Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Sasquatch FAQ Series: Do Wood Apes Avoid Game Cameras?

With thousands of game cameras out there, if bigfoot is real, why are there no pictures?

The question above is one I have heard countless times over the years. Make no mistake, it is a fair question and I have no problem with anyone who asks it. On the surface, the fact that no clear and conclusive photos have been captured via game camera would seem to indicate that the wood ape does not exist. The real answer as to why game cameras have failed to get the “money shot,” however, may not be quite so simple. As seems to be the case with almost everything related to the sasquatch enigma, the truth may be more nuanced and layered than one might expect.

In 2003, a team from the University of Nebraska published a paper titled Wariness of Coyotes to Camera Traps Relative to Social Status and Territory Boundaries. The paper detailed an aversion that Alpha coyotes seemed to have regarding game cameras. The study took place in the Dye Creek Preserve in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains of California which was closed to the public. The authors thought the coyote population in this area would make good subjects for their study due to their extremely limited exposure to humans. “Coyotes on the preserve were not hunted and generally represented an unexploited population,” the authors wrote. The results of their study were fascinating.

The study found that the dominant coyotes, the Alphas, were never photographed inside their territories during the three years the game cameras were in place. Not one time. The authors concluded that this was not due to the animals having left the area as Betas and transient coyotes, thirty-eight in all, were successfully photographed by the cameras and Alphas were observed via more traditional means in their territories. Instead, the authors felt the lack of photos of the Alphas had to do with an increased level of awareness and caution on the part of the dominant pack members. “Alphas are probably the only coyotes that are truly territorial in terms of defending and fully exploiting their space,” the authors said. The Alphas regularly traversed their entire territories and “actively tracked human activity within their territories and presumably gained information about camera stations as they were being set up.” The final conclusion was the Alphas “were cautious of camera stations because of their association with humans and not simply because they were novel.”

The conclusion that Alpha coyotes avoided game cameras because they associated them with humans is one that has real ramifications for those attempting to gain photographic evidence of the wood ape by the use of such devices. The NAWAC conducted a large-scale camera-trapping project dubbed Operation Forest Vigil from 2006 – 2011. Despite hundreds of man hours and thousands of dollars spent on the effort, no definitive photos of the target species were captured. The thinking was that apes might avoid the cameras for a few days or weeks after their initial deployment, but get used to them over time. The lack of results and the findings of the University of Nebraska biologists caused the group to reconsider that opinion and the project. If the apes were avoiding the cameras due to associating them with humans and not because they were something new and out of place – like the Alpha coyotes in the University of Nebraska study – then the group was very likely wasting its time and money. 

Coyotes are one thing, apes are another. How can we be sure that apes are as wary of cameras as Alpha coyotes? A recent study conducted by the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology shed some light on that question. According to a paper published in March of 2019, an international team of researchers placed cameras in ape-populated forests in Africa in an effort to learn how wild apes would react to these unfamiliar objects. Responses varied by species, and even among individuals within the same species, but one thing was consistent throughout: the apes definitely noticed the cameras.

“Our goal was to see how chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas react to unfamiliar objects in the wild since novel object experiments are often used in comparative psychology research, and we wanted to know if there were any differences among the three great apes,” said primatologist Ammi Kalan. “We were specifically surprised by the differences in reactions we observed between the chimps and bonobos. Since they are sister species and share a lot of the same genetic makeup, we expected them to act similarly to the camera, but this wasn’t the case.” The chimps, though they noticed the cameras, seemed uninterested, for the most part. The bonobos, on the other hand, were stressed by the devices. “The bonobos appeared to be much more troubled by the camera traps; they were hesitant to approach and would actively keep their distance from them,” said Kalan.

The experiment pointed out the necessity of researchers to consider how animals will respond to unfamiliar monitoring equipment – I would include audio recording devices under this umbrella, too –in their natural habitats. The variation in behavior from species to species towards unfamiliar objects placed in their environment “might be problematic when trying to collect accurate monitoring data,” said Kalan. In other words, there may be no such thing as truly passive observation. The mere presence of a camera or a recorder may alter the behavior of the target species.

