Dr. Bryan Sykes’ paper on the results of his wide-ranging “Yeti hairs study” were released from embargo at 7 pm Eastern, Tuesday night, July 1. Various mainstream media reporters, who had done their homework, were ready with thoughtful releases on the news.
What some of the early stories are revealing is a notable depth of respect for the work of cryptozoologists. Let me share a few extracts from these articles.
Serena Altschul and Loren Coleman discuss cryptozoology on CBS Sunday Morning.
Alan Boyle’s “Was It a Yeti? Bigfoot? Hair DNA Reveals Monsters’ True Identity,” from NBC News, notes:
Loren Coleman, director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, said he wasn’t disappointed that Sykes failed to confirm Bigfoot. In an email to NBC News, Coleman said Sykes’ method was “the correct way to do cryptozoology science.”
“Gone are the Victorian days of stomping about jungles and forests to shoot animals to prove they exist,” Coleman said. “We can do verifications through testing for the DNA in hair, fecal and other physical samples found in conjunction with sightings of and encounters with possible new animals. Follow-ups then can be made in the field to obtain photographic evidence and further blood samples from living animals.”
Norman MacLeod, a paleontologist at London’s Natural History Museum, struck a similar tone in a commentary published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B — and in an email sent to NBC News.
“Science is not biased against the identification of cryptid species,” MacLeod said. “It simply suspends judgment until unambiguous positive evidence is produced.”
For his part, Sykes said he hoped Coleman and other cryptozoologists would be taken more seriously. “They have been, I think, quite badly treated by scientists over the past 50 years,” he said.
Traci Watson in “Bigfoot claims stepped on by new hair analysis,” for USA Today, despite the headline writer’s sarcasm, shares that
[Derek] Randles and foremost “cryptozoologist” Loren Coleman, director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, say they’re happy to have reputable scientists looking at the evidence. And scientists who aren’t involved with the research don’t necessarily scoff.
“The proper scientific point of view is not to dismiss any hypothesis out of hand but simply to subject it to testing,” says Norman MacLeod of The Natural History Museum in London, author of an accompanying commentary on the research. He says it’s still possible that something is out there, a view shared by Sykes.
“Rather than thinking ‘I’ve disproved the yeti and Bigfoot and it’s all a load of nonsense,’ … I was convinced (eyewitnesses) had seen something, more than I was when I started,” he says.
Erika Engelhaupt in “Finally, some solid science on Bigfoot,” in Science News, strikes a similar theme, when she writes,
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.)
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.
Bryan Sykes’ new book on his project and his finding is The Yeti Enigma, due September 25, 2014.
The Daily Telegraph was one of the first newspapers in the UK to publish a summary of the Dr. Bryan Sykes paper on his Yeti hair study:
A scientist who has devoted much of his career to trying to establish the truth behind the yeti has discovered that the abominable snowman is probably just a large, aggressive bear.
Bryan Sykes, a professor of genetics at Oxford University, and his team analysed 57 “yeti hair” samples and found most were not hair at all, or belonged to horses, dogs and even a human.
Two of the samples, however, sprung a surprise, showing a 100 per cent match with polar bear DNA from 40,000 years ago, suggesting a hybrid of polar bears and brown bears may exist in the Himalayas.
Scientists at the Natural History Museum in London said Prof Sykes’s results “neither prove nor disprove the existence of yetis” but simply eliminate some hair samples from further consideration as evidence.
Prof Sykes said genetic tests on two hair samples revealed a close match with bear DNA — but not any bear known to be living today, or in the Himalayas. However, they were identical to that from a polar bear fossil.
One golden-brown hair sample came from an animal shot by a hunter in Ladakh, India, 40 years ago. The other, reddish-brown hair, was recovered from a high altitude bamboo forest in Bhutan. The site was described as the nest of a “migyhur”, or Bhutanese yeti.
“If these bears are widely distributed in the Himalayas, they may well contribute to the biological foundation of the yeti legend, especially, if as reported by the hunter who shot the Ladakh specimen, they behave more aggressively towards humans than known indigenous bear species,” said Prof Sykes.
Bryan Sykes, a professor of genetics at Oxford University
In the first study of its kind, scientists analysed hair specimens reported to have come from “anomalous primates” — hairy human-like beasts — including the yeti, Bigfoot from the United States and Almasty from Russia.
In almost every case they had easily explainable origins, such as the modern brown bear Ursus arctos, or other animals. However, two of the samples showed a match with polar bear DNA from the Pleistocene period, but not the present day.
There have been anecdotal reports of white bears in central Asia and the Himalayas, said the scientists. “It seems more likely that the two hairs reported here are from either a previously unrecognised bear species, or brown bear/polar bear hybrids.”
However, Prof Norman MacLeod, a palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum, said: “These results neither prove nor disprove the existence of yetis, bigfoots and other cryptids, including anomalous primates. What they do is eliminate certain hair samples from further consideration as evidence that such creatures exist.”
Prof Sykes is undeterred. “Bigfootologists and other enthusiasts seem to think that they’ve been rejected by science,” he said. “Science doesn’t accept or reject anything, all it does is examine the evidence and that is what I’m doing.”
The study was published in the journal Proceedings of The Royal Society B. [Click through to read the full report via open access.]