Should a wood ape specimen be collected in order to prove the existence of the species to science?
This question elicits passion like no other when it comes to the subject of the sasquatch. It is the equivalent of topics like gun control, abortion and same sex marriage in the political arena. Very few are ambivalent about the issue. Opinions are strong and emotions run deep when it comes to this particular subject. Often, the debate degenerates into name-calling and boorish behavior. This is unfortunate, as I can understand points on both sides of the issue.
I came to the conclusion a while back that the taking of a specimen was absolutely necessary. What I would like to do now is take you through the process that led me to that conclusion and why I believe it must happen if we are going to save the species. I don’t presume to speak for anyone else. The thoughts presented here are mine and mine alone. There are many who will agree with my position and many who will not. My intention is not to convince anyone to “come around” to my way of thinking though, I admit, it would make my life easier if some did. Instead, I merely want to present my thoughts in a logical manner so that others can see this is not a conclusion I came to lightly.
Science demands a specimen. It is really just that simple. In order for the species to be officially recognized, someone is going to have to bring in one of these animals. I realize there have been a few instances where science has recognized the existence of a new species based on photos or video but these cases are few and far between. They are clearly the exception to the rule. In order to prove the existence of something as fantastic as the North American wood ape, it is going to take a body. Realistically, the sasquatch is on a par with unicorns, dragons and centaurs in the eyes of mainstream science. I held out hope for a very long time that good video and/or still photos would be enough but have come to believe that is not the case. First, these animals have proven incredibly elusive and sightings, on the rare occasions that they do occur, typically are so fleeting that even if a witness is holding a camera they don’t have time to raise it and get a good photo. Game cameras may ultimately get a photo but will it be good enough? Doubtful. The NAWAC invested tens of thousands of dollars in the best game cameras commercially available and kept them deployed continuously for the better part of a decade. While a handful of intriguing images were captured, nothing definitive was obtained. I have come to believe that these animals avoid game cameras. I do not believe they know what they are but think, like alpha coyotes, cougars and other animals, they are extremely in tune with their environment and realize that these cameras are foreign objects. They may even associate them with humans. If so, they probably associate these odd boxes with potential danger. The final nail in the “video/photographs should be good enough” argument is that we actually already have great evidence of this nature and it hasn’t been enough. The chances of capturing video any clearer than that shot by Roger Patterson, Paul Freeman or Harlan Ford are extremely slim. If these excellent pieces of footage aren’t enough to convince mainstream scientists to list the species then, in my opinion, none ever will be good enough.
Again, science demands a specimen because, without a holotype, mistakes can occur and false assumptions can be made. Take, for example, the recent discovery of a new rodent in Sulawesi. It has turned out to be quite unique as, unlike over 2,000 other known species of rodents, the Paucidentomys vermidax lacks cheek teeth. This makes it impossible for this animal to gnaw on its food. This begs the question, what is this rodent subsisting on if it can’t gnaw on nuts and seeds? Scientists examined the contents of a single specimen to find that the Paucidentomys vermidax consumes only earthworms. This is crucial information that could never have been deduced from photographs only. If this rodent turns out to be critically endangered, and conservation intervention is necessary, it is vital that habitat be protected, not just for it, but for what is eats as well. A photo alone would not have yielded this information. Should it ever come to that, well intentioned efforts to protect and preserve this species might not have worked if officials had merely assumed this animal had a diet similar to other rodents. The taking of a single specimen yielded data that will be invaluable to the preservation of the entire species.
Opponents of taking a wood ape specimen sometimes recognize that photographic/video evidence won’t be enough to get the animals documented and, instead, turn their hopes to DNA. Certainly, they argue, a DNA sample, obtained via non-lethal means, would do the trick. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that to be the case either. Forget for a moment the difficulties in collecting such a sample and think about how DNA testing works. DNA is sequenced and then compared to a database of known DNA sequences. Simply put, if there is no match to a known species, and there is no type specimen from whence the anomalous DNA was taken, there is no documentation or recognition. The sample might be cataloged as “unknown,” something that has, I believe, happened before, or an assumption is made that the sample has somehow become contaminated and is, therefore, of no scientific value. Either way, a new species will not be recognized. Evidence of this can be found here. This article, while focusing mainly on herpetology, has obvious applications to the question of whether or not it is necessary to take a wood ape specimen. Below is an excerpt from the linked article:
“Information gathering in science is a careful and deliberate process, and it requires the best effort possible to produce a transparent chain of evidence based on reproducible methods. Three lines of evidence are generally accepted for the proposal and testing of taxonomic hypotheses. First, novel evidence is obtained through field and laboratory work, involving samples (e.g., whole specimens, animal parts, tissue samples) from known phenotypes collected in nature, with precisely known provenance, and associated with the obligatory documentation. These samples are deposited in institutions where their long-term curation makes them accessible to other researchers for subsequent hypothesis testing (see Cotterill 1997 on the value of biological collections).