Many researchers, me among them, have long held the belief that wood apes avoid camera traps. Do not misunderstand, I do not think an ape knows what a camera does and makes a conscious effort to avoid having its picture taken. That is foolishness. I do, however, think it is possible – likely even – that these wood apes associate cameras with humans. If they understand, even on an extremely rudimentary level, that humans are generally bad news, and if they are more bonobo-like than chimpanzee-like in their sensitivity to foreign objects in there environment, then they are likely going to go to great pains to avoid anything to do with them; that would include camera traps.

Despite this belief, I am still a proponent of the use of game cameras. I feel short of a hunter taking a specimen or a road-kill type of scenario, cameras remain our best chance of documenting the species. I also feel that despite the challenges, a large-scale camera project sponsored by a well-funded group with sufficient resources just might be able to capture the evidence desired. What must be understood is that just hanging a camera on a stake or a tree is not going to be good enough when the quarry is something as intelligent as a great ape. New and novel techniques will need to be utilized to have any chance of success. Another reason I remain a proponent of game cameras is that these creatures are not infallible. They do make the occasional mistake. Researchers can do the wrong thing, be too loud, fail to camouflage their cameras, etc. day after day for years. That is okay; there is always tomorrow. The wood ape has to be perfect every day in order to permanently avoid detection. That is simply not possible, not even for an animal as furtive and elusive as the sasquatch. One mistake. That is all it will take for the discovery of the millennium to be made. The question really is not whether or not the wood ape will make a mistake; one will. The question is will there be anyone or a monitoring device present to capitalize on said mistake?

If you are the type to get into discussions over cryptozoological-related matters – and you likely are considering you are reading this – file the findings of the University of Nebraska biologists and the researchers of the Max Planck Institute away for future conversations. The question of why no photos have been captured by game cameras is bound to come up eventually. Along with the most common response – and quite a valid one, in my opinion – stating that most game cameras are pointed at deer feeders that are not too deep into the woods, bring up the possibility, backed by scientific studies, that some animals simply avoid cameras due to their association with humans. You will come across as well-read, reasonable, and intelligent.

You will also be right.


“Wild African Ape Reactions to Novel Camera Traps.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 14 Mar. 2019,

Sequin, E.S, et al. “Wariness of Coyotes to Camera Traps Relative to Social Status and Territory Boundaries.” Digital Commons @ University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USDA National Wildlife Research Center - Staff Publications, Mar. 2003,

Higgins, Alton, and Daryl Colder. “Cryptid Caution Concerning Cameras?” Cryptid Caution Concerning Cameras?,

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

A Week in Area X

I recently returned from a week in the NAWAC’s primary study area. This area, dubbed Area X years ago, has proven time and again to be a place where odd things happen. The NAWAC is firmly convinced a number of wood apes make this mountainous region of southeastern Oklahoma their home. Events of this past week did nothing to change my mind.

I, along with two other NAWAC members, arrived on site on Saturday, July 27th. A fourth member joined us the next day. Saturday afternoon and evening was spent getting settled into camp and prepping for the week’s activities. Nothing of note took place and we managed to all get a good night’s sleep.

Sunday, we took several day hikes in the hopes that any apes in the vicinity would take note and become curious about what we were up to. In the past, day hikes seemed to have enticed apes to follow members back to the camp site where all manner of behaviors have been documented. Nothing unusual was noted on any of the hikes, but we were hopeful that, if nothing else, any apes in the vicinity were now very much aware of our presence.

One of the strategies we planned on utilizing during the week was to conduct overwatch on a nightly basis. Basically, overwatch consists of half the team staying up all night and scanning the area around camp with thermal devices in the hopes of spotting an ape. It would be a dark camp, no fire. We had heard a loud bang up on the mountain slope earlier in the evening and were hopeful that it was a sign an ape was observing us in camp. Shortly before midnight, the two of us on overwatch duty were surprised to hear a loud sound just to the west of the camp’s small hunting cabin. The sounds were quite unlike anything I have ever heard in the woods before. It sounded like someone beating the ground repeatedly with a large stick. You could hear the stick – or whatever it was – cutting the air just before striking the ground. This went on for nearly a full minute. My partner and I stayed in place and scanned the area from whence the sounds seemed to be emanating, but could not see who or what was responsible. 

