Can’t discover a fossil ichthyosaur in Scotland without invoking a fictional monster?

Another “spectacular” sea monster fossil discovery is ruined by some ridiculous journalists who can’t rid themselves of the stupid pop culture habit of comparing every ancient sea predator to a mythical creature. This is really getting old.

The recent news is of a nearly intact ichthyosaur skeleton discovered on Scotland’s Isle of Skye and announced in the press as the Storr Lochs Monster just screamed out to be compared to the Loch Ness Monster. And it was, by a few outlets who go too far.

Artistic rendering by Todd Marshall. Open-mouthed is a typical depiction that makes the subject look more menacing.

Artistic rendering by Todd Marshall. Open-mouthed is a typical depiction that makes the subject look more menacing.

The fossil, found in 1966 by the manager of the hydroelectric Storr Lochs Power Station, had been in museum storage. It was recently announced in a public release. Read all about it in these news pieces:

Skye’s Storr Lochs Monster fossil unveiled in Edinburgh (BBC)

Jurassic ‘sea monster’ fossil emerges in Scotland (USA Today)

Jurassic ‘Sea Monster’ Emerges From Scottish Loch (National Geographic)

Move over Nessie: Scottish sea monster uncovered in national museum (AFP, Yahoo News, Phys Org)

The first two articles, from BBC and USA Today, get two thumbs up from me for being accurate without sensationalizing the story. Good job.

National Geographic has a good piece ruined by the mention of “Nessie”: “scientists have unveiled a monster that would make Nessie blush” – a silly, nonsensical reference. But even the scientist is quoted referencing lake monsters:

“Although some people think that sea monsters live here today in our lakes, there were actually real ones that lived here over a hundred million years ago,” says Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh, one of the lead researchers analyzing the fossil.

That was unnecessary. The atrocious AFP piece will be the article that gets probably the widest distribution and will be the most read and shared. From the headline to the content, it is not good science writing, it’s hype. The specimen is said to be a “deep-sea killer” of the type “sometimes called sea dragons”. Well, carnivores have to kill to eat, and one book was written on the subject called “Sea Dragons” to encompass plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs. No one really calls them that.

Brusatte digs himself a deeper hole with another quote:

“They were bigger, scarier and more fascinating than the myth of Nessie. The new fossil is one of them. It actually lived in Scotland 170 million years ago!”

The same antics occurred in 2015 when an ichthyosaur was found at Bearreraig Bay in Skye, and when a placoderm fossil was found in the Scottish Highlands.

I understand the desire to reach audiences with exciting finds and scientific triumphs, but invoking myths and manufactured drama is just not the right way to do it. Stick to the facts, stop making them monsters. Giant marine reptiles were successful and amazing animals that were an important chapter in earth’s life history. The marvelous tale of Nessie is in a different category entirely. Invoking “Nessie” every single stinking time a plesiosaur, ichthyosaur or other toothy carcass, fossilized or otherwise, makes the news cheapens the discovery into a cartoon monster story and reinforces the mistaken notion that Nessie is a living prehistoric survivor.

Journalists, editors, scientists: Stop it.

  11 comments for “Can’t discover a fossil ichthyosaur in Scotland without invoking a fictional monster?

  1. LPS
    September 5, 2016 at 5:45 PM

    Any idea why it stayed in museum storage for 50 years? Seems odd for such a significant find.

  2. September 5, 2016 at 8:24 PM

    It’s not really unusual. It takes a tremendous effort to prepare such a fossil.

  3. James R
    September 5, 2016 at 10:02 PM

    I’m very negative on these ‘tie-in’ stories as well, but the line “… than the myth of Nessie” does specifically refer to Nessie as a myth – which is a step in the right direction. I think people are finally wising up to the fact that the Nessie myth was invented in the 30’s and heavily promoted by the tabloid papers in the UK. And they are in the best in the world at that. It would be nice if when 2033 rolls around (100 years since it got started) they declare Nessie officially ‘passed on’ and it fades into oblivion.

  4. Hiram
    September 6, 2016 at 7:42 AM

    They were bigger, scarier and more fascinating than the myth of Nessie. The new fossil is one of them. It actually lived in Scotland 170 million years ago!

