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SYFY WIRE Science Behind the Fiction

Is Bigfoot really out there? The science behind 'Harry and the Hendersons'

In the film, now streaming on Peacock, a family becomes pals with a sasquatch. Does such a creature exist?

By Cassidy Ward

There are stories of humanoid ape-like creatures all over the world. On the island of Sumatra, they call him Orang Pendek. In Australia he's the Yowie. In the northwest of the United States, they call their version Bigfoot, and they make movies about him starring John Lithgow.

William Dear's 1987 cinematic love letter to sasquatch, Harry and the Hendersons, is streaming now on Peacock. While bigfoot provides the source for a cryptozoological family comedy, for some people it's serious business. Even today, a certain subset of the population harbors a secret belief that Bigfoot might actually be out there roaming the forests of the Pacific Northwest, but is there any truth to the story, or is making friends with an intelligent ape-man just another unrealistic fantasy?


The legend of Bigfoot traces its roots back to indigenous mythology in the Pacific Northwest, but it was given a modern spin in 1958. That's when a newspaper in Northern California printed a story about a set of mysterious footprints found near Bluff Creek. Because of the size of the footprints, they dubbed the unknown creature Bigfoot. Those footprints turned out to be a prank by a man named Ray Wallace, but the evolution of Bigfoot's modern mythology was already in motion. A decade later, two men named Patterson and Gimlin would return to Bluff Creek and capture (or create) the now-famous Patterson-Gimlin film, which purports to show sasquatch himself sauntering across the forested landscape and remains one of the most popular pieces of evidence allegedly supporting the existence of the creature.


For reasons which are so far unexplained, Bigfoot seems physically incapable of posing for a good picture. Those early sightings could be explained away by the limitations of the technology, but those excuses fall apart today. There are billions of high-quality cameras in the pockets of just about every person on the planet. Bigfoot is basically living in a surveillance state and still, he evades our every gazing eye.

Still, a lack of evidence does not necessarily mean that something doesn't exist. Plenty of animals are rare or live in places we don't usually encounter and finding them can be difficult. Snapping a picture isn't always the best way to figure out if a certain creature is in the area and scientists rely on all kinds of clues like hair, dens, scat, and environmental DNA. If Bigfoot is out there, maybe that's the way to find him.


In the 1970s, the FBI opened a file on Bigfoot when they completed an analysis of fifteen hairs provided by Peter Byrne, director of the Bigfoot Information Center and Exhibition in The Dalles, Oregon.

The request for analysis was received assistant director of the FBI's scientific and technical services division, Jay Cochran, Jr. He wrote back to Byrne, telling him that the FBI typically restricted their activities to criminal investigations but sometimes were willing to make exceptions in the interesting of scientific research or inquiry. The FBI did the analysis and found that the hairs came from an animal in the deer family. It wasn't more specific than that, but a deer is not a Bigfoot. Case closed.

Forensic Science

That report, which was declassified in 2019, is more or less the extent of the government's interest in sasquatch. It's also a perfect example of what usually happens on the rare occasion that physical evidence of a supposed Bigfoot does turn up. Scientific analysis usually returns results from a well-known animal living in the area where the hairs or tissues were found, that's if controlled scientific analysis occurs at all. To date, we've yet to find even a single piece of physical evidence that a creature like Bigfoot exists in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.


It's true that new species are discovered all the time. Just this year, scientists have identified countless new species including a new variety of sloth, two new species of scorpion, a fluffy crab, and just so many plants. So, why couldn't there be an unconfirmed species of ape living in the forests outside Portland?

There are some important differences between Bigfoot and the animals scientists discover every day. Many of these new species are animals that have previously been observed but new information revealed there are actually distinct populations. Others live in remote environments or in niches (like in the water, underground, or inside other animals) that we don't have ready access to.

Perhaps most importantly, most new species aren't discovered on purpose. Scientists didn't even know they existed, let alone that they should look for them. That's not a problem Bigfoot has. You could make an army out of the people, both professional and amateur, who have hunted for Bigfoot over the last half century and their collective efforts have, so far, turned up nothing but a handful of grainy photos.


All of these challenges might be surmountable if there were only one Bigfoot. A single creature, well-adapted for living and staying out of sight in its dense forested environment could conceivably stay one step ahead of pursuers. Considering the added attention over the last few decades, he might have even gotten pretty good at it. But there wouldn't be only one, would there?

Harry and the Hendersons (1987)

Where there's one Bigfoot there must be many. Every species has a minimum viable population (MVP), a minimum number of individuals requires in order to maintain genetic diversity and keep the population stable. Calculating that number relies on a number of variables, all of which we can't know for Bigfoot, but we can make some comparisons. We're talking about a large primate living in a forest environment.

While precise MVP numbers for large primates aren't available, scientists have made a number of estimates. According to one study, a population of between 40 and 700 northern muriqui monkeys was needed in order to ensure long-term survival. Another study, carried out in 2002, puts the number for chimpanzees at around 500, and there's some flexibility in those numbers as a consequence of concerted conservation efforts, something Bigfoot doesn't have.

Assuming that Bigfoot falls into the same minimum population range as other primates, we should expect hundreds of bipedal humanoid ape people roaming the northwest quadrant of the United States. And all of them have to be masters of disguise to avoid being seen by every camper, commuter, and documentary crew in the area. Not only that, but they have to get rid of their waste, their homes, and the bones of their dead so that they're never found.

We can't say definitively that Bigfoot doesn't exist, but we can say you've got a better chance of seeing him on Peacock, in Harry and the Hendersons.