A “large primate skull” was allegedly found in British Columbia by American YouTuber Coyote Peterson, according to social media (opens in new tab) publications (opens in new tab) he shared on Thursday (July 7). In those posts, Peterson wrote that he hid the discovery “for several weeks” from government officials and anyone else who might “try to stop [sic] our footage” of the dig. However, experts told Live Science that Peterson’s claim is highly suspect and that the clandestine extraction and transport of animal remains across national borders may be illegal.
“I’m sure these photos will be taken down…as will probably the video by the government or state park officials…but the skull is safe,” the posts said. “I don’t know if it’s what you all think it might be…but I can’t explain finding a primate skull in northwestern Pak without wondering! What do you believe?” (There are no great primates currently living in North America – other than humans – and although stories of elusive forest-dwelling hominids such as big step have existed for centuries, there is no evidence to suggest that such creatures exist.)
Peterson, best known for his YouTube channel “Brave Wilderness” and for hosting a series called “Coyote Peterson: Brave the Wild” on Animal Planet, also wrote that he will release footage of the skull on YouTube this weekend. But in the meantime, scientists have reacted to his alleged discovery on Twitter, questioning the credibility of the claim and suggesting that Peterson’s actions – as described in his posts – may have crossed ethical and legal lines.
Jonathan Colby, a National Geographic science consultant and researcher with experience in the wildlife trade, wrote this (opens in new tab) “It is illegal to smuggle any primate specimens into the United States, even ‘found’ in the wild. Email @COYOTEPETERSON for your information… because @USFWS or @CBP may not agree with this even if you think you’ve found the Big Step…”
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Yinan Wang, graduate student in the Geospatial Intelligence Program at Johns Hopkins University, geologist and author of “The 50 State Fossils: A Guide for Beginning Paleontologists (opens in new tab)(Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2018), noted that (opens in new tab) Peterson’s skull looks a lot like a cast of a gorilla skull that can be bought on AliExpress. In the tweet, Wang included a side-by-side comparison of the AliExpress product and the photos shared by Peterson.
“This is undoubtedly a gorilla skull, as is evident from numerous anatomical details and as confirmed by a list of experts,” Darren Naish, a UK vertebrate paleontologist and science communicator, told Live Science in an email. “It also appears to be identical to commercially available casts of a specific gorilla skull.”
“We can immediately dismiss the idea that this could be a real skull of an unknown primate.” No. It’s a cast of a known kind,” Naish said.
In his posts, Peterson said he still has the skull and that the specimen is safe and awaiting examination by a primatologist. The “certain location” of the skull was not specified, but if it is in the US, Peterson’s posts suggest that he somehow transported the specimen across the US-Canada border.
If the skull were indeed real, such an act would be illegal, as transporting “biological specimens” and wildlife products or parts — such as bones — into the U.S. usually requires permits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and/or the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), acc US Customs and Border Protection (opens in new tab).
In addition, “the movement of primate specimens is regulated by CITES,” an international treaty designed to ensure that international trade in wildlife and plant specimens does not threaten the survival of those species, Naish told Live Science. “You might argue then that it’s very irresponsible to suggest that one can find a primate specimen in the wild and then just move it around.”
Breaking news I saw on Facebook and Insta: Coyote Peterson claims to have discovered the skull of a non-human primate in British Columbia. Is he talking about it like it’s true… pic.twitter.com/YPlmuiHdmMJuly 7, 2022
And if Peterson found the skull in a national park in Canada, his actions would be illegal under Canada’s National Parks Act and the National Park General Regulations, according to Parks Canada (opens in new tab). These regulations state that it is illegal to remove any “natural objects” from a park without permission and that trafficking wildlife, dead or alive, from a park is also an offence. And in a scenario where the skull could be considered a fossil, British Columbia laws prohibit people from collecting vertebrate fossils and require that any “unusual or rare specimens” be reported to the Royal British Columbia Museum, a local museum or the Office of British Columbia Fossils Management, says the British Columbia government (opens in new tab).
In addition to theoretical questions of legality, the “conspiracy” language in Peterson’s posts made the situation worse, Naish said.
“I was told that Coyote Peterson does this kind of thing quite often as clickbait and that this is a stunt done to promote an upcoming video,” Naish said. “Perhaps this is meant to be taken as harmless fun. But in an age where anti-scientific sentiment and conspiracy culture are a serious problem, this is – again – really not a good look. I think this stunt backfired.”
Originally published on Live Science.