    There was no such thing as “Scotland” 170 million years ago, for Scotch’s sake. Isn’t there such a thing as context?

    This guy is not the best one to get one’s scientific opinion from, I would say.

  5. September 6, 2016 at 10:50 AM

    Agreed but we must remain aware that people who believe that something mysterious is going on there will completely skip over the word “myth” and just focus on Nessie. To get the accurate point across, it’s best to avoid unintentionally reinforcing the keywords in the concept which is mostly what people remember.

    Check out the term Backfire Effect for more on this.

  6. Cinead
    October 28, 2016 at 5:07 PM

    The legend of Nessie isn’t a modern creation, it’s first mention was in the year 565 when Columba was said to have banished it after it made to attack one of his priests. Now that may have been a fabrication, yet the belief in Kelpies (Water-horses/Water-demons) in Scotland stretches back well into antiquity. By you omitting that, either means you dig no further into a subject than the people you all like to tear down, or you chose not to mention how far back the legend truly dates, simply to reinforce your own dismissive opinion. Also, the first modern sighting was in 1802.

  7. October 28, 2016 at 7:22 PM

    Errr, not quite. You need to look more closely at the St Columba sighting. It was clearly retrofitted into the post-monster era. Also, Nessie is distinct from the kelpie legend but there is some muddled area in there. Usually (as in this case perhaps), skeptical scholars know more about the entirety of the story than those that wish to “tear down” said skeptics. Cryptozoology legends are almost always sloppy in their historical context and accuracy in order to bolster the preferred monster claim.

    Essential Reference: Abominable Science by Loxton & Prothero.

  8. Cinead
    October 28, 2016 at 8:05 PM

    I’m well aware of the dificulties of classifying Scotlands water based mythological creatures under the term Kelpie, but Nessie would fall under that name, as it applies to many uncatagorised mythological water creatures as it stands. Also, Columba’s sighting, whether or not factual, still goes a long way in helping to date the legend. Fact is, Nessie, regardless of what it was called then, has existed as a legend for far longer than since the 30’s, that is correct, isn’t it?

    And what is sloppy about folkloric accounts, they are what people once believed. So even if they dont provide you with a clear provenance, dates and figures, doesn’t mean they should be thrown out of any discussion offhand, after all, the belief in them was originally there.

    Regardless, Nessie is old, any Scottish water spirit can be classified as a Kelpie, thanks to the lack of clear definition saying otherwise, and no one really cares about fossils anymore, so lightheartedly tying it to an aspect of popular culture is a helpful way to get it read by the wider public.

  9. October 28, 2016 at 8:35 PM

    Contrary to some sources, there is no tradition of sightings, nor are there old historical reports or anything like that pre-dating the 1930s.
    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.

    It’s not lighthearted to connect it to fossils, it is misinformation. People think it’s true and that is not a good thing.

  10. Cinead
    October 28, 2016 at 9:09 PM

    Its not really misinformation, they dont say it is “Nessie” they just make the connection because one is a legendary sea creature belonging to Scotland, and the other is a legitimate sea creature found in Scotland. I get what you’re saying, but there really is no fight needing fought in regards to the fossil and statement.

    Exactly, not all sources are going to corroborate. You acknowledge the ones that reinforce your argument, and I do the same with those that reinforce mine. Columba was real, Adomnan, whose work ties Columba to the legend, states that he banished the “Water-beast” and that to me ties the belief in water beasts to at least the 565 in Scotland.

    As an important source for early Scottish history, with works that corroborate with similar writtings of that time, I dont see why Adomnan as a source, should be discredited. Water based creatures are rife in Scottish folklore, this is fact, but just because “Nessie” has survived into the modern era and become a staple of pop culture, does not mean that it’s origins suddenly stop being ancient in nature simply because we know it by another name.

  11. October 28, 2016 at 9:29 PM

    You are making the mistake that the current legend is equivalent to the historic claims. That is a fallacy. I suggest you consult not only the references I supplied before but also Naish’s Hunting Monsters and Meurger’s Lake Monster Traditions – essential for an informed discussion about historical versus modern takes on traditional lake monster motifs.

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