Darren Naish
+ Your AuthorsArchive @TetZoo Zoologist, author Dr Darren Naish | Dinosaurs, animals, evolution | Newest books: Evolution In Minutes, Dinosaurs How They Lived & Evolved, and DINOPEDIA Sep. 05, 2020 21 min read

Yes, let us once more embark on a #cryptozoology PHOTO MEGA-THREAD, aka #TetZoocryptomegathread. This time we look at an alleged mystery primate photo... well, two photos, actually. Namely, the MYAKKA SKUNK APE PHOTOS of 2000. Let’s take a deep dive…

The photos date to December 2000 and the story starts when they were received by the Sarasota Sheriff’s Department, just before New Year. An anonymous letter explained the backstory to the two photos…

… which were said to have been taken in Sarasota County, Florida, in a region close to the Myakka River and Myakka State Park, and close to highway I-75 (not I-175 as said in some accounts).

I should note upfront that the photos are copyrighted David Barkasy and Loren Coleman. This copyrighting was done “for research reasons, not fiscal ones”. Hm, ok. Regardless, the images appear widely online, their use mostly being justified under ‘fair use’.

By January 2001, the photos were being passed round the Sarasota Sheriff’s Department and were regarded as a bit of a joke. We owe the most detailed account of their backstory to Loren Coleman’s 2003 Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America, which I used heavily here…

At some point, a member of the Animal Control Division contacted David Barkasy, owner of the (now closed) Silver City Serpentarium in Sarasota (a shop, not a wildlife attraction), either because of his known interest in mystery animal reports or...

.... because they were honestly seeing if there was any talk in the zoo and animal husbandry community about an escaped or missing ape.

Barkasy – aware of local stories and sightings about skunk apes (oooh yes, we’ll come back to those) – was sympathetic to the possibility that the photos might be genuine, and contacted cryptozoologist Loren Coleman (who’s tended to be fairly positive about the photos)…

… and seemingly now managed to get the sheriff’s department to take the case seriously. They created an actual case file on the event. The staples and other filing paraphernalia they used physically damaged the photos.

Loren dubbed the images the ‘Myakka Ape Photographs’ and covered them at his website, plus in articles in Fate and Fortean Times. They immediately became big news in the #cryptozoology community.

In the thread that follows, please remember that I present both sides of the story to these photos (“they’re perhaps real” vs “they’re a hoax”), and if you read something that seems credulous or arguable, note that the opposing view is discussed later in the thread.

I believe that evidence allegedly pertaining to mystery beasts should be evaluated fairly, and that starting with the initial assumption that it must be assumed to be a hoax is a problematic and unsatisfying position. Ok, with the caveats out of the way…

What do we see? A very large, shaggy-furred, brownish or reddish ape is standing behind a palmetto palm (I’m not sure what species: Dwarf palmetto?)...

... It’s facing the viewer, its right shoulder and arm are mostly visible and we might see part of its right side extending beyond its arm. Part of its chest is visible through the leaves but its left arm and anything below the chest is not shown.

Photo 1 shows what looks like a greyish beard. But Photo 2 – in which the animal has elevated its head – indicates that the entire lower jaw is covered in short, greyish hair and that the greyish extends over the whole neck and, seemingly, across the upper part of the chest.

Incidentally, these details aren’t quite like anything seen in living apes. Some chimps have grey lower jaws (the photo shows David Greybeard, one of Goddall’s study chimps), but not a grey chest (likewise for some gibbons)...

.... and orangutans (especially big males) have conspicuous naked patches across the throat and chest, not grey-haired areas like this (orangutan photo by Eric Kilby).

In Photo 2, the whole of the head is higher than the shoulder, such that the eyes are at shoulder level, and the face is tilted back such that we see it at s slightly oblique angle. Furthermore, the right hand is behind a clump of leaves close to the bottom of the frame.

This is all different from what’s seen in Photo 1, where the eyes are below shoulder level, the face is seen in frontal view rather than at an oblique angle, and the hand is below the clump of leaves...

.... These differences reveal definite movement of the object: it is not just shown from different angles, nor it is a static object like a model.

Numerous facial details are present. A dark lower lip and grey-brown, deep region between the nose and upper lip are visible; the nose is some distance from the mouth. There appear to be two small, perhaps comma-shaped nostrils, a flat forehead, and dark areas around the eyes.

