Primate scientist goes primetime to find Bigfoot

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MYSTERY WIRE — A scientist and explorer known for the co-discovery of the world’s smallest primate is hot on the trail of a much larger target – Bigfoot.

Dr. Mireya Mayor has put her reputation at risk in the pursuit of a species that may or may not exist, but she says her team recently discovered physical evidence.

Mayor is a primatologist who has explored jungles and forests all over the world in search of unknown species and is credited as a co-discoverer of the world’s smallest primate, the pygmy mouse lemur.

Dr. Mireya Mayor and Harrison Ford.

She’s earned the nickname “the female Indiana Jones”, which she joked about with the real deal. “I had dinner with Harrison Ford,” Mayor said when Mystery Wire spoke with her last week. “And I said for the last, you know, two decades the media has referred to me as the female Indiana Jones. So for one night, you’re going to be the male Dr. Mireya Mayor. And luckily, he had a good sense of humor. And that’s what we did.”

But her scientific chops have been pummeled and tested because of her most recent project – Expedition Bigfoot.

Like her role model Dr. Jane Goodall, Mayor thinks there could be something solid behind centuries of rumors and sightings, and knows it is possible for large animals to avoid detection.

“I’ve been in Africa, standing less than three feet away from a western lowland gorilla, and didn’t know it for an hour, in fact, a family of them,” Mayor said. “So even really large animals can remain very hidden if they want to. And I think that we see that across the animal kingdom, where you have animals that show a spectacular range and ability of remaining camouflage and hidden and silent and they all have different modes to do that, whether it’s a physical type of transformation, or a stealth about them, right, so they know what strategies work for them.”

During a wildlife survey in Madagascar, Mayor discovered a new species of mouse lemur. “[It] weighs less than two ounces, fits in the palm of your hands,” she says. Photo: Mark Thiessen – Courtesy of Mireya Mayor)

The Expedition Bigfoot team has made what could be a major discovery – DNA evidence that strongly suggests bigfoot could be real.

During filming in Kentucky’s Appalachian highlands, Mayor said she and her team collected eDNA (environmental DNA) from soil under a massive tree structure. Environmental DNA (eDNA) is the genetic material naturally left behind by animals in the environment. 

Dr. Mayor and Ronny Le Blanc are shocked to find that Bigfoot may have actually left something for the team. The item will be inspected for fingerprints and any possible DNA samples. (Photo: Travel Channel)

It’s not the first time Sasquatch DNA has been considered for scientific review. In 2012 Melba Ketchum, a Texas-based forensic scientist announced a genome was in the works. Ketchum was the lead author of the paper that eventually described it. The study has since been widely scrutinized and some find Ketchum’s methods faulty and others give it credit.

Mayor’s findings will be released and discussed in the season finale of Expedition Bigfoot which will first air on Travel Channel on Sunday, March 28th.


You can watch the entire interview between George Knapp and Mireya Mayor below and read the transcript of the interview.

George Knapp
Mireya, great to talk to you. You have been described as the female Indiana Jones. Are you okay with that?

Mireya Mayor
Sure, why not, right? So funny story to that though, is that last year I had dinner with Harrison Ford. And I said for the last, you know, two decades the media has referred to me as the female Indiana Jones. So for one night, you’re going to be the male Dr. Maria Mayor. And luckily, he had a good sense of humor. And that’s what we did.

George Knapp
I’ve seen the photo that you had together. That’s pretty cool. You’re a doctor, you’re a primatologist, as well as an NFL cheerleader. An educated person, did you have any trepidation about joining a show called, you know, about Bigfoot?

Mireya Mayor
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t, you know, I have had almost 20 years as a as a scientist. And I have people that follow me because I’ve built a reputation on credibility. And that’s really important to me. But what I loved about this particular team and expedition is that they were really looking to make it about the science, they wanted to do it differently than it’s been done in the past, they wanted it to be grounded in science, they wanted me there with my expertise to be able to analyze any evidence that they found, and really look at it objectively and not just, you know, cheer for it anytime something was found. And so sometimes I’m a bit of a dream crusher, in the field, because I’m looking at things, not from an emotional standpoint, right. But from a very objective standpoint, because what I want is really irrefutable evidence and you have to pay close attention and really analyze this stuff.

