A year ago, Oxford University professor of human genetics Bryan Sykes and his colleagues took some unusual hair samples found in the Himalayas and concluded that they actually belong to a now extinct polar bear which once inhabited Norway. Now, another team analyzed the results and concluded that while it's clearly no yeti, the remains might actually belong to a brown bear instead.
I’m not a big fan of pseudoscientific conspiracies, and yeti-like creatures are no exception. It seems like something humans just choose to believe in, even without any evidence. But I do admire the scientists that treat this issue seriously. Researchers from Oxford University and the Lausanne Museum of Zoology have publicly asked anyone with “yeti” biological material to hand it in for DNA analysis, in order to see if the species actually exists or is nothing more than a myth. A year ago, Oxford University professor of human genetics Bryan Sykes and his colleagues took some unusual hair samples found in the Himalayas and concluded that they actually belong to a now extinct bear which once inhabited Norway. Now, another team analyzed the results and concluded that while it’s clearly no yeti, the remains might actually belong to a brown bear instead.
No yeti, just bear
Sykes’ team examined two different hair samples from the region: one belonged to a “creature that walked upright” and was shot by an Indian hunter 40 years ago, while the other was discovered in one of Bhutan’s bamboo forests, at a high altitude. The team suspected that both samples belonged to an extinct species of bear which lived 40,000 years ago – perhaps a hybrid between two species called Ursus arctos and Ursus maritimus. He suspects that this species might actually be behind the inspiration for yetis.
His results made quite a splash in the pseudoscientific community (yes, there’s a community), where a surprisingly high number of people were expecting positive results – that is, reporting a new, yeti species. But for serious scientists, it was just an issue about figuring out what type of bear they were dealing with. Two researchers actually disagreed with Sykes and his findings.
“There is essentially no reason to believe that they (the hairs) belong to a species other than the brown bear,” said Eliecer Gutierrez, who is a postdoctoral fellow of evolutionary biology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
From pseudoscience to science
Gutierrez and his colleague became a bit suspicious when they noticed that Sykes only used a fragment of the gene for species identification. He started to suspect that there was actually nothing special about this bear, and it was simply a Himalayan brown bear.
“We made this discovery that basically that fragment of DNA is not informative to tell apart two species of bears: the brown bear and [modern-day Alaskan] polar bear,” said Gutiérrez who along with his colleague tested the hair’s genetic sequence in GenBank, which is a database of DNA sequences available to the public. Once they had determined that two of their samples were a match to a polar bear, they should have run further analyses on the extracted DNA to look at other regions of the mitochondrial genome (DNA passed down by the mother) in order to double-check this controversial result,” said paper co-author Ceiridwen Edwards, who researches in ancient DNA studies at the University of Oxford. This is the second study refuting Sykes’ research.
He then went on to make some very serious accusations, blaming Sykes that he misinformed the public to gain more publicity for his paper.
“Instead, after (incorrectly) establishing a direct link to a 40,000-year-old polar bear sequence, they then used this misinformation in the publicity for the paper,” Edwards said to Live Science.
But Sykes and his team stand by their research.
“The explanation by Gutierrez and Pine might be right, or it might not be,” Sykes wrote. “The only way forward, as I have repeatedly said, is to find a living bear that matches the 12S RNA and and study fresh material from it. Which involves getting off your butt, not an activity I usually associate with desk-bound molecular taxonomists.”
He went on to emphasize that “the real heroes of the piece are the people who actually went to the Himalayas, spoke to the local people, found these hairs, had the wit to keep a few, and then contributed them to the study.” Well, we might have to wait a while before we know for sure what kind of bear species it truly was, but one thing seems to be certainȘ there’s no yeti in sight.