It always seemed too good to be true. The story goes that members of a team of Russian geologists from Moscow State University – led by Dr G. Rukosuyev – were, in 1964, surveying Yakutia in Siberia when, at Lake Khaiyr (or Lake Khainyr), they saw a lake monster. But not just any old lake monster: one of the best described lake monsters of all time…
‘Lake monsters’ the world over are generally amorphous humps or ‘inverted boat’ shapes, but this one, described in detail by qualified biologist Dr Nikolai Gladkikh, was a huge, long-necked, blackish-blue quadrupedal reptile with a stout tail, a lizard-like head sporting small supra-orbital horns, and a low, triangular fin running the length of its back. The fin was supported by vertical rays, which has always been a nice, plausible-sounding detail (if not a very odd one, given that rayed fins are limited to fish and basal tetrapods like Ichthyostega). Various different accounts of the sighting have been provided: it seems that Gladkikh first saw the creature lying on the shore of the lake, with some accounts stating that it was grazing from grass on the bank. It returned to the water, but was reported by Gladkikh to later emerge from the middle of the lake and to stand there, swishing its tail.
The unprecedented level of detail makes this story suspicious, and other details do too. Nikolai Gladkikh is strangely absent from the literature on Siberian limnology, geomorphology, or biology, for one. Incidentally, while referred to in the literature as Dr Gladkikh, he was referred to as ‘N. F. Gladkikh, a member of the biology group’ in the original article reporting the account (Dinsdale 1966). Secondly, while many books that recount Gladkikh’s story make it sound as if the account was reported in the technical literature (this is what I had always assumed from reading these books anyway), the publication venue for ‘the report’ – Komsomolskaya Pravda – is not a journal, but a newspaper (an article discussing the sightings were later published in the magazine Soviet Life). And it turns out that Lake Khaiyr is not exactly the sort of lake where you might expect to find a large-bodied, hitherto undiscovered tetrapod: it’s a thawed area of permafrost, 500 m by 600 m, and just 7 m deep. Many lakes reported to be the haunt of monsters – particularly those in Ireland – are clearly too small to support the animals that people have reported from them*, so cryptozoologists have often wondered if the animals concerned might be capable of making land crossings, and are hence but transient visitors to the lakes where they’re seen.
* The best example of this sort of thing concerns lochs Achanalt, Garve, Culon, Rosque and Cronn in Scotland where, in his two-volume 1935-6 work The Monsters of Achanalt, R. L. Cassie claimed to see multiple aquatic creatures ranging from 3 to 274 m in length.
Google will show you that Gladkikh’s monster has been, at best, widely considered as tantalising evidence for the presence of unknown large freshwater tetrapods in Siberian lakes and, at worse, as evidence for surviving plesiosaurs or dinosaurs. Rukosuyev apparently speculated that the creature might be a late-surviving ichthyosaur (Dinsdale 1966, Costello 1975), which is ridiculous given that ichthyosaurs were shark- or cetacean-shaped, and Costello (1975) noted that the creature resembled the animal featured in the famous Wilson Loch Ness photo (on which see here: by the way, I totally disagree with Loren Coleman’s contention on cryptomundo that the object in the Wilson photo is an otter’s tail). Coleman & Huyghe (2003) identified the Lake Khaiyr creature as a waterhorse (a sort of hypothetical long-necked giant pinniped according to them [reconstruction of such shown in adjacent image]), which is also bizarre because the Lake Khaiyr creature was described as reptilian, and not in the least bit pinniped-like. The story of the Lake Khaiyr monster has been widely recounted in the cryptozoological literature (e.g., Dinsdale 1966, Costello 1975, Bord & Bord 1981, Calkins 1982, Shuker 1995, 1997, 2008, Coleman & Huyghe 2003, Freeman 2003, Newton 2005), and Gladkikh’s sketch (shown at the top) has become iconic and much reproduced (e.g., Dinsdale 1966, Costello 1975, Bord & Bord 1981, Calkins 1982, Shuker 1995, 1997, 2008, Freeman 2003, Newton 2005).
But, alas, here the story must come to an end. As Karl Shuker explains in the newest issue of Fortean Times (I don’t care what anyone says, I like reading it), the entire episode seems to have been a fabrication. As explained in an article published last year in Komsomolskaya Pravda, Gladkikh never was a biologist nor in fact even a scientist; he was instead a ‘migrant worker’ hired to help with the expedition. And while cryptozoologists have often expressed frustration about the lack of subsequent investigation of Lake Khaiyr and its possible monster, it turns out that such investigation actually did take place. Claims that the lake was devoid of fish, that birds wouldn’t land on it, and that the locals had a tradition of sightings, were all false. Even better, Gladkikh admitted that he had fabricated the entire event (either ‘to entertain himself and his friends or as an excuse for shirking his duties at work’, said Pravda).
Of course, if you really want to believe in Siberian lake monsters, this isn’t necessarily the end of it, as there were supposed to be witnesses on the expedition besides Gladkikh, plus there are other lakes in the region that reportedly house monsters. But, personally, I feel that a case long thought to have had at least a reasonable amount of credibility – indeed, one of the most interesting cases in 20th century lake monster history – can now be dismissed in entirety. Oh well. Thanks to Karl, I’ve learnt that you can see the 2007 Pravda article for yourself here [adjacent image shows a still from the Lake Van footage, taken in 1997 (Lake Van is an alkaline Turkish lake). I think it’s a fake, carved from wood with a hose blowing bubbles at the snout-tip].
And finally, for those who might be confused as to why a technically qualified palaeontologist is apparently paying serious attention to claims about Russian monsters, I remain interested in mystery animals because I think that – sometimes – there really are real animals at the bottom of these accounts. Not necessarily post-Mesozoic plesiosaurs, evolved basilosaurids, waterhorses or super-otters, but something.
Sorry, this article was another distraction. Back to scheduled stuff next.
Refs – –
Bord, J. & Bord, C. 1981. Alien Animals. Book Club Associates, London.
Calkins, C. C. 1982. Mysteries of the Unexplained. Reader’s Digest, Pleasantville (New York).
Coleman, L. & Huyghe, P. 2003. The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents, and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep. Tarcher/Penguin, New York.
Costello, P. 1975. In Search of Lake Monsters. Panther Books, St. Albans.
Dinsdale, T. 1966. The Leviathans. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
Freeman, R. 2003. Terrors of the taiga: the monsters of Siberia. Part one. In Downes, J. & Freeman, R. (eds) The Centre for Fortean Zoology Yearbook 2003. CFZ Publications, Exeter, pp. 68-92.
Newton, M. 2005. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology. McFarland & Company, Jefferson (N. Carolina) and London.
Shuker, K. P. N. 1995. In Search of Prehistoric Survivors. Blandford, London.
– . 1997. A monster in the lake. The X Factor 29, 799-803.
– . 2008. The truth behind the monster. Fortean Times 232, 58-59.