George Knapp
I’m sure you’ve learned that there’s a large body of information about Bigfoot out there, some of it not so credible. And some of it pretty intriguing. You sort of had to study all that stuff as part of the work on the series.

Mireya Mayor
I did. I mean, once again, one of the other aspects of this that I really like is that Bryce Johnson is out interviewing these eyewitnesses. And that’s something that I’ve done on my own expeditions. Because while people have asked me why did you join up on this expedition? The truth is, is I spent more than 20 years looking for really rare and elusive primates, some of which had never been photographed, they had never been studied. So it was almost as if I’d been training for this moment, my entire life. And then I discovered the world’s smallest primate with my colleague in Madagascar. Now, think, if I’m able to prove this scientifically, it was gonna come complete circle. So to answer your question, the way that I look at it is, is these witnesses that come forward, they have a lot more to lose than to gain by sharing these stories, because there is so much ridicule, you know, and skepticism surrounding this subject, but of the 10s of 1000s of witnesses, even if they’re all lies, even if they’re all hoaxes, all it takes is for one to be true. And to me that is still worth investigating.

George Knapp
Do you recall if there was a point at which you’re reading about Bigfoot, all the literature that exists, was there a point at which you said, you realized, hey this might actually be true, this is least worth investigating?

Mireya Mayor
Well, you know, one of the people that I admire most is Jane Goodall. And she actually kindly wrote the foreword for my book. And I, I’ve seen interviews with her where people have asked her do you think Bigfoot exists? And her answer, really rung so true for me because she answered by saying, I sure hope so. I like to think it does, because I’m a romantic at heart. Right? And I know exactly what she means. I think that is it possible, surely, why not? We’re discovering new species all the time, new species of primates and quite large animals that even western lowland gorillas were only discovered, you know, a little over 100 years ago, which is not really that long ago. So the question of, is it possible? Sure, we don’t have all the answers nature still very much remains a mystery. And so there’s a part of me that like Jane Goodall, is a bit of a romantic and also thinks Not only is it possible, but I sure hope so.

George Knapp
And there are built in challenges with the theory that there’s a gigantic, unknown primate running around in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the world. Just the idea that something like that could be undiscovered for so long. You hold out at least a little bit of hope that is possible.

Mireya Mayor
So, you know, I’ve been in Africa, standing less than three feet away from a western lowland gorilla, and didn’t know it for an hour, in fact, a family of them. So even really large animals can remain very hidden if they want to. And I think that we see that across the animal kingdom, where you have animals that show a spectacular range and ability of remaining camouflaged and hidden and silent and they all have different modes to do that, whether it’s a physical type of transformation, or a stealth about them, right, so they know what strategies work for them. I was actually having lunch with a world renowned primatologist, who’s also a dear friend of mine, his name is Dr. Russ Mittermeier. And he is the only person in the world to have seen all living primates in the wild, and not a Bigfoot believer. And I showed him some of the thermal video that we captured in the field, I was just curious for him to lay his eyes on it. And he was, he was shocked. And his comment was, I mean, he watched it over and over because he really couldn’t believe what he was seeing. And he said, it looks like something is far away from its home in Africa. So I think that this mystery has remained a mystery for as long as it as it has because in, in all other cases where we see something like this, there’s generally these these seeds of truth, there’s a reason why it persists. And so what I’m hoping is, is that we’re able to, to to capture that and take it out of the legendary books and into the science books.

George Knapp
I’ve researched this myself for a long time. And I’ve got to know a number of people in Native America, Native American tribes, different tribes have their own lore and legends. They have a long standing relationship they believe with whatever it is out there. Have you gone down that road and spoken to Native Americans?

