Icelandic River Monster Mystery Solved

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A video claimed to depict a bizarre river monster surfaced about a week ago, showing a long, serpentine form apparently swimming in glacial river in eastern Iceland.

Could it be Lagarfljótsormurinn, a lake monster of Icelandic legend?

Some say yes; others aren’t so sure. Many suggested it was a real (known) animal, or a computer-generated hoax, or even a mechanically manipulated faked creature. The YouTube video, whatever its subject, has gotten over 3 million views.

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There are a few things that it pretty much could not be, starting with what it appears to be: a snake. Snakes are exothermic; they can’t regulate their body temperature and must depend on the environment to do so. That’s why snakes in the wild can sometimes be seen basking in the sun early in the morning — they’re trying to warm up. While some species of snakes are aquatic, they typically live in much warmer climes; the last place a snake would want be is an ice-filled stream.

Because of the poor quality, shakiness, and brevity of the footage, it’s not even clear that the would-be monster is actually moving. It seems to be heading upstream, but that could just be an illusion created by the water moving past it. It could be making progress toward the shore—or its head might be simply sitting there, more or less stationary in the water while the “body” contorts with the current.

A Scandinavian skeptical investigator did some video sleuthing and found what seems to be smoking gun evidence that this “river monster” is nothing of the sort. Miisa McKeown had heard about the creature and looked into it.

“Being at least passingly familiar with ice and how frozen objects behave in water (I live in Finland), I couldn't help but be intrigued by this,” McKeown told Discovery News. “The movement was the most fascinating aspect, but when I realized how quickly the water was flowing I figured that could very well cause that effect on a flexible object trapped there.”

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She analyzed the video and took several screen captures at different times and compared the location of the animal’s “head” to static reference points to see if the swimming creature was actually moving, or the result of an optical illusion. She found that the object is stationary in the water; it appears to be moving up the stream but is not.

Around the same time new details emerged about the circumstances of the video. According to a story on IceNews: News from the Nordics,

The amateur cameraman responsible for the footage, Hjörtur E. Kjerúlf, has told the media that “This is absolutely not a hoax by me, that is ridiculous. This is no joke.” He explained to Bylgjan Radio that he did not set up the ‘monster footage’ and that he did not ever claim that it was the Lagarfljóts Worm. He left that for others to decide. Hjörtur says that he noticed the ‘monster’ in the river from his kitchen window and continued to drink his coffee. After finishing his drink and seeing that the strange sight was still there, he says he decided it might be fun to catch it on tape. Hjörtur says that he did not upload the video to the Internet himself, instead taking it to the RÚV television office in Egilsstaðir. From there the national news decided to play his footage and then somebody else put it onto YouTube and Iceland’s English language media also translated the news. The rest, as they say, is history.

This new information adds an important piece to the puzzle. Kjerúlf states that he first noticed the animal while drinking his coffee, and that it was still there when he finished, presumably some minutes later. This tells us that it hadn’t moved (or moved very little) during that time. It also hadn’t moved in the time it took him to find his camera, go out to the bank, and videotape it (from two different angles). Nor, as McKeown discovered in her analysis, did it move while it was videotaped.

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This behavior is completely consistent with an ice-caked fishing net or piece of cloth caught on an underwater branch or rock — and completely inconsistent with a living animal. With this new information it seems most likely that the video was not a hoax after all: Kjerúlf happened to notice a natural, inanimate object in the water and decided to videotape it. Other people later called it a mysterious creature, elevating an interesting but natural phenomenon to a monster of Icelandic legend.

Photo Credit: YouTube

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