To learn more about bear DNA, I got in touch with Gary J. Galbreath, an evolutionary biologist and the associate director of Northwestern University’s Biological Sciences program. Galbreath said that the significance of the 100-percent-finding depends on how long a stretch of DNA Sykes was able to analyze. “There are, for instance, stretches of DNA that are identical among all members of the genus Ursus, and others that are identical between certain species or subspecies,” he told me in an email.
In other words, if Sykes has analyzed one of those stretches, the hairs would indeed match an ancient polar bear. But they might also match any living member of the genus Ursus, such as the bears currently living near the sample sites—the Isabelline grizzly (Ursus arctos isabellinus) and the Tibetan grizzly (Ursus arctos pruinosus). And just for your reference, all the bears in North America are also of the genus Ursus.
Not to get too deep in the weeds, but it also matters whether Sykes is analyzing nuclear DNA or mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), as he did with his Iceman studies. If it’s mtDNA, the findings could be further complicated by an ongoing debate about ancient interbreeding between polar bears and brown bears and who gave whom their current mitochondria. Galbreath noted that quality of the DNA sequence is another issue. Even published sequences that appear on the National Institutes of Health’s GenBank have been known to contain errors.
But let’s say all of the above somehow checks out. There’s another possibility here that does not require honors chemistry.
“Polar bears have been in ‘trade’ since the medieval period,” says Andrew Derocher, a polar bear scientist at the University of Alberta. In fact, an article from the Canadian Historical Review provides early accounts of white bears in the Middle East. “My guess is that if bears got to Egypt or thereabouts in 1200-1300, it doesn’t seem like a big stretch that either a hide, hides, or parts of hides made it even further east.”
Which brings us back to the “Yeti mummy.” Galbreath, too, expressed skepticism over its identity and origin. “In any event, where the mummy was kept does not necessarily indicate where the animal was killed,” he said. “It could have been a trade specimen, potentially from some distant locale.” So, the link to an ancient polar bear might just mean the hairs are from a modern polar bear that got some posthumous mileage.
Finally, there just doesn’t seem to be any room in the Himalayas for another species or subspecies of bear. Galbreath explains that by definition, a subspecies must occupy a geographic area different from that of the two known Himalayan grizzly species. Speaking from his own research on Asian bear distribution, he admits, “I don’t see what area that could be.” Failing that, Sykes’s samples would have to represent an entirely new species of bear competing in the same habitats as the Himalayan grizzlies, the Moon Bear (Ursus thibetanus), and the Sloth Bear (Ursus ursinis).
“I do want to keep an open mind here,” says Galbreath. “While a new species of Himalayan bear is not very likely, neither is it impossible.”
I’m all for keeping an open mind, but we’re living in a world now where once-serious cable channels air documentaries about living Megalodons and mermaids. Let’s hope the story is different on Sunday night when Sykes unveils his findings as part of a three-part series for Britain’s Channel 4 TV Network.
Personally, I’m only convinced of the existence of one Yeti—and it’s a robot.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.