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More on the Nessie Salamander

Posted by: Nick Redfern on March 3rd, 2013

Salamander

Over at his blog, Steve Plambeck has just posted part-2 of a 3-part paper on his on-going research into the theory that the creatures of Loch Ness, Scotland might be giant salamanders.

This is a highly detailed and massive (and I do mean massive!) report that makes for excellent food for thought.

In part, Steve says:

“Based on my proposed morphology, we’re looking at an animal about the size of a female killer whale, Orcinus orca. The female orca only range from 16 to 23 feet feet in length, but these whales are built quite robustly, more so than our Loch Ness Giant Salamander, which I believe would weigh well under the typical 3 to 4 tons of a female orca. Now also to be taken into account is that Orcinus orca has a very massive skeleton. Giant salamanders have relatively light, cartilaginous skeletons, and we must expect the same to be true of a species in Loch Ness. Halving the top mass of a female orca twice (once for overall build and once for lower bone density) I would estimate we’re looking at large specimens of Nessie reaching no more than one ton, with typical adults perhaps only three quarters of that.”

And here’s where you can find the full article.

Nick RedfernNick Redfern – has written 754 posts on this site.
Punk music fan, Tennents Super and Carlsberg Special Brew beer fan, horror film fan, chocolate fan, like to wear black clothes, like to stay up late. Work as a writer.


25 Responses to “More on the Nessie Salamander”

  1. Sordes responds:

    Besides the fact that I highly doubt the salamander theory, I have to add in this particular case, that the whole idea about the weight is very wrong. The way in which Steve Plambeck depicts his Loch Ness salamander, is extremely massive. At this size and with this proportions, it would really weigh nearly as much (or given the bloated wide body) even more than an orca of the same length. The argument of lesser bone density makes little sense for example. It’s not the weight of the skeleton which does count, but the overall density of an animal. Most animals which live in the water have a density which is similar to water, in general slightly heavier. In general bottom dwelling species have a higher density, whereas animals like whales, which have to come to surface to breath, have body densities which are only slightly below those of water. You have to keep in mind that whales have a lot of blubber, which has a lesser density than water, what helps to compensate the weight of those parts of their anatomy, which are heavier than water. The bones of whales however are in fact quite fatty, and their overall density is not even that high.

    If I look at Plambeck’s giant salamander, there is no way it could be as lightweight as he things. Compared to a crocodile, it’s much more massive, and would be at least two times as heavy at the same length. So if I scale up a crocodile to 25 feet (based on many specimens with known lengths and weights), I come to around 2,6 metric tons. So this giant salamander would weigh at least 5 metric tons at 25 feet, or even more.

    Even at 20 feet a crocodile would already weigh around 1,3 metric tons, so 2,6 metric tons would be much more plausible. I still think that the rather strange proportions of the giant salamander could make it even heavier. If Mr. Plambeck doesn’t believe in my remarks, I recommend him to built a simple model of the salamander, and to calculate its live-weight by a simple water displacement calculation.

  2. dconstrukt responds:

    interesting…. here’s one question…. if it needed air to breathe, like a dolphin/whale, wouldn’t there be a LOT more sightings?

    especially since it’s a confined space.

    yet there’s rarely any.

  3. PoeticsOfBigfoot responds:

    And isn’t there some sort of respiratory issue for a salamander that size, something about surface area to mass ratio? What’s the largest salamander in the fossil record?

  4. corrick responds:

    What a waste of effort. Non-science and nonsense converge.

    Steve proposes an amphibian identity for Nessie, a 16-23 foot giant salamander weighing between 1650-2200 pounds.

    Yet the largest existing salamander, and in fact, the largest amphibian in the world today is the Chinese giant salamander which rarely exceeds 5 feet in length or 70 pounds in weight. And the largest of all “amphibians” was Anthracosaurus a genus of embolomere, 10 feet long. Last time we saw them was 310 million years ago. Despite the fancy illustrations and graphs this theory is about on par with the Nessie hides in the non-existent underwater caves one.

    Personally I don’t think there are any unknown large animals in Loch Ness. But if there are, they most certainly aren’t “giant salamanders.”

