For decades the search for sasquatch was left to amateurs and conspiracy theorists as mid-century scientists disregarded sightings of a massive hair-covered creature resembling a gorilla from the waist up with the strut of human as impossible.
But now an Idaho State University professor of anatomy and anthropology's examination of a collection of unidentified footprints is giving traction to the suggestion that a being, with tracks unlike any known human or ape species, is inhabiting the mountainous regions of North America.
"I am convinced by the evidence that there is an unrecognized giant primate that shares with us a bipedal locomotion [walking on two legs in an upright position], but the similarity pretty much stops there," said Jeff Meldrum, who specializes in the study of how two-legged creatures walk and what footprints say about an organism's form.
Mr. Meldrum is the keynote speaker of the third annual "Strange, Rare and Unusual Sightings Seminar" at Cabela's in Triadelphia, W.Va., today and Sunday.
The aim of the free consortium is to gather researchers to share objective scientific findings and allow the public to draw their own conclusions about the existence of the often fabled beast, according to Cabela's spokesman Bud Forte.
"We wanted to take a different perspective and satisfy the curiosities of people with the best science that is out there," Mr. Forte said.
Mr. Meldrum has studied prints, casts and sightings dating back to 1958.
Sightings are always subjective, and many are easily dismissed, but a series of more plausible reports describe a massive, muscular, agile creature with fluid movements, he said.
He's in the midst of a study working with a film analyst, photogrammetrist and Hollywood costume designer to evaluate the authencity of the 60-second Patterson-Gimlin film shot in 1967 of a creature walking through the mountains of northern California.
The professor's interest in the subject began when he examined a series of more than 40 footprints on a farm access road near the Umatilla National Forest near Walla Walla, Wash., in February 1996.
He made casts of seven of the footprints, which he said showed evidence of a 14-inch flat foot with an elongated heel.
In contrast to the human foot, a distinct flexibility in the mid-foot and a smaller variation in the size of the five toes was observed.
The scientist also deduced it was unlikely the man who reported the prints had fabricated them because each was unique based on how the foot impressed upon the terrain.
"When you have the luxury of examining a series of individual footprints in a track way, you can animate the actual movement of the toes as the foot navigates that sub stream through the soil," he said.
Mr. Meldrum has been intrigued by similarities in footprint casts that appear authentic from different sites all over the country.
"What I'm impressed with is the fact that when you see past the superficial individual variation, there is a consistent underlying anatomy present," he said. "Not only is it remarkably consistent, it's biomechanically sound."
The discovery of these prints in multiple locations and the accuracy of both the indentation on the earth and foot structure they reveal for a large upright two-legged species lead Mr. Meldrum to believe a nationwide hoax is unlikely.
"It would have to be a remarkable string of copycats, and the first one got it absolutely right," he said.
He attained a scientific name for the footprint -- anthropoidipes ameriborealis, which means North American ape footprint -- which was published in an article in a peer-reviewed journal as a different distinction from previously known human or ape prints.
While many scientists are naturally skeptical of the existence of sasquatch -- there are no known apes in North America -- he said younger generations of anthropologists are becoming increasingly open-minded to the possibility. He cited the recent discovery of fossils of a red panda, whose ancestors date back tens of millions of years across Eurasia, in Washington as evidence that Sasquatch's ancestors might have made a similar journey.
"Science has historically been conservative. That's why it's successful," he said. "Sometimes it takes the depth of an entire generation before a new idea gets a foothold."
Part of the difficulty in researching sasquatch is overcoming the fables and hoax-prone culture that surround the creature. Another key hindrance is the lack of a physical specimen to propel his research and incite greater acceptance among his colleagues.
"It's not so much that they think every one is a hoax, but they acknowledge that it requires a type specimen and you have to satisfy the conventions of zoology," he said. "They are intrigued, but they are saying there's no proof yet."
Mr. Meldrum said inferences about the animal suggest that births and deaths are a rare occasion because it is a large-bodied mammal with no natural predators, which suggests a life span of at least 50 years old.
Its habitat, dominated by wet coniferous forests and volcanic soils, also creates acidic conditions that could dissolve fossil remains.
"I'm not saying that anyone should accept this in the absence of definitive evidence, but it should not preclude a scientifically minded person from examining evidence that is so persuasive," he said.
Still have questions? Go to the seminar and ask Mr. Meldrum yourself.
Taryn Luna: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1985.