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Live plesiosaurs: weighing the evidence

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In the Mouth of Madness
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« Reply #30 on: October 15, 2011, 04:20:57 pm »



A review of the evidence for living plesiosaurs

A colleague and I were interviewed recently for a radio program about plesiosaurs and not surprisingly one of the first questions posed by the host was about the Loch Ness monster. "Is the Loch Ness monster a plesiosaur or a cousin of the plesiosaur?" The wording of the question surprised me. We weren't asked: "do you believe the Loch Ness monster is a plesiosaur?" or even: "do you believe in Nessie?". The original question already assumes that a monster does exist in Loch Ness and that it is either a plesiosaur or a plesiosaur relative. Was the interviewer justified in making this assumption? In this review I'll cast a critical eye over the evidence for living plesiosaurs.
Bias?

Before I delve into details I should make it clear that I have no agenda. I certainly have no reason to deny or circumvent any evidence for living plesiosaurs. On the contrary, I have plenty of reason to be very keen on the prospect, not least, as a plesiosaur researcher, because of the opportunity to study a real specimen. The aim of my research is, after all, to understand plesiosaurs. However, this article will remain objective. It is intended to give readers a concise, unbiased, and critical review of the evidence for living plesiosaurs from a scientific point of view.
The fossil record

The most recent plesiosaur fossils come from Late Cretaceous rocks and on this basis the scientific consensus is that they have been extinct for 65 million years. A fossil plesiosaur in Cenozoic rocks would possibly strengthen the case for living plesiosaurs, but none are known. The story of the coelacanth is often presented, but the case is not entirely analagous. Plesiosaurs are air-breathing reptiles and must surface frequently, this means they would be unable to stay submerged in the deep ocean. While it does not completely rule out the possibility of plesiosaurs surviving to the present day, this significant gap in the fossil record is at least an incovenience for proponents of the living plesiosaur hypothesis, that must be taken into account.
Photographic evidence

Even a good photograph of a clearly plesiosaur-like organism would not provide conclusive proof for the existence of living plesiosaurs. It is just too easy to hoax photographs, and increasingly so with the advent of Photoshop etc. A compelling photograph, or preferably a good series of photographs taken in quick succession, would certainly warrant further investigation. To this day, the most compelling photographs of possible living plesiosaurs have either been admitted or demonstrated as hoaxes (Fig. 1a), confidently identified as known living organisms (usually whales and sharks), or are of such ambiguity or low resolution/quality that they remain insufficient as evidence one way or another (fig 1b). All of the underwater photographs purported to show the Loch Ness monster have either been identified as tree trunks or demonstrated to have been retouched and manipulated (http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/nessiehoaxes.html)
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