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November 24, 2012

Slate: It's time to put a lid on the bigfoot research

Jeff Meldrum wants to search for Bigfoot by using a remote-controlled blimp. Because when you're looking for a mythical creature famous for eluding all who search for it, a giant, buzzing, looming balloon is clearly the way to go. Meldrum, a tenured Idaho State University anthropologist who established his career studying primate foot anatomy before shifting his focus to monsters, expects he'll have to raise $300,000 to get the project airborne. He's trying (and so far failing) to get funding from private sources. (No surprise that his home institution wants nothing to do with the endeavor.) That's a lot of money and effort for what will undoubtedly turn out to be a collection of blurry photographs that look like Instagram snapshots from a visit to the Pacific Northwest woods.

I loved reading breathless tales of encounters with the Yeti, Loch Ness Monster, Jersey Devil, Bigfoot and other cryptids as a child, but those stories have never been supported by anything more substantial than an out-of-focus snapshot or embellished campfire story. And in the case of North America's legendary nonhuman ape, the picture historians and sociologists have pieced together is that Bigfoot and other shaggy humanoids are cultural inventions that we have repeatedly conjured so that there's always something wild and mysterious in the woods. Stories about Bigfoot began to proliferate after expeditions in the Himalayas in the 1950s reported ambiguous Yeti footprints - none of which have been convincingly attributed to a Gigantopithecus descendant or other prehistoric hominid holdover. Sasquatch fans have since done a bit of retconning by claiming Native American stories and dubious historical encounters as part of their mythology, but the trail is clear. Bigfoot is not a monster but a meme.

This hasn't swayed the cryptozoological faithful. They are convinced that monstrous beings must be out there, just out of reach. If you browse the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization website, for example, you'll find more excuses than hard evidence. Despite the ubiquity of smartphone cameras and the accessibility of camera traps, there are no clear photographs of the mythical ape. The site asserts that sightings are fleeting because Sasquatches are smart enough to avoid unwanted pictures, and photographers are often overcome by the "initial confusion and/or fear during their sighting." As for the lack of a body or bones: "No serious work has ever been done to look for remains of surviving wood apes in areas where they are rumored to reside," the BFRO website says, and blithely states that "No one should expect remains of such an elusive species to be found, collected and identified without some effort." Even for Sasquatch advocates, seeking the remains of their beloved legend is just too much work.

If Sasquatches were real, there would be ways to detect the creature's existence. For one thing, there would be a fossil record of large apes moving into North America, probably from Pleistocene Asia. But fossil nonhuman apes have never been found in North America (the sole candidate turned out to be a misidentified peccary tooth.) Field biologists study elusive living species by using camera traps, analyzing genetic data from scat, and following footprints. There should be a wealth of compelling evidence from such sources - but all we have are an abundance of purported sightings. Given the number that Sasquatch clubs busy themselves with, I should be able to look out my window each morning and see Sasquatch families raiding my trash cans for leftovers. Bigfoot aficionados protest that they have found tracks, hair, and other evidence. But photos of mangy black bears and footage that would make even the director of Cloverfield nauseous from all the shaking show nothing more than a lack of rational skepticism.

 For all the time that Bigfoot hunters spend in the woods and swapping stories, and considering their bluster at not being taken seriously, they seem to show no interest in approaching their subjects scientifically. Maybe Sasquatch hunters and other cryptid seekers don't want to try legitimate, field-tested methods for tracking the objects of their fascination. Better to try unconventional, unsound methods like blimps - which keeps the possibility of mystery alive.

Bigfoot is hardly the only faith-based monster. Young-Earth creationists launch trips to the Congo in search of living nonavian dinosaurs and collect far-fetched accounts of living pterosaurs from around the world. If you've decided to ignore the entirety of science in preference for a 6,000-year-old Earth where Tyrannosaurus was created on the same day as Adam and Eve, I suppose the concept of an Apatosaurus crashing through the forests of the Congo Basin doesn't seem so fanciful. And who could forget sea serpents? Even though many sightings of marine monsters were undoubtedly inspired by giant squid, seals, and other familiar creatures, amateur naturalists and ardent cryptozoologists claim that scaly, serpentine monsters still scull through the deep.

Not all monster sightings are hoaxes or hokum. In some cases, people are hearing or seeing something in the water, the night sky, or the woods. A faithful monster hunter is likely to interpret the snap of a twig or a strange aquatic shape as supporting evidence. It's pareidolia, a wilderness Rorschach test.

