scrawls gave a name to the victim by asking, “Who put Bella down the wych elm?”

For the next 75 years, no one could say how or why the woman was struck down before being stuffed in the tree. That may soon change, if someone is able to recognize the first reconstructed image of what Bella in the Wych Elm may have looked like.

A digital reconstruction of the victim known as 'Bella of the Wych Elm'
Courtesy of Pete Merrill/APS Books

Before it became a cold case, the story of “Bella” titillated true-crime aficionados of the era. Webster estimated the woman’s age to be between 35 and 40, and her height about 5 feet. Her murder might have taken place between 18 and 36 months prior to being found; he considered it likely she had been deposited into the tree immediately after death, since any delay would have allowed for limb-stiffening rigor mortis that would have made the task impossible. A wadded piece of taffeta had been found in her throat, leading Webster to suspect asphyxiation.

Attempts to identify the woman proved fruitless. Her large, protuberant teeth were circulated among dentists, but none could confirm ever seeing anyone with the same bite. Files of missing persons within 1000 square miles of Hagley Woods revealed no comparable profiles. One man reported hearing screams coming from the woods in July 1941, but no further evidence was forthcoming. Only the graffiti appearing in and around the crime scene—later dismissed as the result of a prankster—gave her any semblance of an identity. Both police and newspaper readers reluctantly filed it away as a morbid story with no apparent end.

In 2017, forensic anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson was approached by father-son authors Alex and Pete Merrill to see if she might be able to reconstruct a digital depiction of the victim’s face using photographs of her skull. Wilkinson, who has performed similar tasks on both recent criminal cases as well as archival reconstructions like Richard III, agreed. With colleagues at the Face Lab of Liverpool John Moores University, she was able to extrapolate facial features based on the available images. (It was necessary to use photographs because the real skull, having been moved around in storage over the decades, could not be located by authorities.)

“When reconstructing using a 2-D photo, rather than a 3-D model of the skull, we may only be provided with one, or sometimes a few, views,” Sarah Shrimpton, a research assistant and Ph.D. researcher at the Face Lab, tells Mental Floss. “However, there is still a lot of information within a photograph that allows us to make an assessment of shape, but as with all photographs, the planes of the image are flattened, which results in some slight loss of perspective.”

The flattened shape can omit key details—like how deep the eye orbits are, for example. Still, the photos of the remains provided valuable clues. “We were lucky to also have a profile view of the skull," Shrimpton says. "This proved useful when trying to estimate the shape of her nose.” A bony protrusion called the nasal spine indicated how and where the nose pointed; the alveolar bone, which supports the teeth, indicated the mouth size and the thickness of the lips as well as the general shape of the jawline. Since part of the victim's scalp was still attached to the skull, her hair length and possible style was available for interpretation. Bella’s unique feature—her protruding teeth—was also on clear display.

“Normally we depict faces with their mouths closed and a neutral expression. However, if the teeth are interesting, as in Bella’s case, then we depict the mouth open. It is also likely that her protruding upper teeth would have resulted in her mouth being slightly open at rest.”

Graffitti referencing the Bella Wych elm murder appears on an obelisk in Worcestershire, England
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Upon receiving the image from the Face Lab, the Merrills used the reconstruction as part of their examination of the crime. Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?: Volume One: The Crime Scene Revisited examines the early attempts to solve the mystery as well as some of the more sensational theories to arrive long after the case had grown stale.

The fact that Bella’s hand was found some distance from the tree led one observer, folklorist Margaret Murray, to speculate in 1945 that Bella had been the victim of a black magic ritual in which her hand was said to have occult powers. Putting her in a tree, Murray said, was one arcane way of imprisoning a witch. Webster, the more pragmatic forensic scientist, asserted that it was far more likely that animals had run off with her hand.

Another story—that Bella was in fact a German cabaret singer and secret agent named Clara Bauerle—seemed to lose steam when Bauerle was found to be around 6 feet tall, almost a foot taller than the skeleton found in the tree.

It’s possible that the depiction of Bella commissioned by the Merrills will open up new leads. Until then, she remains defined by the circumstances of her discovery—the woman found, and still lost, in the hollow of a tree.

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