Mireya Mayor
I have and and certainly Bryce has on the expeditions. And one of the things, and correct me if I’m wrong, because you’re very familiar with this. Each tribe has a unique name for this creature, right, which really says something about the fact that even across the different tribes, they all have a different, you know, language, they have a different name for it. But their stories remain amazingly consistent in what they describe and what these roars sound like, which is pretty remarkable. And it’s something that again, I seen in looking for animals that are rare and elusive that in fact, I’ve been told you will never find it, you know, very famous primatologist have already been out here several times, and they failed, like will never be found. And then I go out there and I start talking to the locals. And some, you know, some of their stories may not yield anything. And then you get into the cultural stuff where when they say yes, it really means no, but in the end their stories is what has always led me to succeed on those expeditions and find what I’m looking for. So I think there’s a lot to be said for the people coming out and sharing these, including Native Americans, of course.

George Knapp
With regard to Sasquatch, Bigfoot. Have you ever been out on one of these expeditions for the show, for National Geographic, where you felt you were close? Where you found tracks or heard sounds? Or you thought there was something in the neighborhood that might be what you’re looking for?

Mireya Mayor
Um, so while we’ve been on this expedition, we’ve heard many sounds that quite frankly, sound like no other animal I’ve heard out there. And or that we know of as out there. And I’m very familiar with what coyotes sound like and wolves sound like and bears sound like and, you know, it’s a very chilling, almost feeling as well that you get when you hear this different sound. And so it’s a tough position as you could well imagine as a scientist, because I can’t, and I won’t, come out and say this is what made that sound simply because it sounded different from everything else that we know about there. But it does leave you intrigued and questioning. Okay, well, then what made it? And that’s what that’s what I’m hoping to figure out. But that has happened many times.

George Knapp
Can you share with us the general broad strokes about this recent discovery, this DNA evidence, I know it’s coming on an upcoming edition of the show. How much you can tell us about how it was found and what you’ve learned.

Mireya Mayor
Well, sure. So while we were out in the field, I was collecting soil samples for E-DNA, environmental DNA analysis. And this is a relatively new but revolutionary tool that is being used in conservation biology to show when there are rare and elusive animals in an area where you can’t get camera trap pictures or sightings or anything else. So we know that it works. And we know that it’s used a lot in aquatic environments as well, which is a great medium to capture E-DNA. And so what the what, what it does is basically what we’re looking for, is in the soil samples, the E-DNA because animals living things are constantly shedding and leaving behind traces of DNA, it will take a clear snapshot of whatever came through that area. So I collected three soil samples within the area of Kentucky, in areas that we were deeming as hotspots or spots of some sort of unusual activity. So for example, if we found a footprint that seems worthy of investigating, I would take a sample there, this particular sample that yielded our surprising results, was actually taken from underneath what my partner out there, Ronnie LeBlanc will describe as a tree structure, which is, of course, something I’m sure you’re very familiar with. And your audience is familiar with. Something that I was not familiar with. But this has this has been reported many times over that bigfoots will build these tree structures. And it’s funny, because throughout the expedition, I’d asked, Well, what does it look like? And I’d see things and I’d say, is that what you mean? Is that it? And he’d say, no. And when I cast my light on this, it was several feet in front of me. I knew exactly what he meant, at that moment, when I saw that I said that what he’s been describing, because in the forest, everything, there’s a lot of disarray, everything is out of order. And when you get your attention grab, it’s because something is in order. And this was a very intricate, well placed together, seemingly organized structure in the middle of the woods. And so we went to it, we set up camera traps, we went back to that same site several times to see if we could spot any tracks or anything. And from underneath that tree structure, I also collected soil. And we sent the soil samples to a genetics lab at UCLA. And when they came back with the results, they were just as shocked and surprised as I was I mean, the fact that they had DNA of humans in there, of course, it’s not surprising. They had DNA of bears, hawks, deer, none of it surprising. But as I’m looking, she was sharing the screen with me. And as I’m looking at the results, I see the genus pan. And I’m thinking, well, what’s that doing on there? That can’t be right. And she said, Well, we’re really surprised. I mean, she said, it’s really made us raise an eyebrow and scratch our heads. Because not only did they get hundreds of reads of this chimp DNA, they got 1000s of reads, which really increases the probability that what they’re seeing is or what they’re getting is an actual read of champ DNA. And as we all know, there are no non human primates that we know of in the United States and a chimp you know, like, something shedding chimp DNA in the woods of Kentucky is a surprising fine. Now, having said that, it requires a lot more investigation. And I’d actually love to go back to that site and collect more samples and see what else that we could find. But also in the genetics lab, it requires more investigation, but it was certainly an exciting and very surprising find, indeed.

