Written by Alton Higgins and Daryl Colyer
Eugenie C. Scott, PhD, a resident of Berkeley, California, is president of the Bay Area Skeptics organization and serves as the executive director of the National Center for Science Education. She formerly taught as a physical anthropologist at the University of Kentucky, the University of Colorado, and at California State University, Hayward. She was also a board member of the now defunct International Society of Cryptozoology. Scott is best known for her decades-long opposition to allowing creationism or other alternatives to standard evolutionary theory to be taught in public schools.
On January 13, 2009, the Ask a Scientist lecture series featured Scott speaking on Bigfoot and Other Wild Men of the Forest. Part of her talk, given in San Francisco, CA, was excerpted and made available through FORA.tv. It is entitled Could Bigfoot Live in Texas?
TBRC transcript of Dr. Scott’s comments:
One thing you want to consider is where do these creatures live? Well, they live all over the place. There’s a Texas bigfoot group and they have marked where bigfoot has been spotted, they claim, in Texas. You can find maps like this for virtually any state in the country. Bigfoot appears not just in the Pacific Northwest and in northern California, which is where we’re used to thinking about bigfoot as Californians, they occur in Nebraska and in the Ozarks and in the Appalachians and Texas, not too far from Austin, apparently, from the looks of this one map.
So, okay, if they live all over the place, does that make it less likely or more likely that they really exist? I would suggest that it probably makes it less likely, because if you’re a very large mammal you’re probably going to be fairly specialized to a, well, not overly specialized, not like a koala bear or something like that, but there’s going to be a certain limitation to the kinds of environments that you can live in.
One thing, consider a large-bodied primate like a gorilla. Now gorillas live in a tropical environment. Yeah, some of the bigfoot, you know, some of the “Big Guys” live in tropical environments, but most of them are reported from temperate environments, and western Texas is not a tropical environment. Okay? Gorillas live in tropical environments, they have to take in, given their body size, they have to take in something like eight or nine thousand calories a day. They tend not to eat very calorie-rich food. A gorilla eats mostly leaves and shoots, the fruits when they can get it, nuts if they can get it, but they’re mostly folivores, they’re mostly leaf eaters, and a gorilla will spend something like half of his waking hours eating.
Now you go to, you see the movies on National Geographic and so forth of gorillas, they’ve got these big guts? Reason for that. Because they have to keep eating constantly, almost constantly, in order to get enough calories to keep that big bulk going. And the kind of food they tend to eat, leaves tend to be not very high calorie foods, and because that’s the major component of their diet, they tend to really have to eat a whole lot.
Okay, what is there to eat in western Texas that would be comparable, that, to keep alive a really big mammal like that? Those are the kinds of questions you need to ask if you’re going to look scientifically at bigfoot. Because, the first question you want to ask is, “How do these observations fit with everything else we know from science?” Okay. If we know from science that big-bodied primates have to eat a lot of food, then what does that tell you about the carrying capacity of the environment?
It’s interesting to observe in Scott’s anti-creationism writings how she criticizes the use of misinformation and the way creationist arguments “frequently promote severe misunderstandings.” In the case of her recent Ask a Scientist presentation, she appears to have taken a page from the playbook of those she most fervently impugns.
Although Scott’s bigfoot presentation is rife with factual errors and misrepresentations, she does make a seemingly valid point regarding the distribution of sighting reports. It is difficult to satisfactorily explain, for example, how forty-plus sasquatch reports for New Jersey are plausible, as reported by some organizations. North, south, east and west, sasquatch sightings seem to come from every part of the continent, representing every available climate and habitat type.
It is probably reasonable to surmise that a large percentage of reported alleged encounters or observations were not properly investigated and vetted. Nevertheless, when citing data or information from another source, that information should be understood and presented in the proper context. Concluding that sasquatches “live all over the place” only serves to misrepresent the fact that the vast majority of alleged sasquatch observations occur in or near heavily forested and sparsely populated areas.
As far as Texas and neighboring states are concerned, the TBRC has consistently endeavored to point out the manifest correlations regarding ecological factors and the distribution of reported sasquatch encounters. One of the first problems to note in terms of Scott’s presentation is that, contrary to what she repeatedly implied, the vast majority of the alleged bigfoot encounters in Texas arise from the far eastern third of the state, not the western part.
