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Yeti DNA Headlines Make Me Daydream a Glorious Day

by Daniel Loxton, Oct 17 2013
Illustration by Daniel Loxton. Originally published in Junior Skeptic 16, bound inside Skeptic Vol. 10, No. 2

Illustration by Daniel Loxton. Originally published in Junior Skeptic 16, bound inside Skeptic Vol. 10, No. 2 (2003).

Exciting headlines are announcing that Oxford University geneticist Bryan Sykes may have “solved” the long-open case of the legendary Yeti of the Himalayas. According to reports, DNA analysis of alleged Yeti hair samples indicate that the region may be home to previously undocumented species or sub-species of bear.

Bears do live throughout the region: Asiatic black bears, sloth bears, and Himalayan brown bears  (Ursus arctos isabellinus, a subspecies of the brown bear, Ursus arctos—grizzlies are another). Of these, the Himalayan brown bear has long been strongly implicated as the real animal behind the legend of the Yeti. I’ve argued this myself in the pages of Junior Skeptic, and Don Prothero and I explore this likelihood in chapter-length detail in our new book Abominable Science!

Sykes’ research is only emerging now, and only time will tell whether anything comes of it. But the scenario he suggests seems so enchanting that I can’t resist the temptation to let my imagination run away with me for a moment. According his comments to the National Post, Yeti hair samples he tested yielded a 100% match to a type of Norwegian polar bear which “hasn’t been recorded for 40,000 years.” This leads him to speculate that some Yeti reports may record a previously unknown population of a novel variety of bear (perhaps hybrids*) and, he said, “makes me wonder if this species of bear might behave differently. Maybe it is more aggressive, more dangerous or is more bipedal than other bears.” There have long been tantalizing (sometimes head-scratching) suggestions that the bears described by Yeti witnesses may sometimes exhibit unusual traits or behaviors. Sykes’ proposal, if correct, could perhaps help to explain such reports.

Could Sykes be right? What do his findings mean, really? Gosh—who knows. It’s way too soon to know. His findings have apparently been submitted for peer-review, but that’s barely step one. The headlines work in support of an upcoming book and television project built upon his research. The known brown bears in the region are not well understood. Skepticism is completely appropriate.

Still, let’s just imagine for a second.

If it were to turn out that some Yeti reports really have recorded an otherwise unknown variety of bear, that would be an enormous discovery—and an utterly astonishing moment in the history of monster studies. It would be a moment of triumph for cryptozoology skeptics, who have said all along that Yetis are really bears; and, simultaneously, it could be a moment of triumph for cryptozoologists, who have said for decades that Yetis are an unrecognized new type of large hairy mammal. Sure, skeptics would be more right, and the folks committed to the dream of a relict Gigantopithecus would be disappointed (all but inevitable in any case) but it would nonetheless be a non-zero-sum victory for all those who have ever found themselves entranced by the mystery. Cake for everyone!

As a skeptic and critic of cryptozoology who still feels a deep connection to my hopeful cryptozoological roots, this would be an outcome delightful to me beyond the furthest dreams of avarice.

And for exactly that reason—because I want it to be true—I will wait patiently, without answers or expectations, and see what the science has to say.

————

* If you’re wondering how a sample can both come from a modern hybrid animal and also be a perfect genetic match to another non-hybrid animal, well, I don’t understand that bit either. It’s early days at this point, though. I assume Sykes’ findings and interpretations will be become clearer when his paper is published; likely the news coverage is a bit distorted, as these things tend to be. Then I suppose we’ll see where things stand.

Note to Commenters: I invite and encourage civil discussion, scholarly debate, and open exchanges of ideas on this thread. At the same time, I expect all commenters to keep these useful principles firmly in mind. As on my other posts, I will delete posts that seem to me to be abusive. It’s not that kind of blog.

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14 Responses to “Yeti DNA Headlines Make Me Daydream a Glorious Day”

  1. Brian Dunning says:

    The Himalayan Grolar Bear!!