The eyes are almond-shaped and…. big issue here … they seem to glow red. We’ll come back to this. Teeth are visible, most notably a relatively small arc of lower incisors and short, slim lower canine fangs.

The fangs aren’t chunky or long but look thin and pointed and about twice as long as the incisors. My feeling is that they aren’t very realistic for a giant hominid.

And, indeed, this is very different from the condition in orangutans where the lower jaw fangs are thick, and don’t stand up well beyond the height of the lower incisors (toothbrush photo by Jurgen Freund).

My take on the facial features I think I see are shown in this drawing…

The photos came with a long printed letter. It’s an unusual letter and, consequently, has been subject to a lot of commentary. Firstly, it’s anonymous...

Secondly, it appears to have been typed in word (or similar word-processing software), its print settings making it look somehow reminiscent of a typed letter. Are we meant to think that it _was_ a typed letter? This isn’t clear, but the very look of the document is slightly odd.

The letter states that the photographer and author (who are the same person) was a senior citizen; a husband and some grandkids are mentioned, ergo the person has been assumed to be an older lady.

The story explained in the letter is that apples were left out on a back porch, that the person walked into the backyard, saw an object and photographed it as it reared up. It was apparently 6.5 or 7ft tall even while kneeling. It then moved off, making ‘whoomp’ noises.

The letter repeatedly refers to the animal in the photos as an orangutan, as if this is definitely what it is. This also seems odd. Maybe it’s not impossible that a person would think this creature (if it were real) was an orangutan…

On the other hand, surely everyone knows that orangutans aren’t over 2m tall and as gigantic as this… so some people think that the orangutan angle demonstrates the hoaxed nature of the letter.

The author goes on to describe how large and dangerous this animal looked, and how inappropriate it seems to have an animal of this sort out there, living wild, in the Myakka area. Surely it could cause damage to a car if there were a collision, the author states.

The letter further states that the creature would be better off in Bush Gardens, that “I saw on the news that monkeys ... can carry Hepatitis” and that “I don’t want my backyard to turn into someone else’s circus”.

All in all, the letter’s anonymity, its unusual design, the persistent ‘orangutan’ angle, and the semi-comical statements about it potentially carrying Hepatitis are suspicious and make it smell like a hoax.

Do we know anything specific about the photographer? Essentially, no. Barkasy used the processing numbers on the photos to track down the lab where they’d been processed: it was the Eckerd lab in Sarasota, so at least they originated locally.

And the processing data also showed that they were taken in Autumn 2000 and developed in December 2000. So far so good.

If the photos are genuine and likely do show an unusual primate, what sort of animal are we dealing with? This doesn’t look like a Bigfoot, since Bigfoot is proportioned much like a human, right? (pictures by me). Well…

To look at this further we need to delve into the history of thoughts on #cryptozoology, and specifically on crypto-hominids or anomalous primates, or whatever you want to call them.

The idea that there might be long-furred, shaggy apes in the southern USA is a familiar idea if you know the cryptozoology literature. In fact, the Myakka photos fit well with an established cryptozoological trope.

Ok, you’ve heard of #Bigfoot. As mostly portrayed in the literature (and in TV shows and cinema), Bigfoot is a large, shaggy-furred, robust human-shaped cryptid of the Pacific Northwest (here's Frame 352 of the Patterson-Gimlin film)...

But a number of sightings of Bigfoot-type creatures from the south-eastern parts of the USA seemingly describe a different sort of animal…

What I’m about to say here largely repeats comments made in my 2017 #cryptozoology book #HuntingMonsters, which you should totally buy if you haven’t already...

I should note that one of the things I was especially interested in when writing that book was in the ‘creature-building’ that cryptozoologists have indulged in, not so much in the ostensible ‘hunt’ for the creatures themselves. Anyway…

Bigfoot-type creatures from the US south-east are often said to be more gracile (meaning, more lightly built) and smaller than ‘classic’ #Bigfoot, and also to sometimes be superficially chimp- or gorilla-like.

Most reports describe these animals as blackish, but there are reports of brown, grey and reddish animals too. They’re associated with swamps (like those of Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana) and are sometimes said to smell bad.

This creature is the Swamp ape, Skunk ape or Florida swamp ape. If you know the iconic 1972 movie The Legend of Boggy Creek (which recounts supposed events of Fouke, Arkansas), it pertains to accounts said to be of this kind of animal.

