The legend of the Loch Ness monster has fascinated us for over a thousand years, inspiring hoax photographs and monster hunting cruises on the Scottish lake that gave the creature her name. But though Nessie has fascinated generations of believers, it wasn’t until yesterday that scientists were able to shed light on her very real past—unveiling a historic discovery 50 years in the making.
When a Scottish power station worker spotted an ancient ichthyosaur fossil in 1966, there weren’t any paleontologists in the country who could study the incredible find. The bulk of its remains were trapped in hard stone, too challenging to examine, so researchers stored the tangled block of rock and bone at a museum for safekeeping.
Today, scientists at the National Museums Scotland finally have the resources to study the specimen, labeled the Storr Lochs Monster. As University of Edinburgh professor Steve Brusatte told The Washington Post about the delayed inspection, “Look, a lot of specimens are in museums for a long time before they’re studied… One of the reasons I came [to Scotland] is that I thought it was really under-studied.”
With the help of modern techniques and a team of researchers, Brusatte was able to separate the Storr Lochs Monster fossil from its prison of stone.
— Steve Brusatte (@SteveBrusatte) September 5, 2016
Though it will take some time for Brusatte and his team to thoroughly study the fossil, so far they’ve deduced that the creature did not have the long neck Nessie is known for. Instead, she resembled a dolphin, had rows of sharp teeth, and lived comfortably near the top of the aquatic food chain.
If all goes according to plan, Brusatte says they could be adding a new species to the history books, telling The Washington Post, “There’s a good chance it’s a new species just because it’s from a part of the world and a place in time where very few fossils are known.”
The massive sea creature dominated its oceanic environment 170 million years ago. To give you an idea of what the world looked like back then, tyrannosaurs were just beginning to get their land legs, the first birds began taking flight, and large sea animals initiated their dominance over the smaller ones. While the Middle Jurassic Period was no doubt a lively time for evolution, few fossils from the era have yet to be found. Which is why Brusatte is excited to continue combing the Scottish coasts, hillsides, and seas for new evidence of ancient life.
And if you think the search will be left to the most advanced scientific minds, think again. “It’s all thanks to the keen eye of an amateur collector that this remarkable fossil was ever found in the first place,” Brusatte told BBC News, “which goes to show that you don’t need an advanced degree to make huge scientific discoveries.”