Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Cryptozoology: Sykes DNA results on yeti, sasquatch, etc.

Bryan Sykes is a well-respected Oxford professor with a stack of peer-reviewed scientific publications on DNA. Now he has a new one. His paper analyzing 37 "anomalous primate" samples from around the world has produced 35 known animals - 37, really, but the two polar bear samples from the Himalayas present a genuine mystery, if not a primate-related one.  The abstract states:
"In the first ever systematic genetic survey, we have used rigorous decontamination followed by mitochondrial 12S RNA sequencing to identify the species origin of 30 hair samples attributed to anomalous primates. Two Himalayan samples, one from Ladakh, India, the other from Bhutan, had their closest genetic affinity with a Palaeolithic polar bear, Ursus maritimus. Otherwise the hairs were from a range of known extant mammals."

A book, The Yeti Enigma,  will follow in September. Note that Sykes published his peer-reviewed paper (peer review is not a flawless system, but it's the best we have) before coming out with a book.  Too often in cryptozoology, people do the reverse. Also too often, the science is sloppy: Sykes and colleagues help correct the imbalance by dismissing the contaminated samples and the overall toxic mess of the Ketchum sasquatch DNA study.  The new findings do not prove there is no sasquatch, yeti, etc., but they do prove no one has gotten a genuine hair sample, which does lengthen the odds against these putative primates. Sykes has taken the best-quality evidence primate hunters could supply him with and showed that almost all of it is irrelevant. He has, though, established a database of results that will come in handy for identifying any future samples: negative findings do matter in science.

What to make of all this? Sharon Hill of Doubtful News writes, "The main thrust of this paper hits the gut of cryptozoology. As it is practiced today by amateur Bigfoot hunters and monster trackers, it is not science. This paper represents science. It’s a high bar." To her, amateur hunters need to stop complaining about "closed-minded" experts and switch to persuading them with high-quality science.  Can't argue with that.

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman points out on his CryptoZoo News site that the news is hardly all bad for cryptozoology.  Coleman notes the study itself and some of the news coverage - which has unusually intelligent for coverage of this subject - reveal "a notable depth of respect for the work of cryptozoologists." Plus, "This definitely shows there’s DNA in the Himalayas area of an unknown bear." The polar-bear type hairs are reddish-brown and golden-brown, respectively, though Sykes notes there are some reports of white bears from the region, while Coleman makes the point that reports of white yetis are almost nonexistent.  Sykes and his colleagues suggest the hair could be from a brown bear-polar bear hybrid. In other words, there could be a relatively isolated group of bears whose genomes are predominantly polar.

Sykes says, "Bigfootologists and other enthusiasts seem to think that they’ve been rejected by science. Science doesn’t accept or reject anything, all it does is examine the evidence and that is what I’m doing.” He plans an expedition in search of the strange bear.  Good luck and good hunting!

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