George Knapp
Wow, I guess you’d have to figure maybe one option could be somebody who had a pet chimp that escaped and lives out there.

Mireya Mayor
And I have certainly said that before, you know, you can’t you have to include all of those possibilities. The the likelihood of that, to me seems very small, because you you would hear something you would hear it in the news, you would find that you know, there’s no way that a chimp would survive out there, once it’s been domesticated would survive in the woods in Kentucky. So the likely, the possibility for sure exists and needs to be considered. The likelihood of that to me seems quite small.

George Knapp
So you mentioned it was a hotspot where you found these samples is that means the locals had had reports of a Bigfoot type creature in that area?

Mireya Mayor
Many. So one of the ways in which the team decides where to go on these expeditions is that we use an algorithm and we look at the amount of reports how recently they’ve been reported? And also what kind of, is it a first? Is it a class A sighting? What kind of sighting was it? And, and we look at the time of year, so we’re actually trying to stay ahead, right? So we’re looking at this and we’re thinking, Okay, if we get there at this particular time, the odds of seeing something based on those reports are, are a lot higher than any other time of year. So that’s how we select these spots. So this was already a hotspot of sorts for us. But then within the hotspot, we tried to pinpoint areas where we’re seeing, you know, some sort of possible evidence and activity and animal movement and good habitat, shelter, food, water, all of the things that a large mammal would need to be sustained.

George Knapp
Have you allowed yourself to sort of project out of the what ifs that you find DNA of an unknown primate species? pretty solid, physical evidence that is real? And what a story that would be and how it would affect larger society?

Mireya Mayor
Uh, I would say it’s safe to say that I dream about it, you know, because I’ve had that experience, in a sense, I mean, a no, not to this degree, which is what makes this so exciting. But when I set off into the wilds of Madagascar, and I was, you know, studying lemurs and I had done for years at that point, I wasn’t expecting to discover the world’s smallest primate. And it’s one of the, I think, beauties of exploration, right, is that you don’t know what you’re going to find. And there is that element of surprise, and that possibility of discovery. And that’s always what’s driven me, but I didn’t quite expect it to happen, right. And so I know the feeling of making a scientific discovery and how special that feels and how exciting it is to announce it. You know, when I presented the information to the President and the Prime Minister of Madagascar, they took so much pride in that, and they gave them so much hope that they declared an area National Park. So I know the feeling of how great that is. And now I feel like in this case, you could literally multiply it by you know, 1000s, right, because now we’re talking about an age old mystery, right? And you’re talking about the very potentially intelligent, large creature, which makes it all the more exciting. And like I said, For me, it would be full circle. I don’t know that I could even begin to comprehend the magnitude of what that would mean. But it sure is exciting.

George Knapp
I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but there’s a lady named Dr. Melba Ketchum, who had used some fairly serious Bigfoot researchers investigators to collect samples, and she conducted a number of DNA analyses, and came up with some really interesting results. A sample that showed human DNA mixed with something unknown, she was attacked, pummeled, and there may be legitimate criticisms of the chain of custody of how this stuff was gathered. But she had a pretty terrible experience. So if you do discover this, there are risks.

