'Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science'

Anthropologist, author and scientist Jeff Meldrum talks about the evidence for (and against) the existence of Bigfoot. Are there animals hiding in the woods that we know nothing about? Meldrum's new book is Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

For the rest of the hour, searching for Sasquatch. Talking about Sasquatch or Yeti or, you know, whatever you'd like to call him, or the Abominable Snowman to some people is like talking about alien abduction or cold fusion. How much credible evidence is there for its existence?

There's that famous film clip, that grainy black and white, showing a half man, half ape-like creature walking into the woods. And no one will blame you for thinking that it was a hoax, just some guy in an ape suit walking around, his cohort filming it all in eight millimeter.

But not so fast, says my next guest. Granted while no one has ever produced the body of Sasquatch there is some pretty compelling evidence that such a creature exists, he argues. And he is not alone. No less than the famous chimpanzee research Jane Goodall has confessed to a belief in Bigfoot. She did right here on our program just a few years ago.

What do you think? Maybe you've had your own Sasquatch encounter. I invite you to give us a call and tell us about your Bigfoot sighting. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.

Jeff Meldrum is associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University and a research associate at the Idaho Museum of Natural History. His new book is called Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. He joins us from Idaho. Thanks for talking with us today, Dr. Meldrum.

Dr. JEFF MELDRUM (Associate Professor of Anatomy and Anthropology, Idaho State University): My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: What got you started on this? I read that you were not always a believer, were you?

Dr. MELDRUM: Well no. I, you know, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and so I was aware of some of the mythology and the folklore that surrounded the reports and the stories. But so many years had gone by I have to say when I was confronted with the subject as an academic I was quite skeptical and was looking for the proverbial fur suit or wooden foot, as it were.

But when I was taken out and shown some fresh footprints in southeastern Washington I was, you know, quite literally set back on my heels because these were tracks that would be difficult to explain as a simple contrivance with wooden feet strapped to one's boots.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. MELDRUM: And one thing led to another from there.

FLATOW: I'd like to play for you - I mentioned Jane Goodall - a brief snippet from that interview I did with her a few years ago. We were talking about her work and a question came up about whether she believes in Yeti, Sasquatch or Bigfoot.

And this is what she said.

(Soundbite of interview)

Ms. JANE GOODALL (Scientist, Cambridge University): Well now you will be amazed when I tell you that I'm sure that they exist.

FLATOW: You are.

Ms. GOODALL: Yeah.

FLATOW: Did you always have this belief that they're, that they existed?

Ms. GOODALL: Well, I'm a romantic so I always wanted that.

FLATOW: And there you have it. I mean I was shocked as anybody sitting here in this room…

Dr. MELDRUM: Right.

FLATOW: …talking to her about - and she just came out with this. And she does endorse on the cover of your book.

Dr. MELDRUM: Well exactly. And, you know, she revealed a couple of levels of engagement in this subject. As she mentioned, she's a romantic. Without question the topic has that side to it because, you know, the prospect of an unknown persisting into this century right here in our own back yard - I mean it does appeal to those who hope that they're still our frontiers of exploration and so forth.

But she did go on and comment the reasons for that conviction. And it was because she had talked with many people who had had experiences. She was - some of those were Native Americans who shared their traditional knowledge and their own contemporary experiences with these creatures according to their experiences.

And so, I mean that's where the science begins to enter in, I think, is where we get beyond just the stories or the romance of the subject and pose that simple biological question, is there a species of primate behind the legends of Sasquatch.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm. Talking with Jeff Meldrum, author of Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Jeff, you are the footprint expert. Would you say that's where the most convincing evidence is for you?

Dr. MELDRUM: Absolutely. And it's by far the most ubiquitous, somewhat concrete evidence, you know, setting the anecdotes aside for a moment. It's something that we can replicate, we can put calipers on, we can investigate from a functional morphological aspect to see what might explain the various features that are within those footprints.

So yes, that's where my - I mean my academic career has been built on a study of the way primates move and how we as humans have evolved our particular adaptation for walking on two legs.

And so, I think I'm in a position to speak on the footprints from an informed stance and say something worthwhile about them.

FLATOW: What about that famous film that we've seen of Sasquatch in the black and white grainy film? You know, why do you not think it's somebody dressed up in an ape suit?

