Sykes’ Yeti-polar bear data conclusions challenged

There is an update to the story about ancient polar bear DNA found in the samples gathered while searching for the Yeti in Asia. It throws doubt on the results that there is a new type of hybrid bear.

BBC News – Scientists challenge ‘Abominable Snowman DNA’ results.

Last year, Oxford University genetics professor Bryan Sykes revealed the results of DNA tests on hairs said to be from the Abominable Snowman.

The tests matched the samples with the DNA of an ancient polar bear.

But two other scientists have said re-analysis of the same data shows the hairs belong to the Himalayan bear, a sub-species of the brown bear.

The results of the new research by Ceiridwen Edwards and Ross Barnett have been published in the Royal Society journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Bryan Sykes original samples, namely two from Ladakh (Northern India) and Bhutan, were a genetic match for a 40,000-year-old jawbone from a polar bear that lived in the Norwegian Arctic. At the foundation though, all that meant was that the DNA sequence was shared. However, one possibility that arose was that there was a hybrid bear out there, and, that that new bear may account for some Yeti sightings. Sykes was interested in expeditions to look for the hybrid bear. But now, that idea is on more shaky ground.

The authors of the rebuttal challenged Sykes’ claim that his samples did not match modern examples of the bear species. They found rare brown bear samples that also match with the polar bear sequence. They state this is not surprising since they share a common ancestor.

In their paper, Dr Edwards and Dr Barnett said their tests identified the hairs as being from a rare type of brown bear.

The scientists said: “The Himalayan bear is a sub-species of the brown bear that lives in the higher reaches of the Himalayas, in remote, mountainous areas of Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and India.

“Its populations are small and isolated, and it is extremely rare in many parts of its range.

“The common name for these bears in the region is Dzu-teh, a Nepalese term meaning ‘cattle bear’, and they have long been associated with the myth of the yeti.”

This re-evaluation of the Sykes DNA data is published in the same journal that published his result, as a “comment”. It’s an excellent example of the back and forth that occurs in professional scientific discussion.

The paper is here behind a paywall, though.

What now? Well, we know we have bears in this area. Still no Yeti. And perhaps not even a new bear. But, this pursuit of the Yeti is a boon to the study of bear genetics! There remains good reason to suspect that at least some “Yeti” reports are actually bear sightings.

The study of mystery animals should go where the data leads. If that occurs, we will surely gain much of value no matter what the result. Compare this progress, that went down an unexpectedly interesting path, to the no progress occurring in Bigfoot/Sasquatch study in the US. It’s a different world entirely.

Artists version of the "yeti" as a hybrid polar bear

Artists version of the “yeti” as a hybrid polar bear

  5 comments for “Sykes’ Yeti-polar bear data conclusions challenged

  1. December 17, 2014 at 6:11 PM

    Many of us were thinking in this direction even before the public release of this paper. As Cameron McCormick has noted, brown bears from the Gobi desert and Pakistan have also been shown to possess mtDNA bearing a greater similar to that of polar bears and ABC Islands bears than other brown bears:
    http://www.bearbiology.com/fileadmin/tpl/Downloads/URSUS/Vol_18/U18_1_Gabreath_et_al.pdf

  2. terry the censor
    December 17, 2014 at 11:05 PM

    Sykes’ and his colleagues have responded in the same journal issue. (The reply is short enough that it can be read in its entirety despite the paywall.)

    http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/282/1800/20142434

  3. busterggi
    December 18, 2014 at 8:06 AM

    Any chance of testing the teeth of the specimen to see what they match?

  4. Chris Hunt
    December 19, 2014 at 5:25 AM

    Judging by the picture, are they sure it wasn’t a giant meerkat?

  5. Russian Skeptic
    December 19, 2014 at 1:53 PM

    Hardly surprising, since the polar bear is a very young species, having split from the brown bear only somewhat 250,000 years ago. So, naturally: 1) a 40,000 year old polar bear would have been closer to its ancestral form than modern polar bears; 2) an isolated population like Himalayan bears could have retained some ancestral sequences.

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