Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Is global warming forcing Bigfoot to move north?

On Scientific American's Website in a segment called "60-Second Science, got a minute?" Ivan Oransky writes about a science called phylogeography: The biogeographic shifts, speciation, extinction and determinants of community assembly. Its a wonderful article with great Bigfoot links...
If you were a nine-foot tall animal covered in dense fur – say, Bigfoot – you would probably seek cooler climes if temps began inching up. That’s the hypothesis one Queens College biologist posed to me last night – without, I should note, acknowledging that such an animal exists at all.

First, a bit of background on why I would have found myself in a bar in Manhattan’s Alphabet City talking about Sasquatch. The biologist in question – Mike Hickerson, who studies “biogeographic shifts, speciation, extinction and determinants of community assembly,” a.k.a. phylogeography – and I had just been to Bigfoot Night. Bigfoot Night, if you don't know, was the latest installment of Kevin Maher’s Sci Fi Screening Room. (In the interests of full disclosure, Bigfoot Night’s co-host was M. Sweeney Lawless, a friend.)

Bigfoot Night was not quite a scientific conference, but it was entertaining nonetheless. We were treated to a number of videos: A 1984 CNN segment on a town in Washington State that became alarmed after a group of Vietnam vets there decided to hunt Bigfoot in the woods. (There was potential risk to “nocturnal agricultural pursuits” and “nocturnal distillation.”) An episode of TV's The Six Million Dollar Man in which bionic hero Steve Austin fought Bigfoot. (Spoiler alert: Austin ripped Sasquatch’s arm off.) An episode of Bigfoot and Wildboy. (Watch the intro here.)

Performers also read dozens of Bigfoot "eyewitness" accounts, many of which ended with some version of “This was not a bear.” And we were treated to a truly awful movie called Skunk Ape?! featuring a punk band whose leader was hell-bent on killing a Florida swamp creature in Chicago using a harpoon. (No Bigfoot porn, much to the chagrin of some audience members.)

But I digress. The night’s science quotient went up later, when several of us from the audience went out for drinks. There, Hickerson told me about his research into what’s called environmental niche modeling. The basic idea is that you correlate sightings of any organism, or evidence of that organism, with geographical and climate data, to try to figure out where you might find other such organisms.

That’s the idea behind this study of species shifting across Yosemite, led by Hickerson’s postdoctoral advisor, Craig Moritz. You can see how such work would be useful not only in trying to forecast where animals and plants might move, but also in predicting places we might find endangered species where we previously have not. Combine that with new tools like Google Earth, and it’s understandable why the field has taken off.

Hickerson told me that evolutionary meetings now feature hundreds of papers on the subject, compared to practically none just two or three years ago. He uses it to study a number of plants and animals, in particular those such as seaweed and barnacles that live in rocky intertidal regions.

But such modeling could also be used to study Bigfoot. So as a joke, Hickerson, who spent about eight years in Washington State working in forests (where, he says, he heard “some weird stuff” at night), and his colleagues are taking all of the Bigfoot footprint and sighting data to try to figure out where the creatures might be found. That is, if they exist, which Hickerson says is an incredibly big if. (Note to believers: He’s a open-minded skeptic, not one of you.)

Tongue planted firmly in cheek, he then told me that they still need more data, particularly from Canada, but his preliminary read is that there have been more sightings in northern parts of Sasquatch habitat lately.

“Maybe Sasquatch is moving up north,” Hickerson suggested sarcasticaly.

Watch out, Canada.

Photo of Dan Raspler in a Bigfoot costume – or not? -- courtesy Marian Brock
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