Dr. MELDRUM: Well, actually it was a piece of color film. The renditions that have been put out of late are enhanced where the color channels have been split in order to sort of filter out the less focused wavelength of light, the emotion that didn't catch a sharp image, sharply focused image.

But yes, I mean, it's been almost 40 years now. It'll be 40 years next year. And still that piece of footage for those who take the time to really look at it objectively still holds our attention.

You know, it's easy to say, Oh, it looks like a man in a fur suit until you see a man in a fur suit. And then the comparison really pales on, especially on these newer, clearer images from the film.

You can see muscle movements. You can see the shoulder blade slide under the skin. You can see tendons attaching to joints and so forth. The clarity is really much better than most people have acknowledged in the past.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm. And there are still people who are analyzing the film?

Dr. MELDRUM: Well absolutely. In fact just a few weeks ago I returned from a trip to Stanford University where as part of a production for the Discovery Channel we were working with a motion and gate analysis lab there on campus to give the film one more fresh look, and particularly from this newer enhanced version.

And we even brought in an actor who we coached in order to simulate the posture that was exhibited by the subject. He was able to do that after considerable coaching pretty closely approximate the posture of the body, the angles of the joints.

But what fell short was the obvious difference that he wasn't seven feet tall. He wasn't three feet across. He…

FLATOW: Jeff, I've got to - I'm going to have you hang on. We'll be right back more with Jeff Meldrum and Sasquatch. Stay with us.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Jeff Meldrum, author of Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jeff, when I interrupted you, you were talking about the film of - famous film and why you think it's not a hoax.

Dr. MELDRUM: Right. Well, I guess the final word would simply be that from my perspective again, just considering the film from the ankles down is an extremely compelling bit of evidence.

One of the real weak points of any costume is the feet. And we saw that when this same actor donned a quite expensive Hollywood costume but the feet looked like something off of Bozo the Clown and could never have accounted for the footprints that were associated with that film side or the clear dynamic that's evident in the film itself of the feet of the subject as it walks across the sandbar.

So that keeps me coming back to it…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. MELDRUM: …looking at it.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. You know, when we had Jane Goodall on, she mentioned that there were tufts of fur that might have DNA, active DNA still in them that could be compared. Did you come across any of those?

Dr. MELDRUM: Well we have - we've worked on hair. My colleague, Dr. Henner Fahrenbach, who is a microscopist in Oregon, has sort of taken the lead on that front and samples have been sent to him. We have over 15 samples that defy identification. Attempts have been made to extract DNA but unsuccessfully sequenced.

So we're still - and that's in part, for a variety of reasons, which we don't have time to go into all the details - but we're still in want of a good sample of tissue from which DNA could be extracted.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm. Let's go to the phones. Mitch. I'm sorry, go ahead.

Dr. MELDRUM: Well, I was going to say even if we did have DNA it poses kind of an interesting question though because as I'm sure you're aware, humans and chimpanzees, for example, share remarkable similarity of DNA in their sequence.

If this animal is also great ape and closer to the life of humans it will take a very good bit of sequence, a good sample, to yield sufficient information to discriminate between human and non-human DNA.

FLATOW: Let's go to Mitch in Pocatello, Idaho. Hi, Mitch.

MITCH (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

MITCH: Well I'm in Dr. Meldrum's department. I'm a graduate student and have actually taken the time to read his latest book. And I have a question for Dr. Meldrum.

Of all the evidences that you produce, which do you think are the closest to being able to be published in a peer-reviewed journal?

Dr. MELDRUM: Well, I already have published one article that deals with the footprint evidence, placing it in a much broader anthropological context. The Sasquatch foot seems to be distinguished in its retention of a flexibility of the midfoot(ph), much more similar to a great ape foot in that regard.

And that very interesting feature has some intriguing parallels to aspects of the very earliest prominent bipeds. And in fact, provides for me a very interesting juxtaposition of sort of two independent, potentially independent evolutions of bipedalism from a similar starting point that have - that express very similar characteristics in parallel.

FLATOW: OK, Mitch?

MITCH: Thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. There was an article written by the Associated Press entitled, Idaho Professor Becomes a Campus Outcast with His Bigfoot Research. Are you an outcast? Are you considered to be like a cold fusion researcher on some other, you know, some other part of the campus?

