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When links began circulating online over the Easter weekend about a reported sighting of the Loch Ness monster, it brought to my mind two interesting little tidbits about the beast that I have learnt during my time here at the Museum.


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Satellite view of Loch Ness from Apple Maps, which Andy Dixon and Peter Thain claim provide evidence that the Loch Ness monster exists.


The first tidbit, told to me in the queue to get into our annual staff Christmas sale last year, was that the Loch Ness monster is one of only two scientifically described species that doesn't have a type specimen. A type is the particular specimen of an organism which is used to scientifically describe and name that specimen.


The Loch Ness monster was given a scientific name in the journal Nature on 11 December 1975, in an effort to protect it. Sir Peter Scott and Robert Rines wrote:

The Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1795 provides the best way of giving full protection to any animal whose survival is threatened. To be included, an animal should be given a common name and a scientific name. For the Nessie or Loch Ness monster, this would require a formal description, even though the creature's relationship with known species, and even the taxonomic class to which it belongs, remains in doubt.


Scott and Rines argued that it was better to be safe than sorry and, citing eye-witness accounts, photographs and sonar images as evidence of Nessie's existence, they proposed the name Nessiteras rhombopteryx. It combines the name of the Loch with the Greek word for wonder (teras or teratos), and the Greek for diamond shape (rhombos) and fin (pteryx), thus: the Ness monster with the diamond shaped fin.


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An impression of the possible appearance of Nessiteras rhombopteryx from photographs, eyewitness accounts and sketches derived from a large number of sightings at the surface and from the accompanying underwater pictures, published alongside Scott and Rines' 1975 Nature paper.


Other than Nessie, the only other known species without a type specimen is actually us, Homo sapiens.


The second Nessie tidbit I've comes across during my time here is the arrangement the Museum has (or, at the least, used to have) with William Hill, to adjudicate on evidence presented to the bookmaker by anyone claiming to be able to prove the existence of the Loch Ness monster.


William Hill's Graham Sharpe first made the arrangement with Iain Bishop, the Museum's former deputy keeper of zoology, around 20 years ago. He says:

We quote odds about Nessie being proved to exist, which have fluctuated up to 1000/1 at times, depending on whether and when there have been sightings.


We once got Iain and a couple of members of Museum staff up to the Loch when we organised a Monster Hunt Weekend, offering, I think, £250,000 to anyone who could produce conclusive proof of the existence of Nessie. I remember those days very fondly, and will recall forever the sight of the eccentric rock 'n' roller and politician Screaming Lord Sutch trying to entice Nessie to emerge from the waters of the Loch by tempting her with British Rail sandwiches.


The William Hill-Museum-Loch Ness monster deal was last updated about 10 years ago, between the bookmaker's Rupert Adams and our fish curator, Oliver Crimmen.


The original offer had been based on 'capturing evidence of Nessie on film', but the last agreement stipulated the following identification guidelines:


  • The Natural History Museum cannot undertake to identify photographs, sonar traces, written descriptions or other forms of indirect evidence, although would be interested in seeing them.
  • The Natural History Museum hopes to be able to detect most hoaxes (eg man-made modifications to bones) but cannot guarantee to identify all fragments and would not regard a determination of 'animal bone unidentifiable' as positive identification of a monster (a small piece of horse rib would probably be impossible to allocate to a species).
  • The Natural History Museum will make every effort to provide a positive identification of tangible adequate specimens.
  • The Natural History Museum is unsure as to what might constitute a 'monster' though it might define it as a species hitherto unknown to science or widen the definition to include species previously known as fossils. It must be of a similar size to previous eye-witness accounts.


Of course the image visible on Apple Maps does not fall within the Museum's guidelines so, for the time being, William Hill's money goes unclaimed. However, Rupert Adam says:

It is the best evidence we have seen for a couple of years. We are now at 100/1 from 250/1 that Nessie will be found (confirmed by the Museum) before the end of 2014. It could cost us a six figure sum and we have to hope that Nessie does not pop up to trash our Christmas.

Others, though, are not convinced.


I thought I would dedicate my blog today, ANZAC day (in honour of my antipodean countrymen) to the avian symbol of New Zealand, the kiwi. But not just any kiwi: the collection of curiously coloured kiwi specimens held at the Museum in Tring.


Walter Rothschild, the eccentric founder of our Museum in Hertfordshire, was fascinated by flightless birds, including kiwis, and kept many as part of his live menagerie. In fact, it is said that he took a flock of 30 kiwis with him when he went to study at Cambridge in 1887.


Rothschild was also fascinated by albino animals and had a large number of abnormally coloured specimens in his bird collection. Today, among its 250 kiwi specimens of three different species, Tring holds 11 birds that show aberrations in colour, including two suspected albinos.


Hein van Grouw, a curator in the Museum's bird group, and an expert in avian colour peculiarities, says:

Rothschild was very fond of kiwis and very fond of colour aberrations in birds in general, so a colour aberrated kiwi was a highlight.


