A rhombus, David Attenborough, and the Loch Ness Monster

In 1975, David Attenborough sat down at a table with Sir Peter Scott. Sir Peter was the son of Antarctic explorer Robert F Scott, but he was a remarkable person in his own right. That he won an Olympic medal at the 1936 games in Berlin is often a footnote in his life story; he was in fact an accomplished scientist, and founder of the Wordwide Fund for Nature as well as the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust.

A Hawaiian nēnē at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s Slimbridge site. At one point, the nēnē’s global population had dwindled to just 30 birds.

During his 1975 meeting with David Attenborough, Sir Peter shocked Attenborough by proposing a scientific name for the Loch Ness Monster: Nessiteras rhombopteryx. What kind of serious scientist would come up with a name for a creature that almost certainly didn’t exist? Sir Peter’s reasoning was that if “Nessie” did exist, it should be conserved. And in order for it to be given all the protections that other endangered species were given, it needed to be scientifically classified.

The genus Nessiteras means Ness Monster, but what of the species identification rhombopteryx?

Those with an interest in natural history are likely to have heard of archaeopteryx—long thought of as the earliest known bird. The pteryx in the suffix comes from the Ancient Greek for wing. It’s no coincidence that we see pter in words like pterosaur and helicopter.

Archaeopteryx fossil

The rhomb part of rhombopteryx relates to the rhombus—a four-sided shape with sides of equal length. Rhombus itself, by the way, comes from the Greek word for a spinning top. In silhouette, some of these do indeed look rhombus-like.

So rhombopteryx means rhombus-winged, or in this context, rhombus-finned. The logic behind the name seems reasonable when you consider this illustration, itself based on two pictures obtained by American researcher Robert Rines using underwater cameras in 1972:

Illustration from Nature Vol. 258 December 11 1975, p468

The name Nessiteras rhombopteryx becomes a little more intriguing when you learn that is it is in fact an anagram of monster hoax by Sir Peter S. Robert Rines responded to this observation by noting that Nessiteras rhombopteryx was, delightfully, also an anagram of Yes, both pix are monsters – R.

Rhombus itself, by the way, was for centuries also the name given to the genus of several flat fish, such as brill and turbot. The name has now been superseded, but you can see why it was used when the fish in question look a bit like this: