Sometimes in science, you solve one mystery just to create another. So it goes with Bigfoot.
After creating a stir last October with preliminary results, an international research team has published an analysis of dozens of hair samples from mystery animals around the world. None reveal the existence of a yeti or Bigfoot, reports Bryan Sykes, an Oxford University geneticist well-known for his research on human evolution. But two hair samples point to a possible new and (you guessed it) mysterious species: a bear roaming the Himalayas that may be related to ancient polar bears.
Some Bigfoot hunters are thrilled anyway. “It’s quite exciting,” says Loren Coleman, director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine. “This definitely shows there’s DNA in the Himalayas area of an unknown bear,” says Coleman, who embraces the use of a scientific approach to identifying creatures known only from legend. In 2013 his museum even named Sykes cryptozoologist of the year. (Crytozoologists search for animals unknown to science.)
Sykes says he started the project because he was “slightly irritated” that cryptozoologists kept saying they’ve been rejected by mainstream science. At the time, he was perfecting a technique for extracting mitochondrial DNA from a single hair shaft. “I realized I could do a proper scientific study,” he says. “I wasn’t looking for a yeti or anything like that. I was just going to do a scientific review of the evidence.”
And a less mainstream question lurked at the fringes of Sykes’ thoughts: “I’ve always been interested to know whether the Neanderthals and other types of humans became extinct,” he says. Having studied the DNA of ancient human relatives, he was fascinated by the idea that mysterious large mammals reported around the world might be tiny remnant pockets of some human relative. He decided to analyze the DNA of purported yeti samples, thinking there was maybe a 5 percent chance that he would find something interesting, maybe a new mammal species. And maybe a tiny sliver of a chance he’d find something even more surprising.
So in 2012 Sykes and his colleague Michel Sartori of the Museum of Zoology in Lausanne, Switzerland, posted a call for hair and other samples thought to be from yetis, Bigfoot or any other “cryptid” species unknown to science. The researchers would compare stretches of DNA to known species in the GenBank database, which catalogs thousands of species.
In came the hairs. There were hairs from famous expeditions, including a trek by Sir Edmund Hillary, hairs from museums, Buddhist relics, and, Sykes says, “quite a lot of material from Bigfoot enthusiasts in the United States.” Sykes whittled down 95 samples to 37 that were most interesting based on the circumstances of their collection.
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Of those 37, the team was able to extract DNA from 30. “A lot of them turned out to be very ordinary animals in their natural habitats,” Sykes says. As the team reports July 1 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, supposed yeti and bigfoot samples turned out to come from bears (brown, black and polar), horses, raccoons, one human, some canines (the test didn’t narrow down if they were wolves or dogs), cows, sheep, a North American porcupine, a Malaysian tapir and a serow, which is a known animal similar to a goat or antelope.
But two hair samples from the Himalayas were a surprise. These hairs, both brownish in color, perfectly matched a short stretch of DNA once extracted from the jawbone of a 40,000-year-old polar bear. The hairs did not match modern polar bears. One hair came from an animal shot 40 years ago in Ladakh, India, by a hunter who reported that it behaved differently from typical brown bears. The other was collected about 10 years ago in Bhutan, 600 to 800 miles from Ladakh.
The researchers’ best guess is that the hairs are from either an unknown bear species or a hybrid of a brown bear and a polar bear. Such hybrids are known in the Arctic, but genetically resemble modern, rather than ancient, polar bears. If there’s a Himalayan hybrid, it might have descended from a different, long-ago liaison between the species. But since the match between the two hairs and the ancient polar bear resulted from a fragment just 104 DNA letters long, the result is preliminary, and the team hopes to do further analysis. Sykes is even planning an expedition to Ladakh to search for live bears.
“They’re from opposite ends of the Himalayas, so it’s reasonable to imagine that there might be some still alive in between,” Sykes says. He doesn’t think the samples are a hoax, since they were collected decades and hundreds of miles apart and were provided to Sykes by different sources. Plus, only the ancient jawbone is a genetic match.
If there is a previously unknown bear species living in the Himalayas, it may be what people there have seen and reported as a yeti. Coleman says that would be consistent with those reports. “They’re always brown,” he says. The idea of a white “abominable snowman” came from TV shows like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Publishing data in a respected, peer-reviewed journal is a big step for cryptozoology, even if it means finding out that yetis don’t exist. In fact, especially if it means finding out that yetis don’t exist. By subjecting samples to genetic testing, Bigfootologists risk dashing their hopes. And any scientist taking on the task may risk his or her reputation. (Sykes says he wasn’t worried what colleagues would think of his new pursuit: “I’m in the cocktail hour of my career.”)
Maybe more scientists would be willing to test “cryptid” samples, but it takes money and time. No scientist working at a university or lab capable of genetic analysis has “testing Bigfoot samples” in their job description, it’s probably safe to say. Plus, it cost Sykes $2,000 to analyze each ‘yeti’ DNA sample, and not many Bigfoot enthusiasts are keen to pay. Part of Sykes’ work was paid for by a filmmaker, but he paid for the rest himself (and points out that no government funding was used).
Finding a new bear rather than a humanlike primate may be a letdown for some Bigfootologists. But not Loren Coleman. “I’m not disappointed. The whole role of science is to keep searching. We need to have patience,” he says.
And Sykes points out that he hasn’t actually disproven that the animals exist. There’s always some chance, however small, that the right sample just hasn’t been collected. Now, he says, Bigfoot chasers “can go back into the forest knowing that if they get a genuine sample it can be identified, and to a standard that everyone will accept.”
And if the next round of samples don’t turn up yetis, or the next after that, so be it. Maybe we’ll find something interesting anyway, like more new bears. Cryptozoologists like to point to the weirdly striped okapi that was once thought to be mythical. And then there are the recent discoveries of the lesula and olinguito.
Either way, the true Bigfoot believers will undoubtedly keep on believing, even if they embrace the scientific method. After all, the fun of science lies not just in finding answers, but in the thrill of the chase.
Follow me on Twitter: @GoryErika