Anyone familiar with Texas on an elementary level knows that the state is vast and is comprised of perhaps the most diverse set of ecological zones of any state. While far west Texas has much in common with the southern part of Arizona, much of East Texas is an ecological clone of Louisiana, being comprised of millions of acres of dense pine and hardwood forests and nearly innumerable lakes, rivers, bayous, sloughs and creeks, sustained by high annual rainfall.
Scott’s emphasis on West Texas is particularly puzzling considering that she included a Texas sightings distribution map in her presentation. The map clearly illustrates that reported bigfoot encounters in that part of the state are few and far between, but Scott neglected to point this out. Had she delved more carefully into the data, surely she would have learned that even those few purported encounters from the western half of Texas are correlated with rivers or other bodies of water, dense riparian vegetation, and sparse human populations. As the TBRC has repeatedly stated, the overall distribution pattern indicates an ecological correlation supportive of the existence of a living species.
While Scott censures the “bad science” of creationists, she should be mindful of the need for accuracy and reasonableness when presenting oneself as an authority on any given subject. She repeatedly referenced the food habits and habitat preferences of gorillas, presumably lowland gorillas, with the unstated but understood assumption that bigfoot ecology must be comparable. There is simply no way to know this. Witness reports, on the contrary, suggest that sasquatch ecology may be closer to that of the orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), especially in terms of its seemingly solitary nature, while its apparently omnivorous food habits, based on witness observations, are more in line with the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes).
Scott astutely points out that western Texas is not a tropical environment, but she neglects to add that eastern Texas is analogous in many ways to environments that support wild great ape populations. There is absolutely nothing of an ecological nature that would preclude the possibility of large primates existing in the extensive forests found in eastern Texas and adjacent states. As an example, Chimp Haven, a major chimpanzee refuge located in Northwest Louisiana, was established in that locale because “the climate and ecology in this area are optimal for the chimpanzees.” Indeed, in some of the least accessible and densely forested parts of East Texas and Louisiana, rumors have persisted to the present day of lingering feral primate troops, reportedly the progeny of captives that escaped into the swamps and woods. Whether or not these escapees still exist, the environment is perfectly capable of supporting large populations of large omnivorous species, including coyotes (Canis latrans), wild hogs (Sus scrofa), and black bears (Ursus americanus). Implying that the sasquatch is unlikely to exist because of a lack of available food is misleading, at best.
Although Scott’s argument that a large primate could not exist in western Texas is largely irrelevant in terms of the case she was attempting to make, it should be noted that large animals such as the American black bear (U. americanus) and the mountain lion (Puma concolor) do live in western Texas. Indeed, various species of large mammals survive in much harsher environments around the world. Her contention that large mammals “are probably going to be fairly specialized” and thus limited in their environmental options is simply erroneous. Some animals are quite generalized in terms of their habitat preferences. The largest mammal in Africa can live in woodlands, savannah, or harsh deserts, and in North America adaptable species such as the coyote (C. latrans), white-tailed deer (Virginiana odocoileus), mountain lion (P. concolor), and grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horriblis) (historically) exploit a wide variety of habitats.
Everyone has a right to an opinion, but the value of an opinion is reduced if weak or misleading arguments are employed. Regardless of one’s education and background, it is still incumbent on a scientist to ensure that, before giving a public presentation, a little homework is done. While the TBRC doesn’t agree with many of Dr. Scott’s propositions, the fact that a respected scientist has addressed some aspects of the sasquatch phenomenon, even if superficially and speciously, is hopefully indicative of a willingness on the part of others to consider the possibility of an as yet undocumented large rare primate living in secluded pockets of North America.
Ask a Scientist: Could Bigfoot Live in Texas? Featuring Dr. Eugenie Scott.
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Natural Regions of Texas map (.pdf). Provided by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department GIS Lab. Sourced from Preserving Texas’ Natural Heritage. LBJ School of Public Affairs Policy Research Project Report 31, 1978.
Natural Subregions of Texas map (.pdf). Provided by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department GIS Lab. Sourced from Preserving Texas’ Natural Heritage. LBJ School of Public Affairs Policy Research Project Report 31, 1978.
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