Skunk Ape: Primatologists Ponder the Possibility

I lived a good twenty years in Florida before realizing how many primates, both wild and captive, shared my home state. This post explores the idea that introduced species like the Silver River macaques and Dania Beach vervets are not the only primates in Florida. According to some, an ape roams the swamps that is bigger, smellier, and more elusive than any monkey.

Who is the Skunk Ape?

Skunk apes are reddish black apes, with glowing green eyes, that range anywhere from four to 12 feet tall and weigh between 180 and 350 pounds. They are bipedal, and their footprints range from seven to eighteen inches long, including only four toes. Skunk apes have been spotted in abandoned guava orchards and orange groves, along the roadside, and in trailer parks. Sightings have been reported from 48 out of Florida’s 67 counties, but also occur in other swampy, southern states. The pictures of skunk apes I have seen most resemble orangutans.

The explanation for their stench of skunk and rotten eggs comes from the fact that they spend time in underground alligator caves, which emit methane gas as organic material decays inside. Alligators dig these caves, more accurately known as burrows or ‘gator holes,’ with their nose and tail. They are used as shelter for their young, to stay warm or cool depending on the weather, and as protection from wildfires and drought.

In 2011, I lived in central Florida (near the location of one of the most famous skunk ape sightings) when I worked as a research intern at the Lemur Conservation Foundation. It was there I met my friend and fellow primatologist Dr. Jennifer Botting. In addition to lemurs, she has studied wild vervet monkeys in South Africa and great apes at the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Upon the skunky stench of the sunshine state ape she reflected: “I lived in rural Florida for three months, using water from a borehole that had a high sulphur content. It was like bathing in scrambled eggs. I’m pretty sure I smelled like rotten eggs for my entire stay. I imagine if the Skunk Ape was bathing in similar conditions, it would smell much the same.”

She continued, “One of my questions would be; why would the ape hide out in alligator caves? To hide from humans, or for some other reason? It seems strange that an ape would choose to spend time in a cave frequented by predators – not a very adaptive choice. However, primates such as baboons are known to spend time in caves, so perhaps there’s a benefit to visiting these caves if you’re a skunk ape, such as a special food source, or to escape the Florida sun?”

According to accounts of skunk ape sightings the large, stinky primates may be engaged in a variety of activities including, but not limited to: jumping on parked and moving cars, tearing up doghouses, terrorizing and killing livestock, playing on kids’ swing sets, throwing tires, swimming offshore, or making loud noises that resemble screams and howls. (There is some disagreement about whether or not the apes are aggressive toward people.) Apparently, they live in families and spend time both on the ground and up in the trees where they make nests of leaves and twigs. Skunk apes have good hearing and are adept at climbing trees and swimming. Mating occurs in the summer months.

Their diet changes with the seasons but may consist of fish, crustaceans, reptiles, deer, wild hog, guavas, grubs, trash, apples, palmetto berries, oak acorns, or other animals including nestling birds. According to Shealy’s field guide (pictured below), they also enjoy lima beans.

Alternative Explanations

There are multiple facilities in Florida that house captive primates. A skeptic could easily explain away a sighting by claiming that any number of apes, macaques, or baboons could have escaped the confines of one of these facilities. Other explanations involve escaped pets, and zoo and circus animals. For example, there is record of an orangutan escape during its transportation through the state in 1954. Large, hairy creatures could also be black bears (possibly with mange), standing on their hind legs or walking bipedally for short distances. Skunk ape vocalizations are often compared to panthers and birds.

There is also no fossil evidence of extinct apes anywhere nearby. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but it does limit the extent to which we can use the fossil record to support the possibility of the skunk ape’s existence. Finally, despite the fact that people tend to grossly overestimate the size of unfamiliar critters, none of the introduced and/or captive primates in Florida even come close to the reported size of the skunk ape.

Some key questions remain: Why is there no clear, reliable photograph or video of a skunk ape? Why don’t we find remains or roadkill? Where is the genetic analysis from hair and fecal samples that have supposedly been collected?

Does the Skunk Ape really exist?

I don’t know! Probably not. I want to believe- I love the folklore, the stories, and the speculation. The effects of believing in the skunk ape are certainly real. And they are important because they teach us about the world and about ourselves. Peter Dendle, an English professor who studies religion and folklore, explains it like this: “I think cryptozoology serves as a means of staking a line, and saying, ‘You scientists don’t know everything. There are still truths out there to be discovered.’” He goes on to say that, “In this digital age, the world suddenly feels very, very small. There’s a sense of claustrophobia, and a loss of wonder. Cryptozoology is a way of refusing to have the last piece of the unknown taken away- of imagining there’s something bigger than us out there.”

Scientists don’t know everything, nor should they, in my opinion, aspire to. Isn’t the mystery, the asking of the questions, what fuels science in the first place? Narwhals, komodo dragons, giant squids, okapis, platypuses, and manatees all are real animals who were believed at some point to be mythological beings. Dendle suggests that cryptozoology enthusiasts “are doing something noble. They’re carrying on a tradition of exploration, and open-mindedness, and genuine inquiry, the spirit of which has driven science for many centuries.” This is the same spirit that scientists in our world-of-shrinking-mystery stray from in the pursuit of publication, funding, and prestige. Perhaps we have something to learn from cryptozoologists and cryptid enthusiasts for which the actual existence of the skunk ape is irrelevant.

What does Dr. Botting think?

“How likely do I think it is that a giant, non-human bipedal ape lives in rural Florida?…Well, populations of primates previously unknown to scientists are still being discovered around the world, so it is not impossible that an undiscovered population of Skunk Apes could exist in rural Florida. It’s perhaps highly unlikely, but I’m generally of the opinion that nothing is impossible.”

She’s my kind of scientist!

Just in case…years ago on the night of December 31st, a skunk ape reportedly joined a backyard fireworks-viewing party in Tallahassee. I’ll tell my friends in the panhandle to keep their eyes peeled. Maybe the skunk ape is as eager as we are to ring in 2021.

Happy new year, fellow primates!

A really old, really uncharacteristically patriotic picture of Jenny and I (it was July 4th and we didn’t get out of Myakka City very often…)

References:

Newton, Michael. 2007. Florida’s Unexpected Wildlife: Exotic Species, Living Fossils, and Mythical Beasts in the Sunshine State. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Stromberg, Joseph. 2014. On the Trail of Florida’s Bigfoot- the Skunk Ape. SmithsonianMag.com

2 comments

  1. I find this footage the most compelling thus far.https://youtu.be/Yh9_PGKnSyI
    This fella spent 10 years combing the swamps, buying equipment, and claimed to interact with them pretty frequently, but this was the best shot he got in all that time before he died. It’s hardly unimpeachable, is hoaxable, is grainy, too zoomed in, and not sharply focused– yet when those fingers wrap around the tree at 3:12 I cant help but feel that there is something out there, and these things are masters at being elusive. I take most of the claims about them with a big grain of salt, but I do believe they are out there in Florida’s river systems.

    Like

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