“I’m sure that they exist,” said Jane Goodall, one of the world’s leading primatologists, about the giant ape known as “Bigfoot” in 2002. Surprised? Yes, Bigfoot, the oversized, shaggy-haired primate whose natural habitat long seemed to be the pages of supermarket tabloids and late-night TV shlockumentaries, is attracting something other than dismissive sneers from the academic community. Goodall is one of a growing chorus of respected scientists who say the matter is worth serious study. George Schaller, director of science at the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Conservation International primatologist Russell Mittermier (who has discovered five new species of primates in the past -to years) are among numerous scientists who have called for more investigation into the existence of Bigfoot. Why? Zoologists point to the raft of species once believed mythical or extinct whose existence has been confirmed in modern times: the giant squid, mountain gorilla, giant panda, okapi, coelacanth and (we hope) ivory-billed wood-pecker. The “living fossil” squirrel, once known only through remains, was found thriving in Laos in March 2006. Then there’s the specific evidence. Almost every known group of Native American languages contains a word for a giant ape, while archaeological digs in the U.S. West have uncovered rock carvings of a large primate—especially fascinating since science is unaware of any large monkeys being native to North America. How could so many different cultures, most of which had no contact with one another, have independently imagined a similar unusual critter? There are recorded sightings of Bigfoot going back to the 182os, with more than 2,50o reports since 190o. And more recently, there have been some intriguing forensic clues. The best of them is the Skookum Cast, a plaster imprint of the impression left by a large animal in a muddy Mount St. Helens meadow in 2000. When amateur Bigfoot seekers who had baited the area with a pile of fruit returned, they found that whatever had taken their stash had a large forearm, a hairy thigh, protruding buttocks and what may be an Achilles tendon. Skeptics say that if the cast is a forgery, it was done by experts.
Now for the bad news. Some of the most familiar evidence for the big fellow’s existence is false. In 2003 the adult children of Ray Wallace, whose 1958 “discovery” of footprints apparently left by an enormous ape in Washing-ton State made headlines, revealed that it had all been a prank hatched by their late father. In 2004, Bob Heironimus, a retired Pepsi bottler, claimed to have climbed into a giant gorilla costume to make the famed movie of Bigfoot at left; others involved with this film still maintain that it is real. Skeptics also point to the “habeas corpus” test: no one has ever found the remains (contemporary or fossilized) of such a creature, even though fossils turn up regularly for mammoths, dinosaurs and other creatures that disappeared from North America eons ago. Even so, Schaller—who remains unconvinced but is also unwilling to write off Bigfoot’s existence—says, “There have been so many sightings over the years. Even if you throw out 95% of them, there ought to be some explanation for the rest. The same goes for some of these tracks. I think a hard-eyed look is absolutely essential.”