More news in the Sykes Himalayan yeti saga.
If you recall, Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes published a paper in a prestigious scientific journal in July 2014. The results were a disappointment for Yeti supporters, establishing that the mystery samples of DNA were not primate, but normal animals and human. The Sykes (et al.) study did, however, yield something indeed interesting – a possible new bear species as one interpretation. Even though the results seemed conservative to those looking for a blockbuster finding (just another bear), the work appeared to be important for overall bear taxonomy.
Another paper has appeared that concludes Sykes’ results aren’t really anything to crow about, and CERTAINLY not a foundation to mount an expedition to look for a new bear that may account for the Yeti reports. Doubtful News reader Ronald Pine is coauthor to Eliécer E. Gutiérrez on this new (open access) paper published today in the journal ZooKeys.
The title says it all:
Gutiérrez EE, Pine RH (2015) No need to replace an “anomalous” primate (Primates) with an “anomalous” bear (Carnivora, Ursidae). ZooKeys 487: 141-154. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.487.9176
Their results of a new examination of the gene sequences by Sykes and others, show that there was not enough information there to support the Sykes, et al. suggestion that there may be a new hybrid bear in India and Bhutan.
The Gutiérrez/Pine study included “direct comparisons of 12S rRNA sequences of the bear species Ursus maritimus (Polar bear) and U. arctos (Brown bear)” with the two questionable sequences identified by Sykes’ study. Sykes’ study had concluded these were “a previously unrecognized bear species, colour variants of U. maritimus, or U. arctos/U. maritimus hybrids.” However, what the new review found was “few and inconsistent differences between these [two] species” when examining the comparative fragments.
In other words, there was nothing there on which to base the “hybrid” finding.
From the paper:
The molecular data obtained and analyzed by Sykes et al. (2014) are not informative enough to suggest the possibility that a taxonomically unrecognized type of bear exists in the Himalayas. The interpretations made by Sykes et al. with respect to the possible taxonomic identity of the focal sequences were based merely on the results of a BLAST run against GenBank sequences. The short fragment sequences of the mitochondrial 12S rRNA gene obtained by Sykes et al. from their hair samples and homologous frag- ment sequences of Ursus arctos and U. maritimus are all identical except in four positions.
The authors say that the data that Sykes was working with would not be expected to be of such a nature as to rule out the hypothesis that the DNA was simply normal brown bear. Earlier this year, there was a rebuttal to the Sykes study from Edwards and Barnett who also concluded the DNA was from Ursus arctos (subspecies: isabellinus) but the mistakes were due to degradation of the sample. Gutiérrez and Pine say that, if degradation occurred, it may not even matter: the simplest conclusion that can be made from the results was that it was from brown bear, U. arctos.
The Gutiérrez and Pine study also pointed out some interesting findings on the populations of Asian Black bears (Ursus thibetanus) and recommend more work in bear population studies including use of museum specimens for DNA sequencing.
I contacted Dr. Pine for his thoughts on why he undertook this study and what it means for bears and Bigfootery. He remarked on his initial surprise that the Sykes team did not seem focused on brown bear genetic makeup since the animal is well-known in the area and and obvious potential source of DNA. The normal range of variation in the genetic sequences should be a important consideration. Pine also pointed out that the Sykes team was incorrect in concluding that their matching sequence had come from a fossil polar bear. The sequence is also part of the modern polar bear genetics.
Pine does not see a good reason to support the expense and effort of an expedition to the Himalayas to search for an unknown species of bear, as proposed by Sykes.
Now that two papers suggest that perhaps there may be a bias that resulted in a less than adequate effort to attempt to falsify an extraordinary claim, what is going on with the entire project? (Nope, it was not a Yeti, but it wasn’t a new bear, either.) Did the Sykes’ team want some sort of dramatic outcome to continue the project and squeeze something out of it? Recall that a co-author of the paper was a Bigfoot believer, Rhettman A. Mullis, Jr., President and Chairman of the Board of Bigfootology.
The Eurekalert release for the new paper notes that the study’s initial premise of testing for an “anomalous primate” and the claim for a possible unknown type of bear has been popular with the media. This project was the first time that a scientist with Sykes’ academic credentials looked at the possibility of Yeti DNA. Hopes were high. Sykes has a book on the way, a book that is clouded with a good bit of confusion as to its premise considering the findings and the current rumor on its marketing angle.
We are not sure what is going on here but from the wishful beginnings of possible finding conclusive proof of a Yeti, we are down to details of bear families. Interesting, but not quite made for television and big book sales.
UPDATE: Sykes responds in an inappropriate, defensive way.
The explanation by Gutierrez and Pine might be right, or it might not be,” Sykes wrote. “The only way forward, as I have repeatedly said, is to find a living bear that matches the 12S RNA and study fresh material from it. Which involves getting off your butt, not an activity I usually associate with desk-bound molecular taxonomists.”
Sykes said “the real heroes of the piece are the people who actually went to the Himalayas, spoke to the local people, found these hairs, had the wit to keep a few, and then contributed them to the study.”
He noted that his book about the project, titled “The Nature of the Beast,” is set for publication in April. As for the expedition to the Himalayas, Sykes said he was “not in a position to comment.”
This is starting to smell funny.