Could the Loch Ness Monster be real? It’s “plausible,” after a team of paleontologists in Morocco discovered fossils of an aquatic dinosaur species in a freshwater environment.
The group of scientists from the University of Bath and the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., and the Université Hassan II in Morocco, discovered bones belonging to a plesiosaur in the Kem Kem beds, an ancient riverbed system in what is now the Sahara desert in Morocco. The discovery indicates that plesiosaurs, originally thought to have lived only in saltwater environments, may have also lived in freshwater habitats as well.
“It’s scrappy stuff, but isolated bones actually tell us a lot about ancient ecosystems and animals in them,” Dr. Nick Longrich, one of the paleontologists on the research team, said in a press release from the University of Bath. “They’re so much more common than skeletons, they give you more information to work with.” Longrich said that the team collected bones from more than a dozen individual plesiosaurs across a large area. “The bones and teeth were found scattered and in different localities, not as a skeleton. So each bone and each tooth is a different animal.”
In a post on his personal blog discussing the find, Longrich explained that around 100 million years ago, the Sahara desert was a sprawling system of rivers that flowed out of Africa and into the Atlantic Ocean. The riverbeds where the fossils were found were home to a wide array of animal life, including prehistoric fish, freshwater-tolerant sharks and rays, turtles, amphibians like frogs and salamanders, and the aquatic dinosaur Spinosaurus. Longrich wrote that finding a plesiosaur in the riverbeds there was so unexpected because the Kem Kem beds were entirely freshwater, whereas plesiosaurs were considered marine dinosaurs, living only in saltwater habitats.
The scientists have several theories for why a species that mostly lives in salt water would be present in fresh water. While many marine animals, like dolphins and whales, can wander into freshwater, the scientists said that the sheer number of teeth found, and the wear found on each tooth, suggest that the animals spent a lot of time there. More likely theories are that the plesiosaurs were marine animals that simply adapted to a freshwater environment, or even that they fully inhabited the river.
The species found in Morocco belongs to the family Leptocleididae, a family of small plesiosaurs that grow to a maximum length of about 3 meters, or 10 feet. Other specimens have been found in both brackish and freshwater habitats in England, Australia, and Africa.
The first nearly-complete plesiosaur fossil was discovered in England in 1823 by fossil collector Mary Anning. The fossil became the most popular explanation for the Loch Ness Monster since it came to mainstream attention in 1933.
The new discovery means that the Loch Ness Monster could have been real, in a sense. “On one level, it’s plausible,” the University of Bath said in its press release. “Plesiosaurs weren’t confined to the seas, they did inhabit freshwater.” But the release admits that stories about the monster, a.k.a. “Nessie,” are still just stories. “[T]he fossil record also suggests that after almost a hundred and fifty million years, the last plesiosaurs finally died out at the same time as the dinosaurs, 66 million years ago,” the University said.