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Media Article # 16
Article submitted by Richard Noll

Tuesday, December 19, 2000

Scientifically Seeking Bigfoot

By Martha Brockenbrough
Encarta on the MSN web

Suppose you're swimming happily in the deep blue waters near Hawaii when you remember the warning issued by the locals: Beware the great yawning mouth of the open water.

The "mouth" is a massive beast--one so big, it can swallow you whole. And it is said to lurk deep below the very same waters you are now treading.

Would you be afraid? Or are you the type to shrug it off, thinking, "That's just a nutty legend"?

Well, next time you're swimming in Hawaii, remember this: In 1976, just a year after the shark scare fest Jaws came out, researchers hauled a previously unknown creature from the ocean depths. They called it a megamouth shark (it had swallowed their sea anchor), and it measured 14.5 feet and weighed 1,650 pounds--nearly as big as one of the largest great white sharks ever discovered.

Since then, only 13 other megamouths (Megachasma pelagios) have been found. The animal is rare enough that had there actually been such a legend (I made up the "great yawning mouth"), reasonable people may well have dismissed it as a whopper. The megamouth would have seemed to be a creature of fantasy, not reality.

Send Martha Mail

Are you a believer or a skeptic? Maybe you spotted Bigfoot once when you were camping or had your toe nibbled by the Loch Ness monster. If so, I want to know! Send me mail!

The same goes for the notion that someone would find a living version of a creature thought to have died out with the dinosaurs. Any person with all her marbles would probably think, "Cha. How ridiculous."

Yet this very thing happened with the discovery of an ancient fish in December 1938. A museum curator just happened to spot a gorgeous, 5-foot-long blue fish in a trawler's haul in South Africa. Experts confirmed it was a coelacanth (SEAL-a-canth)--a fish that paleontologists believed went the way of the dodo about 70 million years ago.

With discoveries like this written into history books, I'm starting to understand why people dedicate their lives to finding Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. If crazy, fantastic creatures have been found before, why not these? Especially since there's some evidence that Bigfoot and "Nessie" do exist, such as the famous Patterson Film, which depicts the creature believed to be Bigfoot slouching through the Northwest woods.

Did You Know?

The world is filled with bizarre and amazing creatures, and it's easy to imagine how some of them might have spawned legends. Want to know more about the coelacanth, a living fossil thought to be related to the first fish to leave the sea? How about the platypus, a poisonous mammal that lays eggs, or the giant squid, which is believed to reach lengths of 60 feet or more? Ever heard of the anableps, also known as the four-eyed fish? How about the lungfish, a primitive airbreathing fish? What about the water-walking basilisk?

This is where cryptozoologists come in. Cryptozoology is the study of hidden creatures and animals that appear where they should not be (such as hyenas in France). It's not a field that has anywhere near the same respect as paleontology or zoology. Nonetheless, I'm finding myself to be a big fan. And I don't even have to put cryptozoology into the guilty pleasures bin alongside TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files.

That's because while cryptozoologists often search for legendary creatures, they also insist on hard, scientific evidence before allowing a "cryptid" into the world of the known. It's not enough proof for a Scottish farmer to have seen a Loch Ness monster, for example. Cryptozoologists want a tissue sample. They want to examine the creature's DNA; they want to make sonic recordings--everything short of a live heart-to-heart interview with Barbara Walters.

The emphasis on proof, though, doesn't take all the fun out of the pursuit. You can still imagine, and you can hold onto your "I want to believe" posters.

I wanted to know more about cryptozoology, so I picked up the telephone and gave Loren Coleman a call. Coauthor of Cryptozoology A to Z: the Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature, Coleman is a part-time film professor at the University of Southern Maine in addition to being one of the best-known cryptozoologists in the world.

Did You Know?

Encarta has articles on all sorts of paranormal phenomena, from Bigfoot, to the Bermuda Triangle, to UFOs.

I asked Coleman about my favorite cryptid, the Loch Ness monster. Coleman's theory is that the Loch Ness monster is not a single creature, but a small, breeding population of walruslike animals. And for what it's worth, he said, anyone who thinks it's a single, landlocked creature is just nuts. Maybe I'll have to give up my notion of a Scottish plesiosaur. Rats.

"Do we know anything new about Nessie?" I asked. Turns out Coleman was planning a trip to find Nessie last year, but the "funding is just not there for Loch Ness anymore," he said.

That's not stopping everyone. According to Reuters news service, in October 2000 an international team of researchers sank a microphone designed to detect nuclear submarines into Loch Ness, hoping to hear the monster. The team had heard intriguing noises on an earlier expedition, and if they get more, they plan to compare them with noises made by other water creatures.

Cryptozoologists are having better luck with land-based creatures like Bigfoot. (They call these creatures Sasquatch in Canada, by the way. So if you're in Canada and happen to see one, be sure to use the right name. It might be insulted otherwise.) In September 2000 a group of researchers made a big discovery in southern Washington state: a half-body print that may be an impression of Bigfoot's rear end and legs.

The print was found in the Skookum Meadows area of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Researchers made a plaster cast of the print (already known as the "Skookum cast") for future study. In case you were wondering, Bigfoot has more than just big feet.

On The Web

Want to know more about cryptozoology? Loren Coleman's own Web site has a very good list of frequently asked questions. You can also buy his book on the Web. The Web site of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization has the latest Bigfoot news, as well as a picture of the Skookum cast. If you develop a passion for cryptozoology you can join the International Society of Cryptozoologists. Or maybe you're a skeptic. In that case, check out the Skeptic's Dictionary, which challenges the evidence many cryptozoologists believe supports the existence of creatures such as Bigfoot.

What would we do if someone were ever to catch a Bigfoot? Are we really ready to be Han Solo to this North American Chewbacca? Would we put him in a zoo? Teach him to speak? Let him vote? Give him that heart-to-heart interview with Barbara Walters? Many cryptozoologists believe Bigfoot is a giant, unknown primate--possibly a missing link between humans and our ancestors. If Bigfoot is almost human, does he get almost-human rights? Like the right to sometimes hold the remote control?

It's a lot of fun to think about discovering a real-life version of what seems to be a mythical beast. It's been done before, and we're discovering new animals all the time.

For my money, though, the fun is in the chase.

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