One of my favorite creatures in the monster pantheon is Cadborosaurus. The monster got a lot of play in the books I picked up as a kid because there was a clear photo, even if the photo depicted nothing more than a partially-digested mess extracted from a sperm whale's belly and slapped onto the dock of British Columbia's Naden Harbor Whaling Station in 1937. The gooey string appears to be a creature with a horse-like head, sinuous body, and ragged tail flukes.

The carcass was most likely a decomposing shark. As the "Montauk Monster," "San Diego Diablo," and similar cases have shown, raccoon and opossum carcasses can be easily mistaken for aberrant creatures. Decomposition makes fools of us all.

Nevertheless, some cryptid advocates say there truly was a sea serpent writhing off the coast of British Columbia, partly inspired by an anecdote from fisherman William Hagelund's 1987 memoir "Whalers No More." He claimed to have briefly captured a little sea serpent near De Courcy Island in 1968. Cryptozoologists Edward Bousfield and Paul LeBlond later used the account to claim Hagelund had captured a baby Cadborosaurus, yet, as zoologists Michael Woodley, Darren Naish, and Cameron McCormick recently demonstrated by comparing the characteristics Hagelund recorded to known animals, the description of the critter more closely matches an ordinary pipefish than any reptile or mystery monster.

There almost certainly are large, yet-unknown marine animals awaiting discovery. They just aren't sea serpents. In another paper, Woodley, Naish, and Hugh Shanahan pointed out that several charismatic aquatic animals were described relatively recently, including the megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) in 1983 and the lesser beaked whale (Mesoplodon peruvianus) in 1991. Earlier this month, zoologist Kirsten Thompson and colleagues reported on two carcasses of the spade-toothed beaked whale (Mesoplodon traversii), a species named in 1872 but known only from skeletal fragments until now. Using such recent finds and a statistical analysis of the record of discovery, Woodley, Naish and Shanahan argued that there may even be some unknown seal or sea lion species out there.

If it were done right, cryptozoology would be indistinguishable from zoology. Observations and the scant available data would be questioned, compared, and tested in the search for the unknown - lost worlds and mythical monsters need not apply.

At least the sea allows large creatures ample room to hide. Terrestrial habitats are becoming more closed-in each day. There is no country for Bigfoot. And while cryptid advocates' field trips may ultimately be more science-ish than scientific, the persistence of these hunters helps undermine the case that Bigfoot exists.

In 2010, University of Queensland scientists Diana Fisher and Simon Blomberg suggested that extinction is not as easy to detect as zoologists had thought. In a dataset of 187 mammals once presumed to be extinct, about a third were rediscovered later. The amount of time researchers spent looking for missing species made a big difference. One or two searches aren't likely to find a rare species that still persists, the researchers found, but three to six searches tend to suffice.

Beyond 11 searches, the likelihood that a mammal species exists drops off dramatically. Zoologists have repeatedly searched for the Yangtze River dolphin and the Tasmanian tiger without success, and given the trends Fisher and Blomberg described, we can be sadly confident that these mammals are extinct. Now consider the number of expeditions - by amateurs and professionals alike - for Bigfoot. With so many people carrying out so many searches across the country, someone would have found definitive evidence by now.

Entomologist Jeff Lozier and colleagues went one better with a 2009 study that used Sasquatches to critique a kind of ecological analysis called niche modeling. Its premise is that observations of organisms in particular environments can predict other habitats where that same organism will be found or might move to in the face of human-driven climate change. Lozier and co-authors took details of 551 supposed Bigfoot sightings recorded by the BFRO and, based on where the events occurred, predicted that Sasquatches should be a common presence from southern California through most of Washington state. Perhaps unsurprisingly, "observed" and potential Sasquatch haunts were all in black bear habitat, the ursids likely accounting for many sightings of something shaggy tromping through the forest.

There has never been a better time for biological explorers. Last year, biologist Camilo Mora and co-authors estimated that there may be as many as 8.7 million eukaryotic species on the planet, and the vast majority of those - 86 percent of species on land and 91 percent of species in the seas - have not yet been described. The estimate is based on imperfect knowledge, of course, and hinges on philosophical debates about what a species is, but still underscores a salient point that we know relatively little about our neighbors on this planet. But this doesn't make Bigfoot, Cadborosaurus, or any of their ilk more plausible. If anything, it makes such ballyhooed cryptids unnecessary. There is an amazing array of life living next to us, under us, upon us, and in us, most of it never seen before, yet some prefer to blunder in the dark after phantasms of human fear and imagination. There are discoveries to be made and mysteries to be solved, but not of lake serpents and preternaturally hard-to-photograph ape-men. Every time a Sasquatch fanatic or cryptozoologically-minded creationist wanders into the forest, they are only confirming the nonexistence of their quarry.

Switek is the author of "My Beloved Brontosaurus" and "Written in Stone."

 

 

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