In 1933, Londoner George Spicer was driving along a new road at Loch Ness when he claimed to have seen ‘the most extraordinary form of animal’ cross in front of his car.
Standing four feet tall, and with a long wavy neck slightly thicker than an elephant's trunk the creature lurched off into the undergrowth and vanished, leaving behind only a legend that has endured for nearly 100 years.
Now researchers at the University of St Andrews think they have discovered why myths of long-necked creatures like ‘Nessie’ have rocketed in recent centuries. And Georgian fossil hunters appear to be blame.
The academics found that after the first dinosaurs were discovered by paleontologists, and put on display at museums across Britain in the early 19th century, the number of reports of spindly-necked terrors soared.
Although stories of sea creatures date back through history, before 1800 just 10 per cent of cases described animals with a long neck. But by the 1930s, when Spicer saw his ‘monster’ the number was close to 50 per cent.
The study hints that a kind of ‘collective illusion’ had gripped the national consciousness to such an extent that any unexplained shape, splashing about in the water, was attributed to dinosaurs.
Cryptozoologists even suggested that the Loch Ness Monster could be plesiosaur, an ancient marine reptile. They claimed the creature could have survived the comet strike which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and made its way the safety of the deep loch. The first complete plesiosaur was found in 1823 by Lyme Regis fossil hunter Mary Anning.
Dr Charles Paxton, a statistician at St Andrews, said: “The discovery of long-necked marine reptile fossils in the 19th century does appear to have had an influence on what people believe they have spotted in the water.
“The problem is an interesting fusion of history and palaeontology which shows that statistics can be used to rigorously test all sorts of strange hypotheses, if the data is handled in the right way.”
The idea that sea monster reports were influenced by the first uncovering of Jurassic and Cretaceous sea reptiles was first suggested in 1968 by science fiction author L Sprague De Camp.
But Camp’s conclusion has not be tested until now. Dr Paxton, of the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University, teamed up with Dr Darren Naish, a palaeontologist at the University of Southampton, to use statistical analysis to find trends in sea monster reports dating from 1801 to 2015.
The researchers looked through 1,688 historical reports, including books, newspaper accounts, and first-hand testimonies going back hundreds of years, of 1,543 sightings omitting obvious hoaxes.
It included a peak between 1930 and 1934 of reports around the world following publicity associated Spicer’s sighting of the Loch Ness monster in 1933 and a photograph taken by Hugh Gray in the same year
Dinosaur fossils were displayed publicly from around 1820 and prior to that most reports of monsters described them as looking more like huge snakes. But as the sightings of long-necked monsters rose, reports of sea serpents declined.
The research was published in the journal Earth Sciences History.