There are two terms for an all-white bird: albinism, caused by an absence of the enzyme necessary to activate colour pigment cells in feathers, skin and eyes; and leucism, a lack of colour pigment cells altogether. The main difference between the two is that albinos have red eyes, and as a result, very poor eyesight.


Colour aberrations in little spotted kiwi, Apteryx owenii, L-R: leucistic adult, normal adult, diluted semi-adult, albino semi-adult, normal chick, brown chick.


Hein says 'normal' albino birds don't usually survive past fledgling, not because they're eaten by predators, but simply because they can hardly see.

But kiwis aren't normal birds. A kiwi doesn't rely on their eyes as much as a normal bird. They are more like a mammal, and does things by feeling.


While it is difficult to put an accurate figure on the incidence of albinism in birds, Hein suggests a ratio of something like 'one in a million'; of course:

If you looked in a Museum collection you'd think it was pretty common, but that's just because there was a time when every funny coloured bird seen by a collector was shot and put in a collection. It's not representative of what's in the wild.


But that's not to say that every Museum in the world has a collection of aberrantly coloured birds, or indeed kiwis, as impressive as our own at Tring.

Rothschild was very interested in colour aberrations in general and therefore collected an impressive number of examples. Although most of his bird skin collection was sold to the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the early 1930s, he kept about 3,000 skins himself, including the kiwi skins.


I’m not sure whether there are any aberrant kiwi skins from his collection in New York, but I’m pretty sure that the Tring collection holds the most extensive kiwi aberration collection outside New Zealand.

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Little spotted kiwi, Apteryx owenii. It's presumed to be albino but, because its red eyes have not been preserved, curators can not say for sure.


This week I came across links to several versions of a story out of Manchester claiming a university professor had photographed fairies. Before you ask, no, the articles weren't published on the 1st, so I could rule out an April Fool. And John Hyatt, the photographer who captured the tiny creatures on camera, swore to the Manchester Evening News that his images were 'genuine and have not been altered in any way'. He told the newspaper:

The message to people is to approach them with an open mind. There are stranger things in life than fairies, and life grows everywhere


Here at the Museum our scientists know better than most about the weird and wonderful creatures nature can throw up. But while even the most rational among us might want to believe in the fantastical, we are, after all, members of a world-class scientific institution, and it is our practice - our obligation - to examine claims of new species rigorously.


So I took the evidence to Erica McAlister, our resident expert in small flying things (or Diptera, to use the technical term), for a professional analysis of these photographs of what are being called the Rossendale Fairies.




John Hyatt's photographs of what he believes are fairies, taken in Whitaker Park in Rossendale, Lancashire, and published by the Manchester Evening News. The creatures have been dubbed the Rossendale Fairies, in a nod to the famous story of the Cottingley Fairies, first photographed in 1917, and championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


Prefacing her findings with a warning that 'I am basing all my fairy knowledge on Wikipedia, a publication that is not peer reviewed, and therefore some of what I present may be inaccurate', Erica said:

My first impression was they can’t be fairies as there is no wand. But that is like saying mosquitoes aren’t flies because they don’t look like your typical house fly, so I had to approach this more taxonomically.


Wiki states that: "Although in modern culture they are often depicted as young, sometimes winged, humanoids of small stature, (fairies) originally were depicted quite differently: tall, radiant, angelic beings or short, wizened trolls being two of the commonly mentioned forms. Diminutive fairies of one kind or another have been recorded for centuries, but occur alongside the human-sized beings; these have been depicted as ranging in size from very tiny up to the size of a human child".


So within the modern, highly evolved fairies (that is incredibly fast evolution from their original body form to the present, but this may be because they are magical) small size is normal and the habitat description (occurring alongside humans) would fit their locality.


And to further help with morphological identification Wiki states: "Wings, while common in Victorian and later artwork of fairies, are very rare in the folklore; even very small fairies flew with magic, sometimes flying on ragwort stems or the backs of birds. Nowadays, fairies are often depicted with ordinary insect wings or butterfly wings".


It was that reference to insect wings that gave Erica the breakthrough she was after in her quest to identify the creatures in Hyatt's photographs.

Hmmm, maybe they are not fairies at all, but rather insects. Small swarming winged insects… Small swarming flies… Small swarming midges such as chironomids.



When one compares the behaviour, size and general morphology of a midge versus a fairy there are similarities (convergent evolution), but I think that I will throw my professional credentials on the line and plump with the former. These tiny midges form mating swarms where the males will ‘dance’ around trying to attract the opposite sex. They have delicate wings and long legs which dangle down.



A classical depiction of a fairy, by 17th century artist Luis Ricardo Falero (left), and a chironomid, or non-biting midge, photographed by Glen Peterson (right).


So there we have it: one of the best minds in the study of small winged creatures has determined that these suspected fairies photographed by John Hyatt are in fact, most likely, midges. But Erica tempered her findings with the following statement:

There are many undescribed species on the planet and who knows what lies out there – we are still determining new species all the time, including large mammals. But as far as I know, no magical beings have turned up yet.


Personally, I’m holding out for a unicorn.