A few minutes after this initial flurry of activity, the sounds started again. The maker of the sounds had changed locations slightly to the northwest in the area where a metal carport-like structure, nicknamed the hooch, sits. The hooch is open on three sides and provides a protected area for people and equipment during the frequent rain storms that occur in this corner of Oklahoma. I would have sworn that whatever was making these sounds was under the hooch and mere yards from us. The impact sounds were louder this time, as if the striker was swinging his “club” even harder than before. Whap! Whap! Whap! Despite how close the sounds seemed, we could still not see the sound maker through the thermals. The impacts went on for about 25 seconds and seemed to be increasing in intensity. Finally, I hit my head lamp, firmly convinced I would see an ape underneath the hooch. Instead, I saw nothing and the impact sounds stopped. 

We were astounded that we could not see whatever was making these sounds. Literally, it sounded like it was RIGHT THERE and uncomfortably close. We were more frustrated and amazed than shaken at this point and decided to move on to the porch area of the cabin. The hope was that whatever it was, it would think we had gone inside and might be emboldened to come in close enough for us to catch a glimpse of it. We did not have to wait long. Within 2-3 minutes of our sitting on the porch, the impacts started again; however, things had really intensified. I find it difficult to express just how loud and powerful the ground strikes were. Over and over again, the impacts were repeated. Finally, something struck the side of the hooch with terrific force. We were stunned at just how loud the impact was and how the hooch reverberated for several seconds afterward. We came off the porch immediately, scanning with thermals and then white lights. Nothing. Whatever it had been was now gone. How it could have been so close and yet remained concealed was something we just could not fathom. The remainder of the night was quiet.

While I cannot say for sure an ape was responsible for the noises we heard that night, I simply do not know what else it could have been. Something was swinging a heavy stick or log and beating the ground and hooch with it. A bear cannot do that. A cougar cannot do that. Even playing devil’s advocate, I cannot think of an alternate explanation that is not more outlandish than the possibility it was an ape. Some will say it must have been a person, someone messing with you. Two things on that. First, I do not think a person could have pulled these incidents off without being seen in the thermals and heard approaching and retreating into the bush. Second, anyone who tried such a stunt would be placing themselves in serious danger. We were heavily armed and ready should trouble arise. To pull such a stunt would be suicidal. I believe it was an ape, bigfoot, sasquatch; whatever your favorite term.

Later in the week, one of my teammates had a likely visual. I will not go into the details of how we were attempting to lure an ape into view, but will say that our efforts seem to have been rewarded. He saw a 5 1/2 – 6-foot tall figure covered in black hair peaking up over the bank of a dry creek bed. The animal was standing in the creek bed and seemed to be looking up the trail at something at the level of the forest floor. My teammate watched if for a minute or two, but it did not move. He could not make out a face or other distinguishing characteristics. He could only tell it was lean, upright, and covered in black hair. My friend decided to change his position in an attempt to get a better look at the animal. He hoped a new angle would allow him to positively identify it. In the process of moving, he lost sight of it for a few seconds. Those few seconds were all that it took for the animal to vanish. He did not hear it leave. Was it a bear? We talked about it, but it did not seem to act like a bear. It was quiet and still. Bears tend to roam about sniffing and seem to care little about being seen or heard. This animal seemed to be attempting to stay hidden and quiet as it peaked over the edge of the creek bed. Maybe bears do this, but if they do, I have not heard about it. Make of this visual what you will, but personally, I have serious doubts that what my friend saw was a bear.

I have heard skeptics say things along the lines of, “You guys seem to see bigfoot behind every tree,” and “All these visuals, but no video or photos.” Truth be told, we hardly ever see anything at all. Take this last week, for example. Four men stayed in Area X for six days. That is a total of 144 man hours or 8,640 minutes. Out of the entire week – combining the weird ground striking sounds and the visual – only an estimated 25 minutes of high strangeness took place. That is only 0.2% of the time on site. To be clear, that is not 2%, it is 0.2% of the time spent in Area X. That is a miniscule percentage of time. This despite our best efforts to annoy, irritate, and embolden the apes of the area to react to our presence. As you can see, the reality is that the vast majority of the time in Area X nothing out of the ordinary is going on.

Other than the two events discussed above, the week consisted of hikes, conversation, and dehydrated camp food. Oh, and sweating. Lots of sweating. As always, Area X gave us enough to make us want to get back there as soon as possible, but nothing more. It is a beautiful, wild, and unforgiving place. A place which I believe will yield the evidence necessary to officially document the wood ape.

I hope to return soon.