  5. shmargin responds:

    @Poetics

    Looks like this one might be the largest? Largest Google could find for me after a quick search at least. 15 feet, size wise is similar to what is described in this report, but then again, this fossil is 240 million years old.

    The Giant Salamander argument seems as feasible if not more so than some other Nessie theories, so I’ll leave myself open to anything till we find out more.

  6. cryptokellie responds:

    Actually, the giant salamander theory falls short on a significant point. Salamanders lay eggs either left embedded in a gelatinous mass or in small groups which are kept near the female in moist areas on land. All fully aquatic salamanders lay eggs in shallow water in somewhat protected areas to limit predation by fish and other aquatic animals. The larval salamanders stay in these shallow/protected areas until they are large enough to fend and hunt in the deeper areas…anywhere from1 to 3 years, depending on the species. This is true of the 3 or 4 types of salamanders and newts that actually do live at Loch Ness. Surely, if these giant salamanders existed, their reproduction and larval stages would be known the locals and present no mystery. Go to any permanent body of water at the right time of year and ask the local young boys where the frogs, turtles and salamanders can be found…if there are any there, they will be able to show you where.

  7. Insanity responds:

    Not all salamanders lay eggs, there are some that do retain the fertilized eggs within their bodies until giving birth to larvae or fully formed metamorphs. A few species of the genus Salamandra do give birth to live young. A few other species hatch from eggs as formed juveniles, without an intervening larval stage.

    Additionally not all lay their eggs where they may be easily visible. The Chinese Giant Salamander lays its eggs in underwater cavities and the Hellbender lays its eggs on the bottom. The males of both species care for the eggs until they hatch.

    It would not be unreasonable to assume that this hypothetical salamander may reproduce by any of these means, even if other species in the area reproduce differently.

    The newts of England seem to leave the water within months, except sometimes in colder areas, they may over-winter. It may takes years to sexually mature, but seems they develop quickly through the larval stage to juveniles, within weeks or months.

  8. Sordes responds:

    To Corrick:

    There were in fact several prehistoric amphibians which grew much bigger than 10 feet, for example Mastodonsaurus, Koolasuchus, Prionosuchus and some other species which reached lengths of 5-6 m or even more. However, none had such strange proportions as the “Loch Ness Salamander”.

    Steve Plambeck writes the proportions are a result of a life in a lake. But you have to consider there are fossil species of Andrias (i.e. giant salamanders) from Europe, which are next to undistinguishable from their modern relatives, but which populated not streams but lakes.

  9. cryptokellie responds:

    There are species of salamander that do not lay eggs. The Alpine Salamander and Lanza’s Alpine Salamander for example. They are fully terrestrial and viviparous salamanders. They in fact do form eggs but keep them inside the body cavity until birth. This unknown at Loch Ness would surely be a fully aquatic form. All members of the “Giant Salamander” or Crytobranchidae lay eggs. The members of this family live in shallow water…rivers and streams. Nothing approaching the depths of Loch Ness. They all are bottom dwellers. They feed at night and can be caught with baited hook and line. I have seen the North American member of this group, the Hellbender, in Western Pennsylvania. The members of this group travel up-stream to breed, laying eggs or depositing egg sacs under cover in shallow water where the larva remain together in groups until large enough to fend for themselves. There is even some parental care observed in the Japanese Giant Salamander. But these salamanders lay hundreds of eggs with many numbers of hatchlings. The locals (me, in PA. for example) know of them and present no mystery.
    While it is not unreasonable to assume anything, if there are or were Giant Salamanders in Loch Ness, Scotland…the local people would know it. At it’s northern (upstream) end, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour are part of the Caledonian Canal which connects the East Coast of Scotland with the West Coast and was completed in 1822. It is a certainty that construction workers on this years long waterway project would become aware of any unusual salamanders breeding upstream from the lochs or anywhere else along River Ness.

  10. DWA responds:

    When anyone can show me the database – or the data that’s missing that I need to be made aware of – we can get serious.

    An amphibian tends to need to leave the water at some point. The sighting records don’t seem to indicate that is happening with, well, let’s just say the required frequency.

    Nor do they have any consistency that would allow truly grounded speculation.

