Sykes paper is a clarion call for higher standards for cryptozoology

The highly anticipated paper from B. Skyes regarding DNA testing of anomalous primates has been published and is, thankfully, freely accessible.

In 2012, the team from University of Oxford and the Museum of Zoology, Lausanne, put out a call for samples of suspected anomalous primates – Yeti, Bigfoot/Sasquatch, Almasty, orang pendek. The samples, if accepted, would be genetically tested using a cleaning method previously vetted in the Journal of Forensic Science that removes all traces of surface contaminants (most likely human) to get to the original DNA sequence. A specific portion of the DNA was used – the ribosomal mitochondrial DNA 12S fragment – for comparison to sequences in the worldwide genetic database GenBank.

A total of 57 samples were received. Two samples were actually not animal hair: one was plant material, the other was glass fiber. Those not trained in biology/zoology cannot always tell the difference between organic and inorganic matter or plant vs animal fibers, as we’d also seen from hunters collecting samples on the Spike TV show Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty.
37 of the sample were selected for genetic analysis. 18 were from 8 U.S. states, including pairs from AZ, CA, MN, OR, TX. The rest were from WA, what is believed to be the prime habitat of Bigfoot/Sasquatch. 8 samples were anticipated to be the almasty from Russia. Three samples were collected in the Himalayan region of Asia and one came from Sumatra supposedly representing the orang pendek.

Let’s see what the results were.

Unfortunately, there were no anomalous primates in the lot. The sequences all matched 100%, there were no “unknowns”.

One was found to be human – from Texas. That only one matched with humans is a testament to the rigorous cleaning method that removed contamination. Sykes revealed his thinking about Melba Ketchum’s paper by noting that human contamination often “confounds the analysis of old material and may lead to misinterpretation of a sample as human or even as an unlikely and unknown human x mammalian hybrid” (Ketchum, et al.). Therefore, her claim of rigorous forensic procedures is shot down, again. Incidentally, Sykes et al. does not consider Ketchum’s paper as a “scientific publication” likely because it was self-published. The Sykes et al. study is regarded as the FIRST serious study regarding anomalous primate DNA – he cites two others that were joke papers. Recall that Ketchum cited these in her paper as genuine, revealing her professional ineptness. While the Sykes, et al. paper lists Ketchum as a reference, it is only to cite it as a poor study, not within the valid body of scientific literature, with misinterpreted results. [Burn.] The quality difference between the two papers is remarkable. The Sykes paper is readable and understandable with minimal jargon and a clear presentation of the data and conclusions. Ketchum’s paper was gobbledygook and, with this new commentary on it, albeit subtle, is another death-blow to any further serious scientific consideration.

All the U.S. samples turned out to be extant (already existing in that area) animals such as cow, horse, black bear, dog/wolf, sheep, raccoon, porcupine, or deer. There very clearly was nothing anomalous at all.

All the Russian samples, at least some of which were collected by Ketchum associate Igor Burtsev, also were disappointing. There were two anomalies, however. Samples of raccoon and American black bear were among the Russian samples indicating either a mistake in the location of the samples or individuals of these animals were imported to Russia at some point and their samples left behind.

Sadly, the orang pendek sample from Sumatra turned out to be from a Malaysian Tapir. This is not the first time tapirs have faked evidence for a Bigfoot creature. But I suspect this sample was very disappointing since the orang pendek is considered to be a plausible cryptid – likely a new species of primate. However, this test failed to provide support for that idea.

The Nepal sample turned out to be a native goat, a serow. However, the other two Himalayan samples were the most interesting of all.

Not one but two samples, those from Ladakh, India and Bhutan, matched a fossilized genetic sample of Ursus martimus, a polar bear of the Pleistocene era, 40,000 years old. Note: TWO samples! There was not a match with the modern species of polar bear. Thus, the study has discovered a new anomaly! This result is a boon to bear studies. Future research will continue to look for more evidence of the representative animal, hopefully a living one. The paper is clear, as was the documentary on this discovered which aired months ago, this previously unknown hybrid bear may contribute to the yeti legend. The look and behavior are reportedly different from the other native bears. Is the Yeti a bear? Well, the yeti is a very general term and its description varies across the huge expanse of the world where it is reported to exist. Even the orang pendek, more akin to an orang utan, is sometimes referred to as a “yeti”. Therefore, the “yeti” is likely not just one animal. It is feasible that this new bear constitutes one version of the yeti. Sykes has been open in stating that it does not mean a primate Yeti is not out there. It just means this result was not supportive of that idea.

