The initial details on Dr. Bryan Sykes’ DNA findings of “ancient polar bear” affinities to two so-called “Yeti hair samples” has been previously shared in “Yeti Studies To Be Shaken By Sykes Finding.”
The effect of brief media statements about extremely complex genetic facts is often quick one-timers, like “Yetis are really polar bears.” Let’s take more time to look at the bears of the Himalayan area, and at the fossil find behind the “Yeti” results.
All of the findings are going to unfold soon. First there will be the documentaries, then Sykes’s forthcoming scientific papers, and then also his future book, Yeti Enigma. British Channel 4 will be first up with their broadcast on Sunday, of a three-parter entitled Bigfoot Files. The broadcast on the anniversary of the taking of the Patterson-Gimlin Bluff Creek Bigfoot film, does not seem coincidental. Then the results will be featured in a new two-hour special, Bigfoot: Revealed, produced for Channel 4 in the U.K. and premiering in the U.S. Sunday, November 17, 2013, at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic Channel.
The “polar bear” answer to all Yeti reports is too simplistic, and even Dr. Bryan Sykes understands that.
What is already occurring is a bit of readjustment about these samples, since the first breaking news. The exciting finds that they are a match – a 100% match – to an ancient polar bear mandible – are only a small percentage of the Yeti samples gathered by Sykes. Here he is being interviewed by the BBC to clarify some of this business:
In some ways, this is old news repackaged and updated. In the New Scientist on April 2, 2001, the following was partially published. It directly impacts on the Sykes’ samples:
Hairs found in a Bhutan forest could be those of the legendary Yeti, say makers of a TV documentary.
The cluster of hairs was found in a cedar tree by scientists who accompanied the documentary team. Sonam Dhendup, a local Yeti-hunter and guide, said the tree was the animal’s lair.
On returning to Britain, the team handed the hair to Oxford geneticists for analysis.
“It’s not a human, it’s not a bear, nor anything else that we’ve so far been able to identify,” says Bryan Sykes, professor of human genetics at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford.
“We’ve never encountered any DNA that we couldn’t recognise before, but then, we weren’t looking for the Yeti,” says Sykes, the first geneticist to extract DNA from archaeological bone specimens.
Sykes says that all other hairs handed in by the Yeti-hunting team were easy to identify, turning out to be pigs, for example.
An earlier, skin sample from Bhutan reputed to be from a Yeti was shown by Sykes to be that of a bear. But he is mystified by the hair sample. “We don’t know what it is; it’s behaving most peculiarly,” he says.
Rob McCall, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Oxford, reported finding scratch marks inside the cedar tree, which resembled claw rather than nail scratches.
McCall also discovered odd footprints just a couple of hours old. They revealed a short print with a narrow heel, plus toe pads rather than claws. Source.
But some skeptics are falling all over themselves to find fault in Sykes’ story.
William Laurance, a research Professor and Australian Laureate at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, had this to say: “Curiously, back in 2001 when Sykes first tested the hair found in the forest, he told New Scientist ”It’s not a bear, nor anything else that we’ve so far been able to identify.” It is not clear what has made him change his mind.”
Of course, what changed Sykes’ mind was the discovery, since 2001, of the ancient polar bear DNA!
What Sykes has found is evidence, solid physical evidence, that another possible new subspecies or species of bear, an ancient form of polar bear (a branch of the brown bears), has very recently been encountered in the Ladakh region of India and in Bhutan.
Bears in the Land of Yeti
Of course, there are many known bears in the Himalayan region. Below are several examples.
Two views of the sloth bear.
The sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), also known as the Stickney Bear or labiated bear, was first described scientifically in 1791.
The Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus), also known as the moon bear or white-chested bear, has been verified since 1823.
None of the above chest-blazed bears are to be confused with the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), also called the Malayan sun bear or the honey bear, which is a bear found in tropical forest habitats of Southeast Asia, known scientifically since 1821.
There is also in the area the Himalayan Brown Bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus), also known as the Himalayan Red Bear or Isabelline Bear. A subspecies of the Brown Bear, it was first described scientifically in 1826. Wikipedia has this unfortunate sentence in their description of the Himalayan Brown Bear: “The bear (as the Dzu-Teh) is thought to be the source of the legend of the Yeti.”
There is also the Tibetan Blue Bear (Ursus arctos pruinosus), another subspecies of Brown Bear, first known since 1854. It is also called the Himalayan blue bear, Himalayan snow bear, Tibetan brown bear, or the horse bear. One of the rarest subspecies of bears in the world, the blue bear is seldom sighted in the wild. It was a Himalayan blue bear hide that the 1960 World Book Expedition held up, when Sir Edmund Hillary and Marlin Perkins initially claimed it to be a Yeti skin. The skin’s buyer, Desmond Doig, allegedly, knew exactly what it was.
The panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, lit. ”black and white cat-foot”), also known as the giant panda to distinguish it from the unrelated red panda, is a bear native to south central China, not Tibet, as often thought. Scientifically described in 1869, the first living giant panda was brought by to the West by Ruth Harkness in 1936.
The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) have been known to zoology since 1774, but from the far north, not the Himalayas.
What “ancient polar bear” DNA is Sykes talking about that overlaps with certain “Yeti hair samples”? (International Cryptozoology Museum photo by Asst Dir Jeff Meuse)
One of the samples Dr. Bryan Sykes analyzed came from an alleged Yeti mummy in the Indian region of Ladakh, at the Western edge of the Himalayas, and was taken by a French mountaineer who was shown the corpse 40 years ago.
The other was a single hair found a decade ago in Bhutan, 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) to the east.
Sykes said the fact the hair samples were found so far apart, and so recently, suggests the members of the species are still alive.
“I can’t imagine we managed to get samples from the only two `snow bears’ in the Himalayas,” he said to the Associated Press.