  11. cryptokellie responds:

    Well, the fully aquatic salamander forms don’t ever leave the water and would not be encountered on land. But as I say, the locals would be aware of them if they existed at Loch Ness or River Ness.

    The “locals” tend to be aware of almost all the undiscovered life forms before science in general recognizes them. Remember that the African and Indonesian fishermen new about coelecanths and caught them long before they were they were termed “discovered”. Loch Ness is continuously fished both commercially and recreationally by the local population. If some form of giant salamander lived there, they would have been there since the last ice age created the Great Glen. The people who came to live and settle there would know something about it.

  12. springheeledjack responds:

    Interesting article and approach. The salamander theory is hardly a new one, but Steve puts a lot of thought into it.

    Aside from size, I have a couple of reasons not to buy in. One has been mentioned–that salamanders, being amphibious do come on land and while there have been 17 noted land sightings to my knowledge, that’s not a lot either. And with Steve wanting to strike the accounts of long neck sightings altogether because of lack of quantifiable sightings, if so then you have to throw out the land sightings too. Which pulls down the salamander theory–in fact, if it was amphibious I’d expect a higher number of land sightings–probably at least a quarter of all of the sightings, which doesn’t happen.

    Second, there’s still the undulating movement which has been observed, and I don’t think salamanders undulate when they swim.

    I’m not sure I buy the salamander swimming with its tail sticking up out of the water either, but he put enough thought into the argument that I won’t completely discount it. I don’t know enough about salamanders to know if that’s a normal behavior or not–and if it was in his article, I missed it.

    All in all, I was impressed with the thought processes and time spent.

    My only problem with most theories here is that people usually pick a culprit and then try to make all of the sightings fit their target critter. When accounts surface that don’t reinforce their idea, they toss it aside as an anomoly, misidentification or just a bad witness instead of trying to come up with a critter that fits the bill on all accounts.

  13. DWA responds:

    cryptokellie:

    This is a point I consistently make when people ask me what I think of yeti/sasquatch/Nessie.

    The former two are significantly “ethnoknown” – a lot of the locals have seen them. And continue to, regularly. They include very significantly among their number people who make their living outside.

    As you note, we should have far more – and far more consistent – evidence from people who live from the loch than we do.

  14. springheeledjack responds:

    dconstrukt–this question is one of the most frequent I see here and it’s one of those questions that is easy to misconstrue.

    Loch Ness is 24 miles long and up to a mile wide. That’s 126,720 ft long by 5280 ft wide. The actual square footage of surface area on the loch is 669,081,600 square feet. That’s a huge amount of surface to keep eyes on every time something surfaces to breathe.

    Add to that: at a mile across the middle is roughly ½ a mile which is 2640 ft or 880 yards. Take your favorite football field or soccer field and multiply it by 8. Think about how far you can clearly see anything at that distance—and that’s just out to the middle. That doesn’t even take into account looking up and down the loch which can get into much further distances.

    Add to that the fact that whatever is in the loch most likely doesn’t have to stick much out of the water to breathe. Seals and otters (for the pinniped lovers out there) and alligators and turtles (for the plesiosaur theorists) have to extend very little above the water to actually breathe. Even something as large as 30 feet could conceivably just bring its nostrils to the surface to take in air. The question again is: without a really good zoom or telescope what are the chances that someone driving by the loch or even sitting on a hillside watching the water could pick out a nose or nostrils or even a portion of a head at 200+ yards distance (I’m basing this on the fact that the loch is deeper in the center and any large creature would probably stay closer to the deep water).

    As a kicker all of the above only takes into consideration of a perfectly calm day with no chop, no wave activity and a sunny day where you can see clearly.

    And I don’t spout all of this to pick on you or berate you–just to remind you and everyone how big a body of water Ness is and how it really is difficult to keep an eye across the entire surface of the loch itself. In the 60′s or 70′s a group set up cameras for an entire summer trying to get as much of the loch under surveillance as possible with observers and cameras and they only got two or three (I think) sightings or wakes.