Because ‘swamp apes’ sound so different from ‘classic Bigfoot’, there’s a popular idea within the cryptozoological literature that they represent a separate species.

Coleman developed this idea in the 1960s, and he and his colleague (the late) Mark Hall further explored the idea that these creatures – dubbed Napes (for ‘North American apes’) – might be living dryopithecines...

Dryopithecines are a fossil group of Africa and Eurasia, generally regarded by palaeontologists as stem-members of the great ape radiation...

They were mostly woodland-dwellers, good at climbing but also competent terrestrial walkers, and possessing features and proportions reminiscent of gibbons, bonobos but also hominins too (Dryopithecus reconstruction here by Dmitry Bogdanov).

You may not know that cryptozoologists interested in mystery primate reports have developed some fairly …. involved ideas on what the ‘mystery primates’ of the world might be.

This is taken to its extreme in Coleman and Huyghe’s 1999 book The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide which posits the existence of merbings, giant crypto-monkeys and 5 or 6 scientifically unrecognised hominid species…

Ignoring merbeings, crypto-monkeys, Erectus hominids, Neadertaloids and so on for now... what this view means is that the relevant researchers have it that there are (at least!) TWO scientifically unrecognised hominid species in North America.

Washington University anthropologist Grover Krantz pointed out that this view is damaging for the credibility of mystery primate research, since the scientific community is already having a hard time accepting the existence of one such species, let alone two (or more).

Some other Bigfoot researchers have noted that the variation said to be present between ‘classic Bigfoot’ and ‘skunk ape’ creatures is actually within the variation we’d expect for a single species (art by Peter Travers)...

Anyway, the takehome here is that the Myakka ape photos don’t exist in a vacuum. They fit within existing cryptozoological lore (as established in the field’s literature) and match what cryptozoologists think they know about the mystery primates of the south-eastern USA.

If they’re hoaxed, they likely were made, therefore, by someone with good knowledge of North American cryptozoological history.

As if often the case with these ‘monster’ photos (see the 1964 Ozenkadnook tiger case: ), there are aspects of the photos which make them semi-believable, and which have caused some researchers to promote them as possible real photos of an unknown animal…

Coleman reported Tony Scheuhamme’s observation that various of the facial details – the form of the nostrils, wrinkling across the nose, look of the lower lip and so on – look believable relative to hominids like orangutans, and presented this composite…

Coleman also noted that possible authenticity is hinted at by the fact that the pupil diameter (assuming here that the central, circular, ‘glowing’ portions of the eyes represents the pupils) changes from Photo 1 to Photo 2 such that....

.... the eyeshine (… if that’s what it is) is about 40% stronger in Photo 1 than in 2... #cryptozoology #monsters

Maybe, it’s suggested, this is consistent with the animal’s pupils contracting as it responds to the flash of the first photo.

So… onto those ‘glowing eyes’. We’re all familiar with ‘red eye’ that can occur as camera flashes hit an animal’s eyes, even those of people (photo by PeterPan23). But here’s the thing…

The Myakka ape’s eyes aren’t just exhibiting ‘red-eye’ that corresponds to its pupils: its ENTIRE EYES are glowing red, all the way to their edges (in Photo 1, at least). The whole eyes look to be glowing.

This might seem like a ridiculous feature if you only know ‘real primates’ and are naïve about the cryptozoological literature. But reddish-glowing eyes are a familiar feature of crypto-hominid reports; they’re so common as to be expected....

.... as demonstrated by this book’s cover art (by legendary Gino D’Achille)…

One suggestion is that we’re seeing the presence here of an especially big tapetum ludicum, the reflective layer at the back of the eye which often ‘glows’ when light is shone into the eye (shown here in my dearly departed cat, Tigger; ignore Persephone the cockroach)...

But haplorhine primates (tarsiers, monkeys and apes) lack a tapetum ludicum.

If these crypto-hominids have tapeta lucida (assuming, for the purposes of this discussion, that they’re real animals), could this be an evolutionary novelty (or reversal) within the haplorhine clade? That’s the only explanation that works…

.... (since they aren’t giant lemurs or lorises, nor do they have LEDs or fairy-lights in their eye sockets) (sportive lemur photo from Andriaholinirina et al. 2006).

