Tag Archives: amphipods

Episode 046: The Other Loch Ness Monsters



There’s more in Loch Ness than one big mystery animal. This week we look at a few smaller mystery animals lurking in the cold depths of the lake.

Further reading:

Here’s Nessie: A Monstrous Compendium from Loch Ness by Karl P.N. Shuker

The goliath frog:

The Wels catfish (also, River Monsters is the best):

An amphipod:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

Back in episode 29, I dismissed Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, as probably not a real animal. But this week we’re heading back to Loch Ness to see what other monsters might lurk in its murky depths.

WHAAAAA? Other Loch Ness monsters???

Yes, really! See, ever since the first sightings of Nessie in the 1930s, Loch Ness has been studied and examined so closely that it would be more surprising if no one had ever spotted other mystery animals.

The source of most of the information in this episode is from zoologist Karl Shuker’s book Here’s Nessie! A Monstrous Compendium from Loch Ness. Check the show notes for a link if you’re interested in buying your own copy of the book.

Our first non-Nessie mystery dates from 1934, but it happened, supposedly, sometime in the 1880s. It appeared in the Northern Chronicle, an Inverness newspaper, on January 31, 1934. The article relates that a ship in Loch Ness hit a submerged reef called Johnnie’s Point and sank one night. Luckily no one died. The next day a local diving expert named Duncan Macdonald was hired to determine if the wreck could be raised, but he couldn’t spot the wreck during his dive.

Later that evening, some of the ship’s crew who had heard stories about strange creatures living in Loch Ness asked Macdonald whether he’d seen anything unusual. After some urging, Macdonald finally admitted that he had seen a frog-like creature the size of a good-sized goat sitting on a rock ledge some 30 feet, or 9 meters, underwater. It didn’t bother him so he didn’t bother it.

There are a lot of problems with this account, of course. For one thing, we don’t know who wrote it—the article has no byline. It’s also a secondhand account. In fact, the article ends with this line: quote “The story, exactly as given, was told by Mr Donald Fraser, lock-keeper, Fort Augustus, who often heard the diver (his own grand-uncle) tell it many years ago.” unquote

Plus, of course, frogs don’t grow as big as goats. The biggest frog is the goliath frog, which can grow over a foot, or 32 cm, in length nose to tail, or butt I guess since frogs don’t have tails, which is pretty darn big but not anywhere near as big as a goat. The goliath frog also only lives in fast-moving rivers in a few small parts of Africa, not cold, murky lakes in Scotland, and its tadpoles only feed one one type of plant. In other words, even if someone did release a goliath frog into Loch Ness in the 1880s—which is pretty farfetched—it wouldn’t have survived for long.

The biggest frog that ever lived, as far as we know, lived about 65 million years ago and wasn’t all that much bigger than the goliath frog, only 16 inches long, or 41 cm. It had little horns above its eyes, which gives it its name, devil frog. Its descendants, South American horned frogs, also have little horns but are much smaller.

So what might Mr. Macdonald have seen, assuming he didn’t just make it all up? Some species of catfish can grow really big, but catfish aren’t native to Scotland. It’s always possible that a few Wels catfish, native to parts of Europe, were introduced into Loch Ness as a sport fish but didn’t survive long enough to establish a breeding population in the cold waters. Catfish have wide mouths, although their eyes are small, and might be mistaken for a frog if seen head-on in poor light. Plus, the Wels catfish can grow to 16 feet long, or 5 meters.

Then again, since the article was published during the height of the first Loch Ness monster frenzy, it might all have been fabricated from beginning to end.

A 1972 search for Nessie by the same team that announced that famous underwater photograph of a flipper, which later turned out to be mostly painted on, filmed something in the loch that wasn’t just paint. They were small, pale blobs on the grainy film. The team called them bumblebees from their shape.

Then in July of 1981, a different company searching not for Nessie but for a shipwreck from 1952 filmed some strange white creatures at the bottom of the loch. One of the searchers described them as giant white tadpoles, two or three inches long, or about 5 to 7 cm. Another searcher described them as resembling white mice but moving jerkily.

