Mysterious Species Are Out There, So Why Not Bigfoot?

The state of the universe.
Nov. 23 2012 10:00 AM

Why Are Bigfoot Rumors So Persistent?

Inside the search for North American’s supposed Sasquatch man-ape.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

Brian Switek is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus and Written in Stone. He blogs at Laelaps on National Geographic's Phenomena.

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