To buy this as an explanation (again, we’re assuming here that these animals are real), we’d have to invoke that these are very, very unusual, evolutionarily distinct haplorhines…

… which is interesting, because just about all efforts to ‘rationalise’ cryptids as real animals require them to be highly distinct, often wholly novel members of their respective groups.

If we do ever find #Bigfoot, or the Skunk ape, to be real, there’s a high-profile, top-tier glamour-mag paper to be written on its eyes alone :)

One more thing on eyes: the esoteric biology literature (looking at you, William Corliss’s Biological Anomalies) includes apocryphal and anecdotal references to the presence of true eyeshine (as in, caused by the tapetum lucidum) in some humans so…

…. again, the idea that the presence of this feature in the hominid lineage is already out there, and discussed and explored, in the relevant arcane/fringe literature.

An argument can be made (we made it in the book The Cryptozoologicon, and I did again in a 2018 Fortean Times article) that cryptozoology overlaps substantially with speculative biology. #SpecBio #SpecZoo

Now let’s look at the opposite notion: that the photos don’t show a real animal, but instead either a model, or a person in a suit. Naturally, the hoax idea was floated as soon as the photos appeared online…

Not only because they’re too good to be true, but also because there are several suspicious details which don’t match with these being images of a real animal.

One of the first suggestions made about the photos is that they show a cardboard cutout. This is inconsistent with the different angles of the animal seen in the two photos (it really does seem to have changed position, as described earlier)...

Coleman spoke to Pixel Workshop analyst David Bittner who checked the images and said that the artifacts expected of this sort of thing are absent, and that it’s a photo of a 3D object, not a flat sheet...

I agree and don’t think the ‘cardboard cutout’ idea works. I did some experiments of my own with this Groot cutout (my son Will for scale)...)

But could it be a photo of a model or a person in a suit? That’s sure what it looks like to me.

Late cryptozoological investigator Bobbie Short (not ‘Bobby’ as stated by some investigators) made it quite clear that she didn’t think the photo was legit and said online that it was almost certainly a person in a baggy suit.

A few other people have compared the photo to various masks made for the Planet of the Apes franchise and fan-community (not the new CG-dominated movies, the original line involving masks and furry suits), some of which involve a combo of reddish fur and grey beard.

The similarity, though, is really weak (PotA image here by  http://screamTeam.com ) and I think this is a fairly desperate clutching at straws.

Some people have compared the Myakka photos to the Bigfoot model on show at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in Wisconsin Dells (… a looong way from Florida)...

I can’t find specific photos of the Bigfoot model on show in Wisconsin Dells but other Bigfoot models are on show in Ripley’s elsewhere – here’s one on display in Newport, Oregon.

I suspect that the comparison made here is, again, vague and desperate and that the similarities are not at all close enough for us to link a Ripley’s Bigfoot model with what’s shown in the Myakka photos.

Furthermore, I say again that the difference between Photos 1 and 2 do show that the ‘ape’ moved, such that we see it in slightly different poses and from different angles. This is inconsistent with it being a model…

But it is consistent with a person in a suit. A few people – myself included – think that this is what is likely it is.

You might remember from my thread on the Patterson-Gimlin #Bigfoot film (here: ) that one reason for taking ‘Patty’ seriously is that it shows what look like realistic muscular contours beneath the fur. There’s none of that in the Myakka ape photos…

What we see is shapeless. There are no muscle contours on the arm, and the fur just hangs in loose fashion. You could argue that this is simply because we’re not seeing much of the animal, I don’t know. Even if that’s true, the form of the animal doesn’t look convincing to me.

In both photos, the animal has a palmetto leaf in its mouth, between its teeth. Orangutans and other apes (including humans) very often lazily keep things in their mouths for fun, or to chew on. Maybe that’s what’s going on here...

But it could also be that the leaf is there to hide something. Hold that thought.

Way down at the bottom of the photo, part-hidden among the palmetto leaves, we see some large, dark, thick fingers. Especially black tips on some of the fingers could represent fingernails.

They look superficially like the fingers of an ape (those of, say, a gorilla), but you could also argue that they look consistent with a costume or model. It’s a nice touch that they’re there.

Regarding the palmetto leaf which the creature holds in its mouth -- if this is a suit, or a model, one detail which would not hold up well if illuminated by a flash would be the mouth interior.