Dr. MELDRUM: It kind of depends on who you ask, I guess, but not nearly to the extent that that article unfortunately portrayed. I have to say that the situation was grossly exaggerated.

It did include - the article did include very supportive statements and clarification by the dean of arts and sciences. And I think that represents the administration's attitude and the attitude of many of my colleagues who expressed their support.

I mean, the expressions of support and encouragement have been really quite overwhelming since that article aired. But there are - there is with out doubt some resistance. I mean obviously this is not perceived by some as a legitimate scientific endeavor. It's perceived as some sort of fringe or pseudo science.

And, you know, I'd have to take the position that I am in disagreement with that, that those individuals have not really considered the evidence, nor the manner in which I'm pursuing the question.

FLATOW: Well, so what would it take then to prove to people the existence of Sasquatch?

Dr. MELDRUM: Well, obviously, the convention in zoology is for the establishment or the recognition of a new species to be based on a type specimen, and I've never suggested - you know, I don't use the word I believe in the existence of Bigfoot. To me, that connotes a conviction in the absence of proof or evidence, at least.

I simply say that the evidence is there, there's no refuting that. What does the evidence tell us, where does it lead us, and is there something behind this persistence of this phenomenon in western North America?

FLATOW: Sounds just like what Sherlock Holmes would say.

Dr. MELDRUM: Well, that's a complimentary comparison.

FLATOW: When you've eliminated all the obvious, he would say.

Dr. MELDRUM: Right.

FLATOW: You know, what's staring you in the face.

Dr. MELDRUM: That's right.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Why do you think that's so - you know, relatively so few sightings are around. If it were to survive so many years, so many generations, there would have to be enough of that creature to reproduce, would there not?

Dr. MELDRUM: Oh certainly, absolutely. And this is kind of a misconception. And depending on what part of the country you live in, I guess, it might be more acute. You go to areas where, you know, small towns and cities where the habitat is appropriate, where we think these animals may, in fact, reside, and for many people it's just part of the landscape. There are sightings.

I mean, I have received hundreds and hundreds of communications - e-mails and letters here in the past three days, as you can imagine, in the wake of that story - and a large fraction of them share with me their experiences. And many of them are absolutely, you know, down to earth, simple encounters in the woods, a hiker, a hunter or a woodsman or a recreationist, and they see something that they cannot account for, or they come upon footprints that they can't compare to any other animal they've seen before.

FLATOW: Did you have one yourself?

Dr. MELDRUM: I've seen footprints. I mean, since being shown the footprints back in '96, I've seen - found tracks in very remote areas on at least five different occasions. In the book, I explain a couple of other experiences, where I think that there was something pretty close that we couldn't pin a label on by any other means, something rummaging through backpacks, say, able to negotiate clasps and flaps without leaving marks of claws or teeth. But no, I've not seen one myself yet.

FLATOW: Greg in San Francisco. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

GREG (Caller): Hi, cheers. Thank you for taking my call. I had a daytime sighting where I actually spent some time with what was clearly a Bigfoot creature at dusk, and I was essentially in the woods camping and playing my harmonica, and I heard something walk up a hillside very quickly, station itself by a tree where I couldn't see. I felt uncomfortable, and when I stopped playing my harmonica, it started walking.

I saw in the daylight a nine to 12 foot high creature with extremely straight shoulders, tucked back posture, and it moved into a clearing and stopped and turned around and looked at me and moved very slowly and comfortably back into the woods. And after seeing that famous film of that creature that you were talking about earlier, I found the film to be a creature where it was slumped over with hunched shoulders and swinging like an ape, and that's not what I saw. I saw a very tall, austere, extremely straight backed -

FLATOW: That's not the film - the film I saw matches your description.

GREG: Very, very dark furred.

FLATOW: No, matches Jeff's description of, you know, matches the description of a very upright, almost human gaited type of creature.

Dr. MELDRUM: Well certainly, and there's going to be individual variation. I mean, if you go stand on a street corner and just watch people walking by, you're going to note a variety of different degrees of uprightness and posture and manner of walking. So it doesn't surprise me that what you saw doesn't match exactly what was on the Patterson film, but we're still talking in general about a tall, upright, hair covered animal.