Second, evidence should be sourced from existing samples in museum collections or from published information (e.g., GenBank), both of which are ultimately obtained as described above.
One or (typically) both of these lines of evidence should be required for taxonomic investigations. They act as a base for further research, so that later work does not have to begin the evidence-collection process de novo. For example, storage of sequence data in GenBank makes these data readily available online. If no records from publicly accessible genetic databases, backed by suitable voucher specimens, are listed in support of a taxonomic decision alleged to have been derived from DNA sequence data, then the decision should be rejected.”
Clearly, this article is saying that taxonomic decisions founded on DNA alone are simply not acceptable. This confirms, in my mind, that classifying something as unprecedented as a New World ape is going to take much more than photographs, video footage, or DNA extracted from questionable hair and/or scat samples. While all of these things can serve as supporting evidence, they can never adequately take the place of a type specimen.
At this point, many may question the need to officially document the wood ape at all. Why not just leave them alone? While I understand this sentiment, this is a recipe for extinction. Why? Habitat destruction. If the North American wood ape exists, then it is surely a rare animal. If we look at other primates, especially the great apes, it would seem safe to assume that wood apes are slow growing and have low reproductive rates. A rare animal that is slow to grow up and reproduce and that can only exist in the ever dwindling heavily forested remote areas of North America is going to be in trouble very soon if deforestation and development do not slow. One simply cannot overstate the affect deforestation is having on the planet’s wildlife. It is one of, if not the, greatest drivers behind biodiversity loss. Once, almost half the continental Unites States and three-fourths of Canada were covered in forests. That is no longer the case. Take a look at the graphic below. It illustrates quite clearly what happened to North American forests between 1620 and 1920.
90% of the virgin forest that once covered the lower 48 states has been cut and isn’t coming back. This habitat has been lost forever. About 80% of the forest that remains is on public land. National forests, state forests, wilderness areas, state parks, national parks, etc. contain much of what is left of our forests. Many would take comfort in this fact but understand that this does not mean that these wooded areas are safe. For example, approximately 80% of the forestland in the Pacific Northwest, the “holy land” of bigfoot research, is slated to be logged at some point in the future. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not completely anti-logging. Much of it is necessary and it is being done in a much more responsible manner than it was in the past. Having said that, there can be little argument that second growth forests differ greatly in make-up from the old growth forests they replace. Also, it takes up to 100 years for a replanted forest to mature. Any species affected negatively by the original cutting of an old growth forest is not going to still be around 100 years later. They are going to be gone. A great example of this is how the logging of what became known as the “Singer Tract” in Louisiana likely was the final nail in the coffin of the Ivory-billed woodpecker.
In my opinion, the wood ape has little to fear from hunters. If it did, a specimen would have been obtained years ago. Rather, the greatest threat to this species is loss of habitat. These animals require vast amounts of heavily forested land that is isolated and remote. Such areas are getting more and more difficult to find. Should these areas disappear, the wood ape, too, will disappear. In order to protect their habitat we must first prove to scientists and government officials that these animals are real. The government will simply not create protected areas that are off limits to logging and development for a mythical animal. It just won’t happen. Bringing in a specimen is the only way to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the wood ape is a flesh and blood animal. I support the taking of one, maybe two, of these animals in order to save the entire species.
As I stated before, I can understand why, on an emotional level, many would be against taking a specimen. Logically, however, I just don’t see how anyone that says they care about the future of this species can make a cogent argument against the necessity of doing so. Labeling those of us who take this position as blood-thirsty murderers is not only mean-spirited but completely off base. Not one person that I know who shares my point of view on this matter wants to take a wood ape as a trophy. They, like me, want to save them. In addition, those that argue that the taking of a specimen will somehow accelerate the extinction timetable need to realize that if the species is that depleted it is already too late.
Nothing would please me more than if someone stumbled across a wood ape body while out hiking in the woods. Ideally, this ape would have lived to a ripe old age before succumbing to natural causes. That way science would have what it needs and no animal would have died before its time. The chances of this happening, while not impossible, are practically nil. I live in the real world and believe if we wait for this ideal scenario to occur we will lose our opportunity to save this species. I believe strongly that attempting to collect a specimen is the responsible thing to do.
It is the only way.