The Svalbard DNA came from an ancient polar bear mandible.
The jawbone is about 23cm long.
The news first became known in the mid-2000s (Source: BBC News, “Ancient Polar Bear Jawbone Found,” December 10, 2007):
What may be the oldest known remains of a polar bear have been uncovered on the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic.
The jawbone was pulled from sediments that suggest the specimen is perhaps 110,000 or 130,000 years old.
Professor Olafur Ingolfsson from the University of Iceland says tests show it was an adult, possibly a female.
The find is a surprise because polar bears are a relatively new species, with one study claiming they evolved less than 100,000 years ago.
If the Svalbard jawbone’s status is confirmed, and further discoveries can show the iconic Arctic beasts have a deeper evolutionary heritage, then the outlook for the animals may be more positive than some believe.
“We have this specimen that confirms the polar bear was a morphologically distinct species at least 100,000 years ago, and this basically means that the polar bear has already survived one interglacial period,” explained Professor Ingolfsson. “This is telling us that despite the ongoing warming in the Arctic today, maybe we don’t have to be quite so worried about the polar bear. That would be very encouraging.””And what’s interesting about that is that the Eeemian – the last interglacial – was much warmer than the Holocene (the present).
The jawbone’s discovery is being presented here in San Francisco at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting.
The specimen was found at Poolepynten on Prins Karls Forland, a narrow strip of land on the far west of the archipelago.
The sediments there are well-described, and record at least two glaciations sandwiched with marine sequences. In other words, they record periods when Poolepynten was alternately covered by ice and water.
These periods are understood in good detail by Professor Ingolfsson’s team, so although direct dating at the dig site gives an age range for the bone of 80-140,000 years ago, the group is confident the specimen can be placed at the upper end of this scale.
The 23cm-long bone itself retains some critical details that have helped identify it.
“It is very well-preserved,” Professor Ingolfsson told BBC News.
“We can measure various parameters, such as the cheek-teeth row-length, and the size of the hole made by the third molar – which is very characteristic of polar bears. We’ve compared all this, both to fossil and recent materials, and there’s no question it’s a polar bear.” They speculate it was a female bear.
Researchers have studied the DNA of modern polar bears to try to gauge when the Arctic animals separated from brown bears, their nearest evolutionary cousins.
Different models have variously put the radiation as near as 70,000 years ago and as distant as 1-1.5 million years ago. One of the problems has been in finding the ancient specimens to put alongside, and constrain, these genetic estimates.
Until recently, one of the oldest polar bear specimens was thought to be British – a 70,000-year-old animal found at Kew Bridge in London.
The presumption was that the creature lived at a lower latitude during a period when ice sheets were more extensive.
But scientists are now confident the Kew animal was in fact a brown bear.
“It’s a huge bear; it’s a runner – a hunting bear,” said Andy Currant, a palaeontologist from London’s Natural History Museum. “It’s got some of the features of a polar bear, but it’s undoubtedly a brown bear.
“With something like polar bears, to make an identification you’ve got to have a skull or a lower jaw – they’ve got very reduced teeth, rather surprisingly, and you’ve got to see that. So I was interested to learn that [Ingolfsson’s group] has that.”
When the researchers compared the fossil’s DNA with analogous DNA from six other specimens of living brown bears and polar bears, they detected genetic hallmarks of both species. That suggests that the fossil bear was one of the first polar bears to branch off from brown bears.
“It’s a truly ancient polar bear,” says lead author and geneticist Charlotte Lindqvist of the University at Buffalo in New York state. It must have lived close to the time when the species had split off from the so-called ABC brown bears, which inhabit three islands—Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof—in southeastern Alaska. Those bears are more closely related to polar bears than they are to other brown bears, she says.
The DNA evidence and the location of the find suggest that polar bears were just beginning to spread out across their Arctic habitat between the last two ice ages, when Earth’s climate was warmer than it is today. In just 1000 generations or so, U. maritimus morphed from a stocky brown bear to a long-necked bear with thick fatty layers and that signature white coat. Lindqvist says the Svalbard area, north of the Arctic Circle and far from the competitors inhabiting the continental land masses, offered just the right refuge where the bears could persist through the warming period before the last ice age and then begin to adapt to a life amid the frozen sea.
Source: Science Magazine, “Early Polar Bear Discovered In Arctic Tundra,” March 1, 2010.
Sykes said Thursday that the tests showed the creatures were not related to modern Himalayan bears but were direct descendants of the prehistoric animal.
He said, “it may be a new species, it may be a hybrid” between polar bears and brown bears.
“The next thing is go there and find one.”
Sykes said he was simply trying “to inject some science into a rather murky field.”
“The Yeti, the Bigfoot, is surrounded in myth and hoaxes,” he said. “But you can’t invent a DNA sequence from a hair.”
Yetis are not white, and the ancient polar bear probably wasn’t either.
The newswires are filled with breaking stories about this discovery. A thoughtful piece by National Geographic contains a variation on this passage from my conversation with writer Ker Than:
Loren Coleman, director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, said Sykes’ finding could potentially be the “number one story in cryptozoology” — the study of hidden, or unverified, animals — “for the decade.”Coleman, who was filmed for the upcoming documentary, noted, however, that Sykes’ findings likely explain only one of Yeti varieties that have been reported.“That’s one of the problems with the word ‘Yeti,’” Coleman said. “It’s an umbrella term for three different varieties. There’s the small kind, there’s a man-sized type, and then a larger one. I consider what he’s looking at are samples from the larger-sized one that many of us in the field have speculated was a form of bear.”
The story about this “ancient polar bear”- and one part of the Yeti question – is far from fully revealed. (International Cryptozoology Museum photo by Asst Dir Jeff Meuse)