And your report is very interesting, too, the role that the harmonica playing may have played in attracting its attention or curiosity. One of the individuals that I work with in the field quite regularly had the sighting in southern Colorado, and it was, we believe in part because she was sitting out on a boulder next to her tent playing a recorder. And it seems that it may have been the music that drew in this one individual that popped up standing behind her tent a mere 15 from her in the daylight of the afternoon, a really stunning experience. It changed her life.

FLATOW: Talking with Jeff Meldrum, author of Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. Do we think that Sasquatch or Bigfoot is related to Yeti, because Yeti's been sighted in other parts of the world.

Dr. MELDRUM: Well, the Yeti or the abominable snowman in the Himalayas, if it exists, there's actually less evidence for it than there is for Sasquatch by a large measure. One of the things - the description is quite different in its stature and some of its behavior. And from my vantage point, the footprints that have been attributed, at least those that are the most credible, which are very few in number, the clearest ones appear to have a divergent big toe. One of the best examples is the track from the McNealy/Cronin expedition to the Aron(ph) Valley, and what they found in the morning outside of their tents looked to a large measure like a large chimpanzee foot impressed in the snow.

So with the divergent big toe, as opposed to the Sasquatch tracks, which have a toe that's aligned with the remaining digits.

FLATOW: Let's go to Josh in Anchorage. Hi, Josh.

JOSH (Caller): Hey, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

JOSH: I was on a fishing trip a few years back with a friend. We flew up - we were about 100 miles south of Hudson Bay in Canada there, and it was a small village called God's River. It's only accessible by plane. And I was talking to one of the Indian guides there, and he was telling me a story about going out into the woods collecting firewood on a snowmobile, and the machine broke down, and he started following his track back to the village. And about halfway back, another track entered onto the trail of his fresh snowmobile track, and it was just a footprint, and he was wearing Size 12 bunny boots, and the track was several inches longer than his boots.

And I mean, that was the extent of his story, but the guy that I went up there with is kind of a regular in that area, and he said the Indians up there have numerous stories. And so I'm not sure if it's, you know, if it's something that they're trying to impress visitors or what, but you know, that was his story.

Dr. MELDRUM: Absolutely, yeah. Well - and the experiences are so widespread and pervasive in many areas like that that both the Native Americans and the long time residents of the area, many have had interesting encounters.

Now on the other side, as well, I'm also confronted with individuals who say, well, I've lived in the woods all my life, I've hunted and fished, you know, from here to there, and I've never seen anything. And I mean, that's the case for those individuals. I could point to other people who said that until, you know, last week virtually, when they had an encounter or found footprints and suddenly changed their tune.

FLATOW: Talking about Sasquatch this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News, with a book by the same name, Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science by Jeff Meldrum.

Jeff, is there any place where we can actually see the Sasquatch evidence? Is it on exhibit anywhere?

Dr. MELDRUM: Well actually, as a matter of fact, on the ISU campus, the Idaho Museum of Natural History has hosted an exhibit or incorporated elements of a traveling exhibit on Bigfoot or Sasquatch entitled Bigfoot: How Do We Know? -with the approach, you know, taking the approach to the question of what are ways of knowing and using the theme of Bigfoot as an example of an idea that has many different facets to it, many different levels of perception from, you know, traditional knowledge, from folklore and mythology, from science and it's been a very successful, very popular exhibit.

FLATOW: Do people actually go out searching for Sasquatch or in parties, or is it just occasional sightings?

Dr. MELDRUM: There - well, there's no - other than - there are a lot of non-professional investigators, enthusiasts, whatever, you know. They get labeled, unfortunately, by various monikers, but they spend their free time looking. I've been able to attract some private funding to support - funding from an academic, a physics department chair of a western university who has supported our fieldwork and efforts to try to accumulate new field evidence, particularly with the goal of getting DNA and bringing that one step closer to resolution.

FLATOW: Well, I want to wish you good luck in your searches, and thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. MELDRUM: My pleasure.

FLATOW: Jeff Meldrum is associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University. He's also a research associate at the Idaho Museum of Natural History. He's author of Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. Interesting book if you're interested in the topic at all, and doesn't really - you know, he says he wants to be convinced. He's not convinced he's there, but he's keeping an open mind, and maybe you'll have an open mind about it, too.

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