Abom­inable news: sci­en­tists rule out yetis

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - ( Cour­tesy: Maev Kennedy, the Guardian)

Tests on ‘ fur’ from around world finds none gen­uine but Hi­malaya sam­ple could be new kind of po­lar bear

The yeti, and his sham­bling hairy cousins the big­foot, al­masty, sasquatch and mi­gyur, may still be out there, high in the snowy peaks of the Hi­malayas, Rocky Moun­tains or Urals – but they have es­caped a team of sci­en­tists who have been test­ing dozens of sam­ples, all claimed to be gen­uine chunks of yeti fur.

They have turned out to be hairs from de­press­ingly fa­mil­iar an­i­mals in­clud­ing cows, rac­coons, horses, dogs, sheep, a Malayan tapir, a por­cu­pine, and, in the case of one sam­ple from Texas, a hu­man be­ing. And also a blade of grass and a strand of fi­bre­glass.

“Don’t give up yet, the yeti may still be out there,” Bryan Sykes said re­as­sur­ingly. The pro­fes­sor of hu­man ge­net­ics at Ox­ford and an ex­pert on an­cient DNA, said he launched the project, writ­ing to mu­se­ums and col­lec­tors all over the world, with only a 5% hope of suc­cess.

“That would nor­mally be too slim a mar­gin to launch a ma­jor study,” Sykes said, “but I did think there was just a chance we would un­cover some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary.”

What he hoped for was less the abom­inable snow­man of leg­end than ev­i­dence for a sur­viv­ing Ne­an­derthal, which some say could be the ori­gin of yeti sto­ries.

He found nei­ther. How­ever, the team, which pub­lishes its find­ings in this week’s Pro­ceed­ings of the Royal So­ci­ety, has found some­thing al­most equally ex­tra­or­di­nary, in two sam­ples of bear fur from Bhutan and the In­dian Hi­malayas.

Al­though one is red­dish brown and the other golden brown, the bear’s clos­est rel­a­tive turned out to be a pre­cise match for DNA ex­tracted from fos­sil re­mains of a po­lar bear that lived 40,000 years ago. The sam­ples were quite un­like mod­ern po­lar bears. This raises the in­trigu­ing pos­si­bil­ity that de­scen­dents of a pre­his­toric po­lar bear are at large in the Hi­malayas.

The sam­ple from Ladakh in In­dia is said to be from an an­i­mal shot 40 years ago by an ex­pe­ri­enced hunter, who said the crea­ture’s be­hav­iour was very dif­fer­ent from the brown bears he knew well.

He kept the pelt hid­den, and, ac­cord­ing to Sykes, was very re­luc­tant to hand over sam­ples to the French ex­plorer who brought them back to the west. The other sam­ple came from Bhutan, where yetis – re­ferred to by the sci­en­tists as “anoma­lous pri­mates” – are known as mi­gyur.

“Po­lar bears have some quite dis­tinct be­hav­iour, in­clud­ing de­lib­er­ately hunt­ing hu­man prey,” Sykes said. “It would be very in­ter­est­ing to go and see if this is a be­havioural pat­tern which has en­dured in the Hi­malayan bears.”

The pa­per is the first such study in a peer­re­viewed jour­nal. Sykes, who is also pub­lish­ing a book on yetis this au­tumn – “I wouldn’t have done this as a young man, be­fore I had an es- tab­lished rep­u­ta­tion as a sci­en­tist,” he ad­mit­ted – said he was struck that sci­ence was ac­cused by yeti en­thu­si­asts of re­ject­ing the no­tion of their ex­is­tence. “This con­flicts with the ba­sic tenet that sci­ence nei­ther re­jects nor ac­cepts any­thing with­out ex­am­in­ing the ev­i­dence,” the team wrote.

Sci­en­tists had largely avoided “this of­ten murky field” for more than half a cen­tury, Sykes said, since they joined ex­pe­di­tions in the 1950s led by Sir Ed­mund Hillary and other ex­plor­ers. Back then, they could not have con­ducted so­phis­ti­cated DNA test­ing.

Sam­ples poured in from col­lec­tions all over the world, but the only mys­tery about most was the en­dur­ing one of hu­man credulity. Two sent from Rus­sia were claimed to be hairs from an al­masty, the Rus­sian ver­sion of the big­foot. They proved to be rac­coon and black bear hairs, both na­tives of North Amer­ica. The tapir hair came from Su­ma­tra, cow hairs from several places in the US along with the por­cu­pine quill, and a hair from a serow, a goat like crea­ture, from Nepal.

“Ab­sence of ev­i­dence is not ev­i­dence of ab­sence, and this sur­vey can­not re­fute the ex­is­tence of anoma­lous pri­mates,” the au­thors wrote. There is more work to be done, Sykes said – but the grass and the fi­bre­glass have def­i­nitely been elim­i­nated from his in­quiries.

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