The search for the wreck lasted three weeks and the white mystery animals were spotted more than once, but not frequently. Afterwards, the company sent video of them to Dr. P Humphrey Greenwood, an ichthyologist at the Natural History Museum in London. Since this was the 1980s, of course, the film was videotape, not digital, but Dr. Greenwood got some of the frames computer enhanced. Probably on a computer that had less actual computing power than my phone. Anyway, the enhancement showed that the animals seemed to have three pairs of limbs. Dr. Greenwood tentatively identified them as bottom-dwelling crustaceans, but not ones native to Loch Ness.

Over the years many people have made suggestions as to what these mystery crustaceans might be. I’m going out on a limb here and declaring that they are not baby Loch Ness monsters. Karl Shuker suggests the white mice footage, at least, might be some kind of amphipod.

We’ve met amphipods before in a couple of episodes, mostly because some species exhibit deep-sea gigantism. Amphipods are shrimp-like crustaceans that live throughout the world in both the ocean and fresh water, and most species are quite small. While they do have more than three pairs of legs—eight pairs, in fact, plus two pairs of antennae—the 1981 videotape wasn’t of high quality and details might easily have been lost. Some of the almost 10,000 known species of amphipod are white or pale in color and grow to the right size to be the ones filmed in Loch Ness. But no amphipods of that description have ever been caught in Loch Ness.

New amphipods are discovered all the time, of course. They’re simply everywhere, and the smallest species are only a millimeter long. But because they’re so common, it’s also easy to transport them from one body of water to another. A rare amphipod discovered in Alpine lakes only a few years ago is already threatened by a different, more common species of amphipod introduced to one of the lakes by accident. So it’s possible that the white mice crustaceans in Loch Ness traveled there on someone’s boat.

That’s certainly the case with another creature found in Loch Ness in 1981, but we know exactly what this one is. It’s a flatworm native to North America, a bit over an inch long, or 3 cm, and only about 5 millimeters wide. It attaches its cocoons to boat bottoms, and in this case it was brought to Loch Ness by equipment used to hunt for Nessie. Spoiler alert: they didn’t find her.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 027: Creatures of the Deeps



This week is our six-month anniversary! To celebrate, we’ll learn about some of the creatures that live at the bottom of the Mariana Trench’s deepest section, Challenger Deep, as well as other animals who live in deep caves on land. We also learn what I will and will not do for a million dollars (hint: I will not implode in a bathysphere).

A xenophyophore IN THE GRIP OF A ROBOT

A snailfish from five miles down in the Mariana trench:

The Hades centipede. It’s not as big as it looks, honest.

The tiny but marvelous olm.

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

For this week’s episode, we’re going to find out what lives in the deepest, darkest places of the earth—places humans have barely glimpsed. We’re not just talking deep sea, we’re talking the abyssal depths.

Like onions and parfaits, the earth is made up of many layers. The core of the earth is a ball of nickel and iron surrounded by more nickel and iron. The outer core is molten metal, but the inner core, even though it’s even hotter than the outer core—as hot as the surface of the sun—has gone through the other side of liquid and is solid again. Surrounding the core, the earth’s mantle is a thick layer of rocks and minerals some 1900 miles deep, and on top of that is the crust of the earth, which doesn’t actually sound very appealing but that’s where we live and we know it’s really pretty, with trees and oceans and stuff on top of it. The upper part of the mantle is broken up into tectonic plates, which move around very slowly as the molten metals and rocks beneath them swirl around and get pushed up through cracks in the mantle.

Under the oceans, the crust of the earth is only around 3 miles thick. And in a few places, there are crevices that actually break entirely through the crust into the mantle below. The deepest crack in the sea floor is the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. At its deepest part, a narrow valley called Challenger Deep, the crack extends seven miles into the earth.

The pressure at that depth is immense, over 1,000 times that at sea level. Animals down there can’t have calcium carbonate shells because the pressure dissolves the mineral. It’s almost completely dark except for bioluminescent animals, and the water is very cold, just above freezing.