  2. Canman says:

    Nice drawing. Here are a couple of bigfoot drawings I did in high school back in the early 70’s:

    http://i44.tinypic.com/1tn80k.jpg

  3. Scott Hamilton says:

    I’m wondering if Loren Coleman and the other crypzoologists are going to try to claim this as a win for their side. After all, there may be a real, partly unknown to science animal behind some Yeti sightings. It’s just not Giganthopithicus or whatever unknown ape they’ve been claiming it is since the 1950s.

    • If cryptozoological research and the Yeti cryptid concept led directly to the discovery of a new species, subspecies, or previously undocumented population, it would, in my opinion, be completely appropriate for cryptozoologists to claim that as a win—indeed, as the greatest victory in the history of cryptozoology, which is otherwise an extremely (completely?) unfruitful area of research.

      The funny thing is, though, that many cryptozoologists would very likely choose to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Already I see chatter in the crypto-sphere saying, in essence, “So what if he finds a new bear? We’re after the Yeti—a giant ape! The one thing has nothing to do with the other.”

      • kermit says:

        Not entirely unfruitful. If you want to count the giant squid as Kraken, that’s one. And I believe that European scientists were skeptical about the Hairy Man of the Forest, who turned out to be the gorilla. Oarfish are perhaps the sea serpent. Still waiting for Nessie, Bigfoot, and the Jersey Devil, however.

      • Note that gorillas and giant squids were known to science before the coining of the term “cryptozoology” and the emergence of the claim that this “study of hidden animals” comprised a legitimate scientific research program.

        I’m not aware of cryptozoology per se making any progress in the study of hidden animals, having neither found any cryptids nor ruled any out. But with rare exceptions, hidden animals never have been the true subject matter of cryptozoology. Usually, cryptozoologists study, preserve, and transmit stories about monsters, which is a useful folkloric enterprise independent of the literal existence of any cryptids.

  4. Luara says:

    Yes, the “unusual bear hybrid” theory might be a way to rationalize the yeti/sasquatch phenomena. They might be seen when they aren’t acting weird, and people would think they were bears and not realize there was anything unusual going on. People finding the skeletons would just think it was a bear skeleton.
    Also a claimed sasquatch sample that was analyzed in the last few years, was found to be bear. Maybe it was this bear hybrid.
    Perhaps polar bears and brown bears hybridize in an ongoing way, but not very often. Hybrids can have weird results.
    Bears might want to walk on their hind legs when they encounter a human, to be intimidating.
    I wonder if other reported elements of sasquatches/yeti encounters fit this idea, e.g. if bears tend to stink, if a bear head might have that reported conical top of the head, etc.
    Anyway it will be interesting to find out. Much less spectacular than an unknown human relative wandering around in the woods – but still extraordinary.

    • Old Rockin' Dave says:

      Do bears stink? I don’t know, but if you’re covered in hair, I doubt that you can stick your face into a rotting deer carcass and come up smelling like an air freshener. And I lack the nerve to imagine what bear farts might smell like, especially in view of the whole carrion-eating thing.

      • Sam Sprague says:

        No animal really “stinks” in it’s normal state. I’ve always found this an odd aspect of the sasquatch legend, skunks can emit a stink in defense, many animals smell musky to attract a mate. Canines will roll in smelly stuff for some reason known only to them…but emitting a powerful noxious odor all of the time serves neither prey nor predator. Primates are perhaps the smelliest of the bunch, but in normal populations and in the wild, not a noxious odor.

  5. Muddyvalley says:

    Having entered the bear cave located in the old zoo in Portland, Oregon back in the sixties just after they built the new zoo and moved all the animals, I can attest that bears smell. I recognize the smell to this day.

  6. Luara says:

    The recently released UK documentary on Sykes’ work is on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oc9uwhn2bdE It gives more information than the printed reports.

  7. Tommy says:

    I read a brief commentary about this finding and did not have time to see if it was credible research. Its good to hear that it is, and that it supports the “bear” theory. Now someone can do some real research and find ID a chupacabra. I still support the mangy coyote theory for them.