On Thursday, two stories dominated news on social media: 1. The end of the government shutdown. And 2. The discovery of Yeti DNA. Or at least that’s what the Internet would have us believe:
Of course, the “top two stories” are my unscientific estimate. But as much as I hate to throw cold water on it, there’s a lot that smells unscientific about the Yeti story, too—at least as reported by the media.
Bryan Sykes is a prominent University of Oxford genetics professor, known for his work on Ötzi, the Iceman, the roughly 5,000-year-old mummy that popped out of a glacier and captivated the world in 1991. Recently, he’s been working on something called the Oxford-Lausanne Collateral Hominid Project in order to better understand the relationship between humans and other hominids, namely cryptids—creatures believed by some to exist but without any real scientific backing. (The Loch Ness Monster, chupacabra, and Mongolian death worm are all cryptids, but Sykes’ concerns are obviously with those that resemble humans like the Yeti and Sasquatch.) As part of this project, Sykes has been asking people to send him hair samples of purported mythical beasts, which is how he came upon the two specimens used in the Yeti findings.
Now, about those samples … The Associated Press reports that one is from a single hair “found a decade ago in Bhutan,” while the other was plucked off an alleged “Yeti mummy” 40 years ago in the Indian region of Ladakh. (FYI: When you put “Yeti mummy” into Google, this is one of the first results you get.)
Sykes did not collect these samples, mind you. They were sent to him by locals who vouched for their veracity as Yetis. Not that one necessarily has anything to do with the other, but crowd-sourced “Russian Bigfoot” samples Sykes tested earlier this year came back as matches for three separate species—an American black bear, a raccoon, and a horse. There’s plenty else to dissect here, so I’m just going to let the mail-me-your-Yeti-fur aspect of this go for the moment.
Sykes analyzed the DNA of each sample and checked it against a database of known animal genomes. According to the AP, “He found they shared a genetic fingerprint with a polar bear jawbone found in the Norwegian Arctic that is at least 40,000 years old.” OK, so you can stop the story right here and call bullspit on all the headlines announcing the existence of Yetis. There are no Yetis. At best, people have mistaken some new species or subspecies of bear for Yetis.
And I want to be clear here that Sykes isn’t crying Yeti, either. He told the AP he was merely trying "to inject some science into a rather murky field.” He does, however, think the findings point to the possibility of a bear-bear hybrid or new species directly descended from an ancient polar bear and unrelated to modern Himalayan bears. And perhaps it’s this new creature that’s been mistaken for a Yeti by countless adventurers and locals. (It’s worth noting that Sykes’ research has not yet been published, but he has submitted it for peer review.)
Yeti headlines aside, this in and of itself would be an exciting find. Discovering new species of carnivorous mammals is really rare, as the recent discovery of the olinguito pointed out. But even with a 100 percent match to an ancient polar bear jawbone, there are still far more questions than answers when it comes to the significance of Sykes’ bear hairs.
But wait, you say, where’s the gray area when we’re talking about “100 percent”? Well, context is everything.
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.