A geneticist says samples from suspected yetis match an ancient polar bear, but other scientists are urging caution
• Quiz: can you tell the mythical creatures from the real ones?
Tales of the yeti, the “Abominable Snowman” of the Himalayas, have been recorded for centuries. Mountaineers tell of coming face-to-face with a hairy, ape-like creature that walks on two legs. There have been blurred photos and even the odd shaky home video. But no one has ever come close to identifying what this mythical creature might be, or even if it is indeed real.
Today, news websites were filled with tales that this mysterious creature may have been identified. Bryan Sykes, a geneticist at the University of Oxford, had obtained DNA from some hair samples from suspected yetis and had pulled back a corner of the curtain from this enduring mystery, identifying the animal and putting the mystery to rest.
Well, sort of. “The principle purpose of the project is not to find the yeti – though it can be interpreted that way and usually is – but really it’s to do a systematic study on what material is alleged to have come from a yeti, because that’s never been done,” Sykes told the Guardian.
One leading theory behind the strange creatures known as yetis (or bigfoots or sasquatches, depending where you are in the world) is that they are surviving relic populations of hominids, an ancient relative of humans, somehow isolated but clinging on to life. To test out what might be possible, Sykes worked with colleagues at the University of Lausanne to put out a call for people claiming to have samples from these sorts of creatures.
“I’m as curious as anyone to know what these creatures might be and I saw an opportunity to do a proper scientific study because of the advances in the analysis of hair samples,” said Sykes. “I’ve been able to develop a protocol to get good DNA from a single hair shaft, no roots required. I’ve been going around museums and also getting samples sent in from mummies and stuffed animals and putting them through the analysis of mitochondrial DNA.”
In the latest analysis, he looked at hairs from two animals, one found in the western Himalayan region of Ladakh and the other from Bhutan, 800 miles away. The objective, he said, was to give the samples a thorough scientific examination. “These creatures are under the umbrella of cryptozoology and the last 50 years have been off-limits to science – it’s been handed over to a more eccentric fringe over the last 50 years.”
Sykes examined a gene in the mitochondrial DNA from the hair samples. Mitochondria are the tiny powerhouses in biological cells, turning food into the type of energy required for the body to carry out its functions. They are passed down from mothers and have a small genome that can be examined to map out the how a specimen might be related to other specimens.
Specifically, Sykes’s team looked at the 12S RNA gene, something that has already been analysed in all known mammalian species. By comparing his samples with those in GenBank, the international repository of gene sequences, Sykes was able to identify the animals that the hair might have from. “In the case of these two yeti samples that we’re talking about, they matched a sequence in the GenBank from a polar bear jaw found in Svalbard, which is at least 40,000 years old.” This was around the time that the polar bear and the related brown bear were separating into different species.
Bill Amos, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the University of Cambridge, cautioned that forensic samples of DNA, such as the ones being examined by Sykes, were always difficult to deal with. First off, scientists needed to be careful about the true source of the samples. The sorts of people who might go looking for yetis, said Amos, might have also have been up to the Arctic and encountered polar bears at some point, leaving open the possibility that their clothing had been contaminated with polar bear hairs.
“We are always aware of hoaxes and things in this kind of area and you have to take Brian Sykes’s word that the hairs came from somebody who genuinely believed they had seen a yeti or found a footprint [and kept it safe],” said Amos. “Equally there are people who quite like a good story and clever somebody might have planted some hairs or given them to some villagers and told them: ‘Why don’t you say this comes from a footprint?’ The evidence is as strong as the veracity of the links. From Brian Sykes back to the hair is fine. Where the hair comes from and how it got there, I would be more sceptical about.”
Amos said he was sceptical that the samples found in the Himalayas were those of polar bears but the idea there might be an unknown type of white bear in the region was not out of the question. “What a large bear up there would find to feed on is another matter,” he said. “I guess it could be looking at domestic cattle but most species do leave quite a lot of evidence around. If there was anything like a medium population of 20-50, which is the minimum number that most people think would allow a viable population, why aren’t these things being seen more often by people out looking for snow leopard pelts and all the rest of it? There is very little these days that is so remote that you don’t get actually appreciable numbers of humans with binoculars out there.”
Amos was not involved in the analysis of the hairs but said that, from what he had heard, he was “90% convinced that there is a bear in these regions that has been mistaken for a yeti. The scientific approach is fine. It would have been nice if [Sykes] had been able to get some nuclear DNA and been able to say a bit more.”
Sykes said the results had been submitted to a journal for peer review, so other scientists will be able to examine the results more closely as soon as they are published. He is aware of the limitations of his analysis, saying that there was only a limited amount that could be learned with the hair. “It’s 40 years old and not much DNA there really. The next best thing to do is to get an expedition together to find one and see what one is like in the wild and to see if any aspects of its behaviour are more likely to be identified as a yeti. And genetically to find out how much polar bear is in this animal. It might be a hybrid or a new species of bear. But we can’t tell all this from one hair sample.”
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663879/s/32934490/sc/32/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Cscience0C20A130Coct0C170Cyeti0Edna0Eancient0Epolar0Ebear0Escientists/story01.htm