Myth and Reality: Lake Monsters and Political Scandal

A piece of real ‘fake news’ turned up the other day in the local newspapers – a sighting of a prehistoric monster in the grounds of the long defunct textile factory, Ticosa, on the edge of Como’s historical centre. Regular readers of this blog will quickly be able to place the authorship of this fakery at the doors of our friend, Pierpaolo Perretta aka Mr. Savethewall, in his role as social activist.

False sighting

©Pierpaolo Perretta

Whilst it is of course disappointing that neither CNN nor the BBC actually troubled themselves to report on the presumed re-emergence of a mythical prehistoric creature, we can hardly blame their incredulity – is there really a monster in Como to rival that in Loch Ness? Could it really survive in the asbestos-contaminated grounds of this blighted ex-industrial site where all proposals put forward to develop it since the plant’s closure in the 1980s have come to nothing? Is this another Como mystery to rival that of Mussolini’s treasure lost at Dongo? Let’s look a little closer.

Leaving aside the Ticosa scandal for now (it has in any case still got many years to run), what about Como’s lake monster? Mr. Savethewall envisaged the re-emergence of ‘Lariosaurus’, and there is a local myth of a lake monster of that name. Whilst Lariosaurus, or ‘Larrie’ for short cannot match the notoriety of his/her more famous Scottish relative, ‘Nessie’, he or she can claim a series of sightings since the end of the last war.

 

Nessie can trace her source back to the sixth century AD but interest in the modern era started in the 1930s.  First sightings for ‘Larrie’ were reported in the 19th century but modern-day interest started in 1946 when the local newspaper at the time, the ‘Corriere Comasco’, reported a sighting in the waters off the Pian di Spagna at the top end of the lake. In 1954 the myth was reinforced by the apparent sighting by fishermen of an 80cm long creature with rounded beak, tail and flippers off the coast of Argegno. 1957 saw a creature of similar size resurface between Dongo and Musso and the sighting was apparently confirmed by scientists who explored the area as a follow-up in a submersible. They described ‘Larrie’ as being a large (up to a metre long) crocodile-like creature. The last sighting was in 2003 when fishermen off the coast of Lecco reported seeing a 10 metre long tapered creature resembling a massive eel.

Palazzo Belgoioso

Lecco’s Museo di Storia Naturale in the Palazzo Belgioioso where fossilised remains of Lariosaurus Balsamo are exhibited.

Whilst Nessie is much better known than Larrie, there is a greater reality behind the latter’s myth since a creature called Lariosaurus did exist in the Lake Como area but over 200 million years ago in the mid-Triassic age, older therefore than the dinosaurs. The first fossil was unearthed at Perledo, just inland from Varenna, by zoologist Giuseppe Balsamo Crivelli in 1830. He named the creature Lariosaurus Balsamo incorporating his second name and the Latin name for Lake Como, Lario. Further fossilised Lariosaurus Balsami were discovered in Lierna in the 1930s (on the eastern shore of the Lecco leg opposite Limonta).

These remains are now exhibited in the Museo di Storia Naturale di Lecco in the Palazzo Belgioioso in a room dedicated to them. Lariosaurus was a carnivore growing up to about 120cm in length with paddle-like front feet. It lived on the marshy fringes of the ocean adapted to both land and water.

Lierna and Varenna

Looking out on the Lecco leg of Lake Como from Limonta towards Varenna and Lierna

So, is there the possibility that, as plate tectonics shaped the world’s continents, Lariosaurus became trapped inland and evolved to live in Lake Como’s deep fresh water? Lake Como is certainly deep enough to hide a reticent lake monster throughout the millenia.

lake profile 2

It is 410 metres deep, one of the deepest in Europe and twice the depth of Loch Ness. However the city of Como itself is about 200 metres above sea level which means that the bottom of the lake is more than 200 metres below sea level which requires some explanation particularly when the profile of the lake reveals a V formation meaning that its valley was created originally by flowing water (a river) rather than through later glaciation. And rivers do not flow below sea level. The answer to this lies 50 million years back in time well after Lariosaurus when the Mediterranean sea was closed off from the Atlantic as land masses closed the current Straits of Gibraltar. Most of the sea then evaporated revealing a land mass well below the level of the oceans allowing the rivers flowing from the Alps to cut valleys down below current sea levels.

mediterranean 50 mill years

The precursor of the River Po runs down from white capped Alps into a long valley extending the length of the Adriatic Sea (The Mediterranean 50 million years ago)

So how realistic are the chances that Lariosaurus managed to adapt from its Triassic saltmarsh environment to live on the banks of a fast flowing river, and then through a prolonged period of ice cap and glaciation before finally evolving into a deep fresh water monster or even an inhabitant of a brownfield ex-industrial park?

Let’s take final stock of myth and reality behind this story.

Myth: ‘Larrie’ did not reappear recently in the grounds of the ex-Ticosa factory.

Reality: The ‘Larrie’ apparently seen off the Pian di Spagna, Argegno and Dongo did fit the description of the ancient Lariosaurus Balsamo but its evolutionary survival from the Triassic age is totally improbable.

Myth: The ’Larrie’ of 10 metres long seen in 2003 by fishermen off the coast at Lecco is most likely  the result of alcohol-fuelled group hysteria.

Reality: Lariosaurus Balsamo existed up to 200 million years ago on the continental shelf of the massive single land mass known as Pangea and the fossil remains from that time, found at Varenna and Lierna, are on display at Lecco’s Museo di Storia Naturale. The proof of its existence is on our doorstep. (Other fossilised exemplars are to be found in museums in the USA and Munich, Germany).

Myth: Any further possible sitings of ‘Larrie’.

Reality: The ex-Ticosa scandal.

Lariosaurus drawings

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About comocompanion

I am an Englishman in Como, Northern Italy - definitely both a Euro and Italophile with an interest in modern history, walks in the hills and mountains, and food and wine. These antidotes to angst are supported by interests in sustainability, the potential of collaborative economies and I suppose a degree of atheistic faith in something I still cannot be bothered to define.
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