    The problem is the creature isn’t on anyone’s time schedule, we don’t know enough about it to know how often it needs to get air (assuming it’s an air breather), and so on. There’s so many variables in play including the size of the loch and its depth and the peaty color that hunting the critter down is more difficult than most people realize.

    I’ve been on plenty of lakes and rivers that are much smaller and I don’t catch sight of a fish hit the surface–I hear the sound, I see the rings of water, but unless you’re looking in the right spot at the right time, you don’t actually see it.

  15. cryptokellie responds:

    DWA;
    We’re in agreement about local knowledge…
    The locals (native tribesmen) knew about the gorilla and pointed them out to western explorers and showed where they lived in Africa…we’re talking about many, many thousands of square miles of forest and dense bush where at times, you can’t see a dozen yards ahead. The locals knew.

  16. dconstrukt responds:

    springheeledjack – yes, but it is still limited by size….. loch is super big…. but its a defined space… and still an animal that needs to breathe on a regular basis… one would see sightings more often…. which we RARELY do.

    unless these animals dont need to come up very often at all…. or there’s passages to other places? caves?

    who knows.

    All i know is there seems to be such FEW sightings, so irregular, makes me wonder if there’s anything really in these lakes.

    but then you get a photo like manzini one (spelling?)… that photo is so crazy!

  17. Insanity responds:

    @Sordes

    What is the basis to double the weight a salamander compared to crocodilian?

    I assume you’re using the fact that doubling the length of an animal roughly multiples the weight by eight-fold. I get similar weights for an American Alligator (AG) of the 20ft (60.96m) and 25ft (7.62m) lengths that you state, 1,308kg and 2,555kg respectively.
    I did the same with a few different species; American Alligator (AG), American Crocodile (AC), Nile Crocodile (NC), Gharial (G), Spectacled Caiman (SC), Chinese Giant Salamander (CGS), Japanese Giant Salamander (JGS), and Hellbender (HB). My results as folllows;

    CGS: @20ft=1,841kg, 25ft=3,595kg
    JGS: @20ft=1,678kg, 25ft=3,277kg
    HB: @20ft=1,398kg, 25ft=2,730kg
    AG: @20ft=1,308kg, 25ft=2,555kg
    AC: @20ft=1,088kg, 25ft=2,126kg
    NC: @20ft=906kg, 25ft=1,770kg
    G: @20ft=453kg, 25ft=885
    SC: @20ft=841kg, 25ft=1,642kg

    Using these numbers, comparing the heaviest salamander to the heaviest crocodilian (AG) comes to a ratio of 1.4:1. Comparing the averages of the salamanders to the averages of the crocodilians, the ratio is 1.8:1. If you use the average of the three lightest crocodilians, then the ratio exceeds 2:1.

    If you are basing the ratio being greater than 2:1 on a specific measurement of Steve’s drawing, how did you arrive at the weight?

  18. cryptokellie responds:

    Must be nearing tax time…they’re crunching the numbers.
    Here are some more;
    HC = Hypothetical Cryptid…no known or calculable real world data existing.
    HC: @ 20ft= ?, 25ft = ?, 350ft= ?
    Yes, the numbers don’t lie.

  19. Kopite responds:

    Fish or extremely large eel. I have little doubt there is something in Loch Ness that has been there for a long time but it’s obviously not an air breather.

  20. Steve Plambeck responds:

    I would deem an article that’s longer than the discussion that follows to be a failure, and had reservations about setting the bar too high and tackling so much in one go, but with the liveliness of the extensive and excellent debate here, it appears I’ve already broken even on the exchange.

    To both echo and respond to a few things said so far:

    Prionosuchus of the family Archegosauridae appears to be the largest fossil salamander at 30 feet long. But there were many species within many families in the 15 to 25 foot range in the past. First the reptiles and then the dinosaurs caused interruptions in those trends.

    The discussion here has revolved mostly around the recently published Part 2 on my article, but in Part 1 I believe I make the point “Nessie” is “ethnoknown” — and as “the great salamander”. Scots history is full of references to a unique lake creature that the “locals” have been reporting for centuries.

