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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

LINDSAY SELBY: Eels as monsters

In The Monsters of Loch Ness by Roy P. Mackal (1976 Futura London) he wrote about the investigations in Ireland. The Loch Ness investigation teams did not confine them selves just to Loch Ness but also looked at Loch Morar and a couple of loughs in Ireland. Some of the information that lead them to look at Irish loughs is detailed in the book (p37-39 in the edition cited above) and includes:

Teige O’Donovan reporting sightings going back to 1914 from Lough Abisdealy (which translated means the lake of the monster). The descriptions of the creature were that it had a small flat head , along neck and three large loops sticking out of the water. Size was estimated at 25 feet( 8 metres) and the creature was dark brown. Interestingly one of the observers said the creature swung a portion of it’s body out of the water and described it as “looking exactly like the tail end of a huge conger eel”.

Lough Fadda has been discussed on here before.

There was strange sighting at Lough Claddaghduff by a Mr. Michael Coyne in 1956 who reported seeing a creature like looked like a large eel with ten feet showing as it turned over to display it’s lighter underbelly.
There was the story of the large eel stuck in a gully between Loughs Gowlan and Derrylesa from 100 years ago, which died.

In Lough Neagh in 1956 fishermen reported their nets damaged “by a thing like a giant eel”

You may wonder how this was connected to Loch Ness. There were stories that Roy Mackal mentions(p68) from older residents of Loch Ness that claimed eels of 10 feet(3 metres) to 16 feet( 5 metres) long had been caught in the loch years ago. I also heard the same stories from an elderly fisherman in 1972. He said when the eel fishing had been at it’s peak many years ago ,very large eels had been caught . I have been unable to substantiate this but I have seen it mentioned in other books about the Loch( I believe Tim Dinsdale mentions it in his books). Eels live in the loch in large numbers but are the normal European eel who don’t normally grow to enormous sizes. There have been reports of eels with manes being seen in the loch and divers reporting eels thicker than a man's leg, but no proof has been forthcoming. The theory that the lake monsters are giant eels is not a new one but when you look at reported sightings the descriptions of many say “eel like” . Eels tend to dwell near the bottoms of lakes and would only occasionally appear on the surface, perhaps when chasing fish. The manes reported could be a frill such as some fish like the Oar Fish have and a very large eel would indeed be very thick around the middle to be almost as big as a man’s thigh.

Dale Drinnon points out on the CFZ website there could be more than one type of “monster” , some sightings could be a large eel , some a huge fish. Certainly a giant eel has more credence than a plesiosaur but could be a breed of eel from the Ice Age and hence the large size. Anything is of course conjecture but then science starts with conjecture and observation and then tries to prove or disprove a theory , which is what cryptozoologists are actively doing.

I am not so well today so apologies for any spelling errors or woolly thinking.


Dr Dan Holdsworth said...

One theory which has been getting a lot more interest in recent years is the effects of parasitism on various organisms. The ubiquitous parasite Toxoplasma gondii uses cats to host its sexual stage, and normally parasitises rodents of various sorts during its non-sexual phase (this two-phase life cycle is confusing, but a lot of parasites seem to do this). To help ensure transmission from the intermediate hosts (rodents etc), the parasites actually modify the brain chemistry of the rodents to make them more fearless and reckless in the presence of cats; more likely to get eaten in other words.

Now, consider what a parasite of eels could be like. The parasite is obliged to reside in fresh water, and being a poor swimmer is confined to large still bodies of water. The intermediate host is likely to be a worm or similar invertebrate of some sort, the definitive host the eel. Once this putative parasite infects an eel, it has a problem: as soon as the eel gets big enough and fat enough it will leave the still waters of the lake, migrate into a river and so out to sea and from the point the eel leaves the lake, the parasites' efforts at reproduction will be as naught.

Clearly, then, there is strong selection pressure for the parasite to prevent the eel migrating.

From the small amount of research done on the matter of eel migration, it appears that in order to migrate an eel must be a minimum age and must be healthy; when it reaches this physiological state it then starts a transformation from a freshwater eel to a migrating form. Curiously, some eels seem to start this transformation then reverse it; clearly there is a fine-tuning switch in the process which can abort the decision to start to migrate.

This is all probably brain-based, and if a parasite were to interfere with that part of an eel's brain which contains the migration switch but otherwise leave the eel largely alone and healthy save for a small drain on its metabolism as the parasite sheds eggs, then the eel is not going to migrate and will simply remain in the rich feeding grounds of the lake, getting older and bigger until it finally dies of old age.

This could take a very long time, as Jon has seen captive eels that were over 20 years old. Free-living eels in good conditions could get very large indeed and could alter their bodyplan somewhat to adapt to taking bigger prey.

Tabitca said...

wow Dan that is a great theory. I wish there was some way we could test it. Short of draining the Loch, which would be impossible, I don't know if we will ever find any answers.

Aaron T said...

Dr Holdsworth - fascinating thoughts. I do recommend « Estimation of the reproduction capacity of European eel » aka EELREP as a useful source. It was the result of the two million euro study in the early nineties, and discusses among other things the effects of the parasites viruses and pollutants associated with Anguilla.

There is however no evidence yet of eels growing above 3.6kg or 1.25 metres; and the best reference I can find is Moriarty's description of a 122 cm 3.5 kg specimen from the Lough of Cork in 1976 ("An Exceptionally Large Eel Anguilla anguilla L." in The Irish Naturalists' Journal, Vol_ 18, No_ 10 (Apr 1976). UK specimen eel anglers refer to an 8.00 lb record, which is marginally heavier, but no length is mentioned.

There is therefore a fairly complete mismatch between what the witnesses describe and the known sizes and behaviour of Anguillid eels, and despite your reference to the "small amount of research done on the matter of eel migration" I would respectfully suggest it is actually quite extensive.

There is also no published correlation between age and size; the fish stay in freshwater (of those that ascend the rivers) until they have enough fat reserves to propel themselves to the Sargasso and spawn. If they don't achieve that fat level, they
don't begin the migration but just get old gracefully in a pond somewhere.

It is quite understandable that witnesses describe things as "like a giant eel", often in some unspecified respect, but we shouldn't infer a biological connection.
I do not pretend to know what was seen by some of these witnesses but I am highly confident that it was not an Anguilla species.

By the way the major known internal eel parasite is the nematode Anguillicola which lives in the swim bladder and makes it inelastic, as well as full of nematodes. During their spawning migration eels rise to the warmer surface water at night and dive down to around 1000m during the day. Except those with Anguillicola, for whom the first
deep dive is their only one.

jamesrav said...

There was a Kukla, Fran, and Ollie film from 1971 (Czechoslovakia), which I must have seen at age 10. The eel in that seemed very real to me, and was certainly much bigger than 6-7 feet long, seemed more like 12. I wonder if it was real, hard to believe they had such good make-believe eels nearly 40 years ago. It certainly writhed around like a real animal.
The Giant Eel Czechoslovakia, 1971
On a visit to his aunt’s farm, Tony is dismayed to discover that the local kids are hostile to newcomers. However, an act of bravery involving a legendary monster makes him a hero.