Rendition of unknown bear that may represent the Yeti
Rendition of unknown bear that may represent the Yeti

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. I’ve said as much before. To do science requires very specific training. One result of the Ketchum fiasco and the Sykes “success” has been to educate cryptid hunters about genetics and reliable tests that can give them the results they desire. This project was an excellent example of amateurs working with professionals – exactly what needs to be done to make real discoveries and come up with better answers than “It’s a squatch”.

sasquatch

I’ve always disputed the claim from paranormal researchers (including cryptozoology enthusiasts) that science ignores their work. Scientists had previously been involved in the founding of the field of cryptozoology but also studies in the psychical research and UFOs. They looked, there was nothing there and they moved on. (See my thesis on amateur research and investigation groups, ARIGs)

Now, the modern field of cryptozoology has been put on notice. You need to raise the standards; you need to stop wasting effort. Blurry pictures or another FLIR recording of a warm blob is not going to constitute worthwhile evidence. We best learn about nature through a scientific process. That means amateurs must work WITH the experts, not rail against them.

I was very pleased with the results of the Sykes, et al. study. I look forward to his book release on this topic as well.

Defending the faith of cryptozoology

My latest post, regarding the rational vs non-rational response to the new cryptozoology book by Loxton and Prothero, Abominable Science, went live on Huffington Post yesterday.

Cryptozoology Gets Respect While Bigfooters Behave Badly.

When critical thinkers approach the subject of Bigfoot (or cryptozoology in general) with a focus on the evidence, they are met with reproach. We are challenging much more than the claim; we challenge their belief. They will resort to what Biblical literalists will do to evolutionists – they demonize, call us names, misquote, pick at small mistakes, and take words and ideas out of context. They create an extreme position and shoot it down (called a “straw man” argument) because it’s a power play to make them feel superior. (Note that some aggressive “skeptics” will do that and it’s not fair play in that case either.) All the while, they skirt the MAJOR flaws in their own conclusions.

Bigfoot-themed and other cryptozoology blogs and forums are typically hostile to skeptics, even moderate ones like myself. They can’t understand why we even want to participate since we are going to “deny” everything. Gee, sorry for being interested in the topic and in getting a good answer for peoples’ experiences. Questioning is not denying, it’s thinking.

A while back I challenged cryptozoologists to read the book and make a fair assessment. Some seem to have read it. Three known men gave it ridiculous reviews. They only read the parts that interested them and presumed judgement on the whole book. That is intellectually dishonest and really shallow, not to mention extremely arrogant, behavior. This is why we can’t take self-proclaimed cryptozoological experts seriously. They treat their subject more like a religion, based on faith.

Continue reading Defending the faith of cryptozoology

Count von Count’s arithromania

Last Dragon*Con, I went to a talk about movie monsters. It was a small group with three artists up front chatting about their favorite creature features. It was so much fun, all that trivia. There was one tidbit from that presentation that I found so adorable and interesting, I was amazed I never thought of it before. I had to write about it. Yes, it’s taken me a year to do it.

I don’t know how they got around to the topic but we were discussing the Count from Sesame Street. You may remember that he counts everything. Nifty, eh? What a great kids character – just a touch scary (like other Muppets) but not threatening.
count

When I was a kid, a bit after the Sesame Street days, I got into monster books and loved to learn “facts” about vampires. One way to stop or at least delay a vampire, I’d heard, was to throw a handful of rice or seeds behind you. He would (apparently) compulsively stop and have to count every grain before proceeding. Interesting…

Is that where the Count von Count got his counting habit from?

The person next to me in the monsters talk said “Yes”.

Really? How did I not make this connection!

Continue reading Count von Count’s arithromania

Doubt and About – Challenge to cryptozoologists

Since I got back from July jaunts, I’ve taken a little break. I’m not doing Virtual Skeptics for August. So, in my spare time I managed to learn some accounting software (ALWAYS TRY TO LEARN NEW THINGS!).

Speaking of learning new things, the main point of this post is a challenge for people who follow one of my favorite fields of research to try something new.