You’d see that there was no pharyngeal opening, plus details like the soft palate are unlikely to have been rendered realistically. It would have a ‘blind pocket’ for a mouth, as a muppet does.

The leaf might, then, be taken as evidence for hoaxing, since its position means that all that mouth/pharynx is cleverly concealed.

Again, not long after the photos appeared, the suggestion that they involved a suit appeared online.

At her Bigfoot Encounters website, Bobbie Short reported how Mitsuko Choden (who – I think – has a PhD in primatology) noted that it is indeed a costume and, furthermore, “a costume familiar … in assorted colors, with plastic teeth molded in the fashion of the great apes”.

I was prepared to endorse this in #HuntingMonsters, more because my take on its anatomy makes me think it looks more like a suit than a real animal.

As usual with these cases... yes, it’s bothersome and problematic that a suit PRECISELY matching the look of the creature hasn’t been identified -- in fact, commercially available ape costumes look nothing like the creature.

There are constructions like this …. But note that this is not an ‘off the shelf’, affordable suit – it’s a made-to-order piece manufactured for theme parks and such. It also doesn’t look anything like the animal in the Myakka photos (head too big, hair too short and so on).

In fact, it’s important that the Myakka ape photos don’t show an animal that matches any known ape, nor any representation of one.

If it is a suit or a model or whatever, it’s novel, and – I contend – created to represent a new or unknown hominid, maybe specifically a Swamp ape...

Note again my comments about this image being consistent with what’s been said in the cryptozoological literature about the crypto-hominids of the south-eastern USA.

My whole point is that … if this is a hoax, as seems likely, it’s a really good one, done by someone who made a good suit AND had good inside knowledge of what cryptozoologists would expect to see.

Given that there’s no known financial motivation, the usual response to any claim of hoaxing is “well, what could a hoaxer possibly GAIN from such a thing? Surely hoaxing is unlikely when there’s no perceived benefit?”.

This argument – very common in paranormal and cryptozoology circles – is woefully naïve. A major reward from hoaxing, often THE main driver of a hoaxing event, is that the act of successful hoaxing itself is rewarding: seeing people react to your work is part of the fun.

A hoaxer does NOT necessarily seek to win ‘reward’ by being named or outed as the genius behind the event, nor ‘become famous’, nor earn money.

Furthermore, many specific hoaxes were targeted at particular communities of people with a given shared set of ideas. Cryptozoologists are one such suitable group.

If I had hoaxed the Myakka ape photos (and I didn’t), I would be reaping huge psychological reward from the fact that hundreds if not thousands of keen cryptozoology fans, advocates and even top experts were STILL discussing, reviewing and analysing the case...

.... so much so that it became an embedded part of the canon.

In short, if it is a hoax, it ticks all the boxes and – well done hoaxers, you done good. On a similar note…

Of additional interest is that at least some people find the photos incredibly scary, in which case this must again be considered a hoax well done. After all, they depict a giant, hulking, fang-toothed beast, with glowing eyes, encountered at night…

A consequence is that a few artists have produced their own artistic re-drawings of the photos (I can’t find artist names for the first two pics; latter two are by CornuAspersum and Jonathan Morrill). I like them a lot…

And that’s about where this thread comes to an end. I like this case and think the photos are brilliant, but I have to conclude that they’re clever hoaxes done by someone with good insider knowledge of #cryptozoology.

As usual in building this thread, I consulted the relevant books, and you should too. My own 2017 #HuntingMonsters discusses the case, as does Loren Coleman’s Bigfoot! The Story of Apes in America. I looked at a few others too.

The Myakka case has, however, mostly been an online event, and most key articles are by Loren Coleman. A very popular YouTube breakdown of the story is unfortunately used as one of the main go-to sources on the photos…

… and I say that this is unfortunate because the relevant YouTuber has an inappropriately dismissive stance on sceptical views of Bigfoot-themed evidence and projects himself as overly confident.

We’ll stop there. Thanks for reading! I plan to do many more of these #TetZoocryptomegathread things. I’m also keen to turn them into a book or TV series if I can get the right kind of deal :)

Aww nuts, annoying typo in thread -- I managed to write 'tapetum ludicum' - twice! - instead of the correct tapetum lucidum!!

ps I also wrote Goodall as 'Goddall', oops.


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