Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Hunting mysterious apes

The BBC has had a couple stories about undiscovered apes in recent days, and it's interesting how different my reaction was to each.

The first is from the Congo, where scientists have found what might be a new ape species.

The discovery has baffled scientists. There are three controversial possibilities to explain the origin of the mystery apes:
• They are a new species of ape
• They are giant chimpanzees, much larger than any so far recorded, but behave like gorillas
• They could be hybrids, the product of gorillas mating with chimpanzees.
So far, researchers have little to go on, but they now plan to return to northern DR Congo to study the apes further.

That's good science. A scientist saw and video-taped an encounter with an African large ape. They'll go back with hypotheses and methodically examine the nature of the beast.

On the other hand, we have a story that people are looking for a “jungle yeti” in Sumatra. My initial reaction to this was skepticism. The story itself is very similar to the first, so what's the problem? Well, there are lots of apes in Africa, and no one talks about them walking like a person. There are not so many in Sumatra, and none are as closely related to bipedal species as the African species. The Sumatrans have local stories and some footprints. They were 500 meters from the beast, and have only footprints. No photos, no video. What evidence do they have that it wasn't an orangutan? Why don't they even mention the fact that we already know about an orange ape in the area? How have they distinguished this thing from known species?

People are hoping that the ash from Mt. St. Helens will make tracking sasquatch easier. This is nonsense. Last summer, at the American Society of Mammalogists meeting, two folks presented a paper on their hunt for Bigfoot. They went out into the California forest, and looked and looked, and set up cameras and tape recorders and all sorts of sophisticated equipment to record the signs of sasquatch. They camped out for a week or so, and on the last night, as the rain and wind picked up, but just after they put away their equipment, they heard rocks rolling and strange sounds. Too bad it was after their microphones were put away, because then we could decide whether it was branches rubbing together in the rain.

Another talk was from Bill Zielinsky, a scientist who studies fishers in California. He has a network of hundreds of motion sensitive cameras with cans of tuna in front of them. If Bigfoot were out there, he would have some great photos of it. Sumatra is less well studied, but the same logic applies to giant, undetected Sumatran beasts as giant, undetected apes in the Northwest. Footprints can be faked, specimens in hand cannot.