Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Truth About Bigfoot: Gigantopithecus and Other Fun on the Scientific Fringes

This week our regular illustrator has flown the coop to do science things at technology conferences, but his busy schedule is your gain! We hope you enjoy the fine work of guest artist and cuteness enthusiast, Marianne Gregory as we explore the fanciful science that people often use to defend the existence of one of natures most elusive creatures...

As someone who lives in Vancouver and spends much of his time outdoors in the Pacific Northwest, I have a responsibly cautious interest in the things that might kill me. Grizzly bears, mountain lions, wolves, or even a crazed moose could cross my path and do me great harm. There is however one beast that is as frightening for the mystery around it as for the damage it could inflict. I am of course referring to the Northwest’s most revered and least understood animal: the North American Sasquatch.

As much fun as it would be to continue with the tongue-in-cheek premise that Sasquatch is a real thing, this is a science blog that aims to spread factual information. With that in mind, I have to stop  where we are and say that there is no scientific evidence that Bigfoot is real or that any large ape has ever lived in North America. As much as I love the deep, dark Canadian wilderness, it is conspicuously deficient in primates. However, one of the fun things about science is that you are occasionally given permission to explore a wacky theory. You just have to lead off with “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”

So wouldn’t it be cool if it turned out that there were giant apes living in the temperate rainforests that blanket the landscapes of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia? A far as ridiculously improbable discoveries go, it would not be without precedent. A favourite example of all science writers in this vain is the coelacanth. A very large, very hard to misidentify fish that was thought to have gone extinct 65 million year ago only to turn up in an African fishing net in 1938. Sometimes we have even spent decades looking for something that we know exists and still haven't been able to find it. For example, we’ve known for a very long time that giant squid are both really big (up to 30 feet long) and very abundant, but the first time we saw one alive was in January 2013.

Of course, the obvious rebuttal to those examples is that the creatures had to exist before we could conceivably find them. Even if something is extinct, at least we know it is possible. Well, as any halfway legitimate Bigfoot lover will tell you, Sasquatch exists in the fossil record a lot more recently than coelacanths do. When we humans were still not quite modern, we shared the south-Asian forests with an ape that stood as much as ten feet tall and weighed over half a ton (1000 pounds). Its name was Gigantopithecus and evidence of its existence dates up to as recently as 300,000 years ago. In evolutionary time, these red haired, bamboo munching beasts have only just left the party.

All that would have needed to happen for the Sasquatch legends to be true is for a couple Gigantopithecuses to have survived in the Asian jungle until the last ice age 20,000 or so years ago. They could have wandered up the coast and over the Berring land bridge into North America, following mammoths, giant sloths, and even the first humans to find their way into the Americas. Even with civilization encroaching on the wilderness like it does today, there are places where a large animal could be hiding out. Some people might call it unscientific to spend time thinking about something you have no evidence for, but one of the greatest things about science is that it lives on curiosity. It encourages us to explore the unknown. Without the people who have the courage to be considered wack-jobs, a lot of cool discoveries would never get made.
If nothing else, we can at least call one of the most impressive animals to ever have lived by a better name. Gigantopithecus doesn't exactly roll of the tongue like sasquatch does.


genegeek said...

As a fellow Canadian in the Sasquatch territory, I thought I'd remind you that Sasquatch used to help sell beer: (within that post)

Sketchy Science said...

Man, is there anything he can't do?

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