    I have not “classified” The Loch Ness Giant Salamander as a member of the Cryptobranchidae, but if it were to fall into that order (not necessarily, but if it did) it wouldn’t fit into either extant genus. A. davidianus is useful for many comparisons because it’s the largest living classified salamander, and of a primitive order at that. But I do not equate them as big and bigger members of the same species, and differences are to be expected. One would be reproduction.

    Every reproductive method you can name has appeared among species of Amphibia. External fertilization, aquatic eggs and larva is the most primitive state, but everything else has been adopted by some species at some point. I also doubt there’s a small larval state in the case of Loch Ness, for reasons given by another poster, but we are not constrained by that model.

    Fully obligate aquatic salamanders almost never leave the water, but yet still do so on rare occasions. That fits perfectly well with the low incidence of high profile land sightings at Loch Ness (subject of the forthcoming Part 3 to the article). If it was semi-aquatic we’d see a lot more, and if it was a terrestrial salamander we’d see lots. But Nessie is neither of the latter two. Amphibians are complicated, but salamanders do come in 3 “flavors”: fully aquatic, semi-aquatic, and terrestrial.

    Again we come to some points my blog covers in articles before the article discussed here. But the morphology I’m advocating is that of a benthic animal dependent on dermal respiration alone. If it leaves the bottom silt, it’s not coming up for air, nor do any fully aquatic salamanders even though (like the Cryptobranchids) they have lungs and can use them if needed. This is why surface sightings, much less land sightings, cannot be depended on, and will always be highly infrequent. The loch is indeed much larger than all but Insanity and Springheeledjack bring home, and the animal doesn’t come up for oxygen.

    It does though apparently hunt in the top 30 meters and over the littoral shelf, as that’s where the fish are, but that seems to rarely require backing all the way up to the surface. But it does sometimes, and that’s when we get the tail above water profile that’s been mistaken for a long neck. I emphasize the animal is not TRAVELING in this position, it’s hovering, most likely with it’s head at the depth the fish have chosen for it. When it wants to travel, the tail comes down. Aquatic salamanders do propel themselves by tail undulation, combined with body undulations as well, although it’s a bit more than rapid wagging; the tails ripple through a corkscrew motion which provides more thrust per calorie than mere side to side flapping.

  21. cryptokellie responds:

    I dusted off my copy of “The Monsters of Loch Ness”…1976, by Roy Mackal. After a similar and exhaustive study of sightings and evidence collected up to that time, Mackal came to a like conclusion that the best fit for the evidence was either a large thick-bodied eel or a large as yet unclassifed, long-necked amphibian. Mackal states at the time he was leaning towards the amphibian. This was a water-shed volume in 1976 and I’m wondering if it has been forgotten somewhat or perhaps unknown to those younger cryptoids. A lot of the long-time accepted evidence that Mackal used in his research has been either debunked, or refuted in the present time so the book is a bit dated now though.

  22. corrick responds:

    cryptokellie, shmargin and Sordes,

    My mistake. I should have clarified by saying the largest embolomere ever, not amphibian. But Embolomere’s were the most aquatic of ancient amphibians and was the genus specifically mentioned in Mackal’s book, “The Monsters of Loch Ness” as a possible Nessie amphibian identity. The very last large amphibian I can find is Koolasuchus (12-15ft) which disappeared from the fossil record a little over 110 million years ago.

    Steve:

    Prionosuchus went extinct 270 million years ago. Koolasuchus 110 million years ago. No amphibian since KT has exceeded 8 feet in length. That’s a very, very long time ago. Lots of effort, but when you start with a micro theory, “Is Nessie an amphibian” rather than a macro theory, “Does Nessie even exist?” bad science almost always happens. Exact same thing applies to Bigfoot.

    And to dconstrukt…”unless these animals dont need to come up very often at all…. or there’s passages to other places? caves? who knows.”

    We do. Due to water levels, the geology and modern sonar, we now know there are zero caves or underwater passages beneath the surface of Loch Ness.