The trench is crescent shaped and sits roughly between Japan to the north and Papua New Guinea to the south, and the Philippines to the west. It’s caused by the huge Pacific plate, which is pushing its way underneath the smaller Mariana plate, a process called subduction. But near that activity, another small plate, the Caroline plate, is subducting beneath the Pacific plate. Subduction around the edges of the Pacific plate is the source of the earthquakes, tsunamis, and active volcanos known as the Ring of Fire. Some researchers think there’s a more complicated reason for Mariana Trench and other especially deep trenches nearby, though. There seems to be a tear in the Caroline plate, which is deforming the Pacific Plate above it.

Challenger Deep is such a deep part of the ocean that we’ve barely seen any of it. The first expedition that got all the way down was in 1960, when the bathyscape Trieste reached the bottom of Challenger Deep. This wasn’t an unmanned probe, either. There were two guys in that thing, Jacque Piccard and Don Walsh, almost ten years before the moon landing, on a trip that was nearly as dangerous. They could see out through one tiny thick window with a light outside. The trip down took almost five hours, and when they were nearly at the bottom, one of the outer window panes cracked. They stayed on the bottom only about 20 minutes before releasing the weights and rising back to the surface.

The next expedition didn’t take place until 1995 and it was unmanned. The Kaiko could collect samples as well as record what was around it, and it made repeated descents into Challenger Deep until it was lost at sea in 2003. But it not only filmed and collected lots of fascinating deep-sea creatures, it also located a couple of wrecks and some new hydrothermal vents in shallower areas.

Another unmanned expedition, this one using a remotely operated vehicle called the Nereus, was designed specifically to explore Challenger Deep. It made its first descent in 2009, but in 2014 it imploded while diving in the Kermadec Trench off New Zealand. It imploded. It imploded. This thing that was built to withstand immense pressures imploded.

In 2012, rich movie-maker James Cameron reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger. He spent nearly three hours on the bottom. Admittedly this was before the Nereus imploded but you could not get me into a bathysphere if you paid me a million dollars okay well maybe a million but I wouldn’t do it for a thousand. Maybe ten thousand. Anyway, the Deepsea Challenger is currently undergoing repairs after being damaged in a fire that broke out while it was being transported in a truck, which is just the most ridiculous thing to happen it’s almost sad. But it’s still better than imploding.

In addition to these expeditions, tethered cameras and microphones have been dropped into the trench over the years too. So what’s down there that deep? What have these expeditions found?

The first expedition didn’t see much, as it happens. As the bathyscape settled into the ooze at the bottom of the trench, sediment swirled up and just hung in the water around them, unmoving. The guys had to have been bitterly disappointed. But they did report seeing a foot-long flatfish and some shrimp, although the flatfish was more likely a sea cucumber.

There’s actually a lot of life down there in the depths, including amphipods a foot long, sea cucumbers, jellyfish, various kinds of worms, and bacterial mats that look like carpets. Mostly, though, there are Xenophyophores. They make big delicate shells on the ocean bottom, called tests, made from glued-together sand grains, minerals like lead and uranium, and anything else they can find, including their own poops. We don’t know a lot about them although they’re common in the deep sea all over the world. While they’re unicellular, they also appear to have multiple nuclei.

For the most part, organisms living at the bottom of the Challenger Deep are small, no more than a few inches long. This makes sense considering the immense water pressure and the nutrient-poor environment. There aren’t any fish living that deep, either. In 2014 a new species of snailfish was spotted swimming about five miles below the surface, a new record; it was white with broad fins and an eel-like tail. Snailfish are shaped sort of like tadpoles and depending on species, can be as small as two inches long or as long as two and a half feet. A shoal of Hadal snailfish were seen at nearly that depth in 2008 in the Japan Trench.

While there are a number of trenches in the Pacific, there aren’t very many deeps like Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep—at least, not that we know of. The Sirena Deep was only discovered in 1997. It’s not far from Challenger Deep and is not much shallower. There are other deeps and trenches in the Pacific too. But like Challenger Deep, there aren’t any big animals found in the abyssal depths, although the other deeps haven’t been explored as much yet.