I’ve been gushing over this book, Abominable Science by Loxton and Prothero, since I got it.
It takes a lot for me to really love a book. I might not read a five-star worthy book in a whole year. But this one is very special. I’m glad to have played a small part in its content. That’s not the reason why I love it. I love it because it reflects some of my own serious thinking about the field and reveals some really important issues that desperately need to be considered. It illuminates a huge problem in cryptozoology – possible the main problem – BAD SCHOLARSHIP. Today’s cryptid researchers forego diligence in examining claims in exchange for bolstering a beloved belief. (For example, authors like Nick Redfern, books series like “Monsters of [U.S. state]”, websites like Bigfoot Evidence and radio shows like Coast to Coast AM). Those are  more fiction than nonfiction, fun and not serious (though some people take them very seriously).

It’s assumed that the skeptical view is not desirable. Wrong. People who want answers should logically seek them, not ignore a worthwhile contribution to the discussion.

I am asking any self-styled cryptozoologists to examine this book and tell me what you think. A common trope is that skeptics are not open-minded. Well, practice what you preach. Take a look at this book, which is fully referenced so you can make your own call on the evidence if you are so inclined. I have suspected that it might be ignored by those who prefer to monger mysteries instead of digging into the truth behind them. That’s cowardly. Don’t be like that. Expand your thinking. Question your assumptions.

So that’s the challenge. Read it and let me know what you think. I will happily share your comments with the authors as well because they value critique and feedback, unlike many in the paranormal field who seem to just want praise and a spot on a TV show.

Also, in the interest of respect for your subject area, you also should listen to the podcast Monster Talk. They bring on actual experts to discuss the science behind monsters. Boring? Not in the least. It’s so witty and smart. Yes, it’s a big change from Bigfoot audiocasts that just wax speculatively about the latest rumors and online evidence. But, again, give it a try. Check out the skeptical scholarship. If you want to understand the topic, you must be open to all angles.

OK, that’s that. Here’s more. Continue reading Doubt and About – Challenge to cryptozoologists

Slender Man – We made him and his family what they are today

I can’t recall when I first heard about Slender Man but since he was only created in 2009, it must have been relatively recently. He is, however, one of those characters that you would SWEAR has been around for a much longer time and has a history. The truth is, he was created by an imaginative mind and he just worked.

I was listening to It’s A Thing, the conveniently-sized podcast by two of my favorite Tech reporters – Tom Merritt and Molly Wood. It’s a trend-spotting show. Tom’s thing was ‘Slender Man’ which he heard about from some kid. Slender Man is a “thing” indeed.

(The) Slender Man was born from a photo editing contest on the Something Awful web forums in 2009 when “Victor Surge” submitted for evaluation two images of groups of children with a tall, thin, creepy faceless dude in a black suit. For effect, the submitter added a story to go along with it establishing that the figure brings death and bad luck.

slenderman_kids
Something’s not right about that thing in the back left

Along with his stretchy, tentacle-like arms and hairless pate, whatever more you need to know about Slender Man can be found here at Know Your Meme, at the Slender Man Wiki, and on this adorable video. Continue reading Slender Man – We made him and his family what they are today

Freak Out Over Hairless Mystery Beasts

Hairless carcasses attract morbid attention. Is it a mutant? A monster? Well, it’s most likely an unfortunate local animal who fortunately left remains for us to photograph, gawk over, get grossed out about, and share around the world on social media.

tenby-beast
Tenby, Pembrokeshire, U.K.

We are coming up on the spring/summer season and we already have our first mystery beast of the year which washed up on the U.K. shore: The Tenby Mystery Carcass. The best guess for this is likely a badger, judging from the size, head, teeth and claws. It may look large and horse-like but note the footprints, it’s not large. It’s about medium-dog sized.

Even though they are strange and disgusting, I’m intrigued by these critters and can’t pass up a chance to post their pictures and speculate (with comparative evidence) about what it is.

Carcasses on the beach are unpleasant. They are smelly, bloated and missing important parts. There may be trauma to the body. Decomposition will make the creature look nasty and also makes it difficult to comprehend what they looked like alive, possibly so much so that we can’t relate them to a known animal. Often, as part of the decomposition in water, the hair falls out with just a little bit remaining as clues to what it looked like alive.

Covered in seaweed, one of the most interesting was dubbed the San Diego Demonoid due to its overall weirdness and HUGE canine teeth. Continue reading Freak Out Over Hairless Mystery Beasts