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Science Looks for Bigfoot

Ben Radford

September 3, 2005

Bigfoot’s been a busy beastie recently, especially in Canada. In April a Manitoba ferry operator videotaped a large, dark, indistinct creature moving along a riverbank. Whatever it was—Bigfoot, bear, bison, or otherwise—it caused quite a stir and made international news.

Three months later, in Yukon, Teslin resident Trent Smarch found a tuft of coarse, dark hair in a forest where he and other locals heard a large, mysterious animal in the brush. They believe the creature was a Sasquatch, the Canadian version of the huge, hairy, humanoid mystery creature known as Bigfoot. The find was reported across North America and around the world, and many wondered if this hair find might finally prove Bigfoot’s long-disputed existence. The hair sample was sent to University of Alberta wildlife geneticist David Coltman for analysis. Coltman was asked to extract any available DNA from the hair, sequence the mitochondrial genes, and compare them to a database of known regional creatures.

On July 28, after a week of testing, the results were announced. More on that later, but first some background on the search for Bigfoot evidence. Bigfoot burst into the public’s mind in 1959, with the publication of a magazine article describing the discovery of large, mysterious footprints the year earlier in Bluff Creek, California. A half century later, the question of Bigfoot’s existence remains open. Bigfoot is still sought, the pursuit kept alive by a steady stream of sightings, occasional photos or footprint finds, and sporadic media coverage. By far the majority of support for Bigfoot comes from eyewitness reports and anecdotes, yet this is the least reliable kind of evidence—and virtually worthless from a scientific perspective. What science needs to validate the existence of Bigfoot is hard evidence: a live or dead specimen, bones, teeth, blood, or hair. Because hard evidence is lacking—no bones or bodies have been found—Coltman’s analysis was much anticipated.

The Yukon sample is not the first Bigfoot hair to be analyzed. Over the past few decades, dozens of hair and blood samples have been recovered from alleged Bigfoot encounters. (One example: in 2000, a group of Bigfoot researchers found what they interpreted as a Bigfoot body print in mud near Mount Adams in Washington state. Despite five years of study and the promise of alleged hair, saliva, and dung samples, no conclusive evidence has yet emerged from the find.) When a definite conclusion has been reached, the samples have invariably turned out to have prosaic sources— “Bigfoot hair” turns out to be elk or bear or cow hair, for example, or “Bigfoot blood” is revealed to be transmission fluid. In his book Big Footprints, noted researcher Grover Krantz discusses such evidence: “The usual fate of these items is that they either receive no scientific study, or else the documentation of that study is either lost or unobtainable. In most cases where competent analyses have been made, the material turned out to be bogus or else no determination could be made.”

It is important to understand the science behind hair analyses: An outcome of “unknown” or “inconclusive” does not necessarily mean the sample came from a Bigfoot. All it means is that the sample did not match whichever other samples it was compared to. For that reason, a wig or carpet fiber or even hair from an animal foreign to the region (such as a kangaroo or camel) claimed to be from a Bigfoot will likely be reported as “unknown.” It also highlights a basic methodological problem that plagues all Bigfoot research: The lack of a standard measure. We know what a bear track looks like; if we find a track that we suspect was left by a bear, we can compare it to one we know was left by a bear. But there are no undisputed Bigfoot specimens by which to compare new evidence.

This is why evidence such as the Yukon hair is so crucial to proving Bigfoot’s existence. At a press conference, Coltman revealed the results of his DNA analysis. The Bigfoot hair matched that of a bison 100%. Bison are found in the region, and it seems likely that the locals’ expectations and perceptions were influenced by the Manitoba sighting three months earlier.

The DNA result will not, of course, deter the Bigfoot believers and eyewitnesses. But it does provide an excellent example of what happens when hard evidence of a mystery is subjected to the rigors of science. This high-profile Bigfoot hair analysis by a reputable scientist also addresses a criticism often heard by monster enthusiasts: That mainstream scientists ignore Bigfoot evidence for fear of damaging their reputations in pursuit of what some would call a myth. Yet if Bigfoot or other mystery creatures do exist, they are certainly worthy of serious scientific scrutiny. At the same time, since all previous samples were found to be hoaxes, inconclusive, or from known animals, scientists’ lack of enthusiasm for spending time and resources on yet more such evidence is understandable.

In the space of six months, one alleged Canadian Bigfoot was videotaped and another left its hair. Nothing new has been learned from the Manitoba video—it’s still an unidentified dark blob, possibly one of any number of large animals in the area—and the Yukon hair has been identified as bison. The mystery remains, and the search goes on.

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Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.