In 2016 and early 2017, NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Oregon State University dropped a titanium-encased ceramic hydrophone into Challenger Deep. To their surprise, it was noisy as heck down there. The hydrophone picked up the sounds of earthquakes, a typhoon passing over, ships, and whalesong—including the call of a whale researchers can’t identify. They think it’s a type of minke whale, but no one knows yet if it’s a known species we just haven’t heard before or a species completely new to science. For now the call is referred to as the biotwang, and this is what it sounds like.

[biotwang whale call]

But what about animals that live in deep places that aren’t underwater? It’s actually harder to explore land fissures than ocean trenches. Cave systems are hard to navigate, frequently extremely dangerous, and we don’t always know how deep the big ones go. The deepest cave in the world is Krubera Cave, also called Voronya Cave, in Georgia—and I mean the country of Georgia, not the American state. Georgia is a small country on the black sea between Turkey and Russia. So far it’s been measured as a mile and a third deep, but it’s certainly not fully explored. Cave divers keep pushing the explored depth farther and farther, although I do hope they’re careful.

We’ve found some interesting animals living far beneath the earth in caves. The deepest living animal ever found is a primitive insect called a springtail, which lives in Krubera cave and which was discovered in 2010. It’s pale, with no wings, six legs, long antennae, and no eyes. There are a whole lot of springtail species, from snow fleas to those tee-tiny gray bouncy bugs that live around the sink in my bathroom no matter how carefully I clean. All springtails like damp places, so it makes sense that Krubera cave has four different species including the deepest living one. They eat fungi and decomposing organic matter of all kinds. Other creatures new to science have been discovered in Krubera cave, including a new cave beetle and a transparent fish.

A new species of centipede was described in 2015 after it was discovered three-fourths of a mile deep in three different caves in Croatia. It’s called the Hades centipede. It has long antennae, leg claws, and a poisonous bite, but it’s only about an inch long so don’t panic. Also it lives its entire life in the depths of Croatian caves so you’re probably safe. There are only two centipedes that live exclusively in caves and the other one is named after Persephone, Hades’ bride. It was discovered in 1999.

A cave salamander called an olm, which in local folklore was once considered a baby dragon, was recently discovered 370 feet below ground in a subterranean lake, also in Croatia. It’s a fully aquatic salamander that only grows a few inches long. Its body is pale with pink gills. It has eyes, but they’re not fully developed and as it grows, they become covered with layers of skin. It can sense light but can’t otherwise see, but it does have well-developed electroreceptor skills, hearing, smell, and can also sense magnetic fields. It eats snails, insects, and small crustaceans and has very few natural predators.

In 1952 researchers created an artificial riverbed in a cave in France that recreates the olm’s natural habitat as closely as possible. The olms are fed and protected but not otherwise interacted with by humans. There are now over 400 olms in the cave, which is a good thing because in the wild, olms are increasingly threatened by pollution, habitat loss, and unscrupulous collectors who sell them on the pet trade black market.

Olms live a long, long time—probably 100 years or longer. Some individuals in the artificial riverbed are 60 years old and show no signs of old age. Researchers aren’t sure why the olm lives so long. We don’t really know a whole lot about the olm in general, really. They and the caves where they live are protected in Croatia.

There are a few places in the world where people have drilled down into the earth, usually by geologists checking for pockets of gas or water before mining operations start. In several South African gold mines, researchers found four new species of tiny bacteria-eating worms, called nematodes, living in water in boreholes a mile or more deep. After carefully checking to make sure the nematodes hadn’t been introduced into the water from mining operations, the researchers theorized the nematodes already lived in the rocks but that the boreholes created a perfect environment for them. Nematodes are well-known extremophiles, living everywhere from hot springs to the bellies of whales. They can withstand drought, freezing, and other extreme conditions by reverting to what’s called the dauer stage, where they basically put themselves in suspended animation until conditions improve.

The boreholes also turned up some other interesting creatures, including flatworms, segmented worms, and a type of crustacean. They’re all impossibly tiny, nearly microscopic.

If you go any deeper, though, the only living creatures you’ll find are bacteria and other microbes. In a way, though, that’s reassuring. The last thing we want to find when we’re poking around in the world’s deepest cracks is something huge that wants to eat us.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!