  23. Sordes responds:

    Insanity, the ratio for my state that Steve Plambecks’s salamander would probably weigh two times as much as a crocodile, is based on its extremely massive body. It’s totally different from any living or extinct amphibian, and has a much deeper and higher body than a crocodile of the same length. Looking at the drawing, it’s obvious its mere volume would be much bigger than those of a crocodile of the same length. It’s more a rough estimate, that it would be around two times as heavy as a same-sized crocodile, as its body diametre is significiantly bigger than those of a crocodile, and as I wrote, probably more. But it’s also even much more volumous than a very stocky giant salamander (you have to keep in mind that males can nearly weigh twice as much as females of the same length), so it would weigh even more, probably even three times as much as a crocodile of the same length.

    Steve Plambeck sadly didn’t comment on this calculations, what´s somewhat sad, as I would be interested in his opinions about this. If his giant salamanders would weigh several times as much as he thinks, they would require much more food and the whole population would be smaller to this factor too, what would result in a very very small population…

  24. cryptokellie responds:

    I’m quite familiar with Koolasuchus having recently designed and sculpted one for a dinosaur model collection. The actual skeletal material for Koolasuchus is very fragmentary, just a few skull and other parts…so I had to infer a lot. Considering it’s river habitat, I based some of the model details on the living Hellbender which has a very similar river environ and presumed lifestyle. We have Hellbenders here in PA and believe me, holding a real one is quite a different experience from just seeing an image of one. The thought of a 15 foot long Hellbender is incredible. A 25 foot long one, the size proposed for Loch Ness unknowns, would be a real nightmare.

  25. Steve Plambeck responds:

    To corrick:

    Call it a micro theory if you will, but the stated premise of my blog is NOT to debate whether or not an unidentified species exists in Loch Ness (that debate has plenty of outlets) but the potential identity of such a possible unidentified species. If the starting point of science must exclude the contemplation of any assumptions, then there wouldn’t be much science. Working a problem backwards is no less valid than working it forwards, especially while no progress is being made in the latter direction, as long as valid and truthful conclusions are reached in the end. Yes, it would be “bad science”, and or at least highly inefficient science, to work on a problem with too much assumptive data. I’m examining a SINGLE assumption, that if the phenomenon we label “Nessie” has an objective basis, it must be an amphibian, and to test it I’m examining how facts fit the idea.

    Sample species from the fossil record have been brought up to establish a known, upward size limit for caudata, not argue for a particular remnant species. If the fossil record showed no evidence salamanders could exceed 12 or 15 feet, it would indeed by quite a leap to start talking twice that much. The fossil record however shows quite the opposite.

    To Sordes:

    Sorry I didn’t address the mass issue last night, but it was late and I was working backwards through the comments. I’m not married to the rough estimate I came up with, based as it was on fairly simplistic methodology (halving the mass of an orca twice). I’m less married to the illustration itself, which might be called a work in progress, and think the abdomen should be reduced somewhat (perhaps a foot less draught). On the other hand I do think your 5 metric ton estimate sounds too high.

    Insanity’s figures are very interesting, and quite revealing. Mass for the three Cryptobranchidae do scale up faster than the crocs, topping out at 3.6 tons for the Chinese species extrapolated to 25 feet. The reason for that would be a great thing to fully understand. Insanity also kindly shared a plot of further data with me, extending to more species, that indicates the opposite seems to hold for Salamandroidea, the advanced order of salamanders: mass increases more slowly than that of crocs when scaled up. A 25 foot Tiger Salamander for example comes in at around a mere 1.3 tons.

    And exactly right, it all comes back to the population estimate relative to the total biomass in Loch Ness. Five ton predators would be so few, having a breeding population of sufficient size would pose a problem more difficult to surmount. But at a lower body weight getting closer to one ton, and with an aquatic salamander’s low metabolism, there doesn’t appear to be such a problem.

    To cryptokellie:

    I agree no one with even a passing interest should skip Mackal’s book. I wouldn’t call it as dated as some might think either — recall he discounted the Surgeon’s Photo long before most, putting him ahead of his time on that count. A giant thick bodied eel is two steps removed from a normal eel (getting that big is one step, and the thickened body is another). A long-necked giant amphibian requires a big step, in that no species among all the Amphibia has ever demonstrated such a morphology before. But even more parsimonious than Mackal’s top two candidates is a (short-necked) giant salamander, as they have appeared throughout long periods of evolution.



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