Mireya Mayor
I’ve heard that and I, you know, having having been the subject of attacks from, you know, both viewers and scientists, although I’m happy to say it’s so to a much lesser degree, and then reactions have been very supportive and positive. It’s tough, you know, and, for me, I’ve always prided myself in working really hard and really always being honest and being credible. And so I think that it’s terrible that that happened. I’m not familiar enough with her studies to say one way or another will how I feel about the research. But, you know, regardless, I think it’s unacceptable for someone to be attacked for something like this. I have read both sides of it. I know that it received criticism on certain technique, and as you said, the chain of custody and all of these different things. But I think that we should never kill innovation and curiosity and a true desire to want to, you know, further scientific knowledge. So it’s a tough one. And this has, honestly, it’s it has been rough, and I knew that it would come with certain risk. And I’ve been actually very pleasantly surprised by the number of scientists and colleagues that have come out to say, and sometimes not publicly, but at least in in private say, I am so glad that you’re doing this. It’s about time that someone took this on and took this seriously because they believe that it’s likely to exist and they have for many years but have not wanted to share that. So I think that is one of the things I’m seeing as the show goes on, is that more and more people at least I am getting dozens of emails a day from people who, who say, I’m sharing this with you for the first time in my life, I’ve never shared this even, you know, one guy was, I think he was 75 years old, married 50 years never told his wife and was worried, you know, about what people would think. And he’s like, I can’t hold it in anymore because I’m watching this, I’m watching these witnesses. And I want to tell you my story. And so again, I think that having a place where people can safely share those and feel like they’re not going to be ridiculed or mocked, that can only help because if more witnesses come forward with legitimate true stories, or at least, you know, honest interpretations of what they think happened. And then scientists can also come forward and say, Hey, I support this research. And I too have a curious mind. And I think it’s worth investigating and exploring, I think the better off we’ll be, I think it’s what science is, is based on it’s about wanting to answer unanswered questions and solve these mysteries. And so that’s definitely what what guided me into science.

George Knapp
Finding Bigfoot that sounds like a noble mission. Shooting Bigfoot is something else. So you know, you’ve heard these stories, what you’re seeing the hoaxes, where people throw a fur coat in the freezer and say it’s big, but that they shot and there’s a bill in the Oklahoma legislature that would sort of regulate a hunting of Bigfoot. I mean, how preposterous is that? A, that you can even buy one and B that if you did find one, you’d shoot it.

Mireya Mayor
I mean, to me, it’s looking like a really brilliant marketing campaign to get people to visit Oklahoma, right? During a time where no one’s really traveling that much. I don’t know what to say, because as a conservationist, I, you know, personally, I’m not a hunter. And I actually don’t agree with what people put under the umbrella of hunting for conservation. And that’s a much longer conversation. And it’s something that I don’t like the idea of killing another being. And it’s also a hard position to be in, even as a conservationist because, for example, when we made this scientific discovery, in order for it to be accepted, I mean, all of our methodology, the science, it was all accepted in peer reviewed journals. And it was accepted by the scientific community. But we had to have a body, right, in fact, not one, but two, you need a male and a female type specimen that gets shoved in a museum drawer for people to come and look at. And I had a real problem with that. Because, yes, historically, traditionally, that’s the way that species were confirmed into the scientific world. But I just think we know better than that now. And especially because we know so many of these animals are found nowhere else on the planet, they’re on the verge of extinction as it is, I am certainly not going to kill one of these living beings. So we had to make some concessions on that. And in the end, we ended up capturing a male and a female that will live out its life in a in a semi natural environment, and then they will become type specimens.

George Knapp
I know that you do a lot of public lectures of for natural, National Geographic and other organizations and probably speak on a range of topics, but I’ll bet you at those lectures, you get asked about Bigfoot.

George Knapp
You interact with the public a lot, you give lectures on different topics. I have to believe that people in the audience always get around to no matter what the subject of your lecture is. They asked you about Bigfoot, it seems to me an encouraging sign about the popularity of the show. And as you said, you had some concerns in the beginning, but now at this point, I would imagine is a heck of a lot of fun.

Mireya Mayor
It’s a lot of fun, and it’s opened up a lot of scientific conversation with people that scientists don’t normally get to engage with which I am think is really important. I mentioned I am leading a science and communications initiative at Florida International University. And one of my goals is to make science accessible, relatable and fun for people so that people are inspired to care more about nature. And so yeah, it has become an odd vehicle to drive the science to to a variety of different audiences. And it’s just a great, who doesn’t love a great mystery. And to me, this is one of the greatest mysteries of all.

George Knapp
I look forward to seeing the March 28 edition of the show. Right. Is that were you talking about the DNA evidence?

Mireya Mayor
That is the the season finale?

George Knapp
Yes, I look forward to that. And I hope you’ll come back if you get some more research and findings that you’ll keep us in the loop.

Mireya Mayor
I would love that. I can’t thank you enough for having me on. It’s been a pleasure to meet you.

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