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”.

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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.

A Bigfoot book that is incredibly relevant 30 years later

Once again, I’ve finally gotten around to a classic cryptozoology text. MAN! I missed out on this one for so many years. John Napier’s Bigfoot: The Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality ©1972 is one of the best Bigfoot texts I’ve read. I’m sure it’s because Napier was a scientist, a paleoanthropologist and primatologist – one of the first who paid serious attention to the idea of Bigfoot (Sasquatch and Yeti).

Bigfoot research has not progressed much. We still have no better evidence than we used to. As Napier notes, eyewitness accounts are the “lifeblood of the Bigfoot phenomenon.” Therefore, this book is TOTALLY relevant today and should be required reading for those weekend “squatchers”. The best parts of the book were the places where Napier says pretty much exactly what I’m thinking, and the parts where he nails down ideas about the creatures that have come to pass decades later.

Napier’s “Bigfoot” in the title is indicative of the defining characteristic – the big foot – and includes both the Yeti and Sasquatch. The Yeti preceded the North American Bigfoot/Sasquatch for public attention. The 1951 Shipton expedition introduced the Yeti to the public with the revelation of the clear photograph of a footprint. Napier obtained the original uncropped negative and discovers all is not as neat as it seems. The Shipton track is not human or ape and it’s not certain that the photo represents the print as it was made by whatever made it. Napier lists many options of animals that could have made the snow track only for it to be distorted by the elements and mistaken for what it is not.

Napier points out important cultural aspects of the Sherpas who tell the tale of the Yeti. He delivers some surprising conclusions such as the Sherpas are not all that great at identifying animals as people think, they aren’t particularly terrified of the Yeti as popularly depicted, and their narratives are garnished with traditional folklore themes that make it extremely difficult to discern a real animal from a legend. The stories contain popular folklore motifs such as backwards-turned feet, hair so long it impedes vision, and breasts so large they are slung over shoulders out-of-the-way. Silly stuff.

Napier refreshingly debunks several baseless ideas that mystery-mongering researchers love to use. For one, the idea of prehistoric survivors is not a good one. I agree. Though monster hunters like to say that myth has some basis in fact, that is not necessarily so, not when other evidence goes against the idea. He is blunt that scientists aren’t hiding information on Bigfoot. Scientists are not only “gossipers” (true – we love to share our discoveries) but also extremely curious. Bigfoot would be too big, wondrous and fantastic a discovery to hide. And, there is nothing threatening about the discovery of Bigfoot that would overturn biology. However, the scientific community pays little attention to ideas that have no merit. After examining what little there is on Bigfoot, science concludes there is nothing there to pursue. Bigfoot is not commonly spoken about because there is nothing scientific to talk about. Napier does note that no harm exists in looking into it, if interested, mainly because the public is interested and wants to know what experts think.

Monster worship is common across cultures. We must consider that our monster tales are a part of the evolution of our culture; it has nothing to do with intellectual ability. There will always be monsters to fear or love. That does not necessarily mean they are real animals. Bigfoot, Napier says, does not have the obvious social purpose or symbolism as some legends do. Here he means the Sherpa tales. He does not address the more current idea that Bigfoot in America is symbolic for freedom, habitat preservation, and the great American forests. The legend of Bigfoot undoubtedly exists. It’s when reality is extrapolated from the tales that we get into trouble. As we see over and over with paranormal-based TV, drawing inferences from someone’s imaginative hypothesis is really bad science. Reliable information connects to a foundation of what we already know to be true. For example, we can judge the idea of Bigfoot in terms of paleontology, physiology, evolution, ecology and psychology. (In an interesting tidbit, Napier says he rejects Ostman’s famous tale of being kidnapped by a Bigfoot family because his description of their meatless diet does not correspond to that of an animal of such proportions.)

Speaking of the Ostman story, Napier tells of an earlier Yeti version, that of Captain d’Auvergne, who was injured in the Himalayas, was rescued by a yeti, taken to a cave, and nursed back to health. He also relates the story of the Minnesota Iceman. While reading the tale of the frozen dead hairy man, I could not help but think that serial hoaxer Rick Dyer was a fan of this traveling sideshow tale as well. It’s curious how the stories seem to repeat themselves (look up Patterson and Roe).

Napier is clear that Bigfoot was big business. In America, it was a commodity to be exploited. Never so much as now, 30 years after this book came out. Napier also blatantly notes that the monks in Nepal were shrewd to capitalize on the Yeti legend to get money for facilities. Nepal government charged handsomely for Yeti hunting permits. The Yeti was exploited for tourism in Nepal just as it still is in Siberia and its relative is in the American Northwest.

For all the serious expeditions that were funded to look for the Yeti five decades ago and the money ponied up today to look for Sasquatch, NONE have been successful in bringing back a worthwhile contribution. Except one… Bryan Sykes who collected DNA in the Himalayas. I was fascinated that Napier notes the following about the description of the Yeti – the local monks called it a bear, three-quarters of the reports describe a partially quadrupedal animal, and for all intents and purposes, Yeti sounds like a bear. Indeed the Sykes results came back “bear” but a unique bear. This portion of the book feels like a prediction come true.

The core question of the book is “Is Bigfoot an idea or an animal?” The “true” answer, of course, is “both”. Many animals account for Bigfoot sightings but the idea of Bigfoot has outgrown even its huge features. Bigfoot is bigger than ever.

I did not expect such a fine treatment of this subject, so very much in tune with my own thoughts, when I decided to check out this book from my local university library. Add this book to your Bigfoot library.

Abominable Science is Cryptozoology Book of the Year

Who am I to say that? Well, nobody special, really. “Best books” is subjective. My favorite books include National Velvet (because I read it 35 times or so), Watership Down, The Hobbit, and Jane Austin stuff but I won’t quibble if they aren’t yours too.

When it comes to nonfiction works, the criteria is slightly different. Nonfiction can contribute significantly to the body of literature in a field. A commendable piece brings something new and enlightening – a fresh view, uncovered evidence, updated imagery. My choices of best nonfiction have substance, credibilty, and are groundbreaking must-have books to those interested in a particular field.

Thus, some of my favorite books in the cryptozoology/paranormal realm are Ben Radford’s Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal and Tracking the Chupacabra. These were excellent examples of scholarship and much needed in the literature. They also were praised by many others. I also favorite must-have books such as Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World and Origin of Species because of their tremendous insight and inspiration as well as quotable and beautiful language.

You can see the Doubtful News cryptozoology section of our bookstore here.

It’s hard for me to pick favorite books since it depends on the subject area and the mood I’m in that needs to be satisfied. But there is NO DOUBT that one of the most important cryptozoology books ever is Abominable Science by Loxton and Prothero. It’s impressive and important – a MUST-HAVE if you call yourself a cryptozoologist. But it was ignored by the Bigfooters (arguable not part of the field of cryptozoology because of their narrow niche) or panned by a small portion of cryptozoology believers who seemed too joyous in ripping it apart. If you haven’t gotten a copy, you are missing out.
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I am so adamant about it because it’s impressive. I had heard about the book around its inception. I caught peeks into the process here and there as Dan and Don worked diligently to produce a high quality volume. Care, scholarship and new information – that counts for a lot in nonfiction. Nature thought so. So did the Wall Street Journal and Inside Higher Education. See Publisher’s Weekly, The Scientist, and other reviews here. When was the last time a crypto book got such praise and widespread notice!? Abominable Science was an outstanding accomplishment.

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Serious science talk about Bigfoot – the new Tet Zoo podcast

Bigfoot/Sasquatch enthusiasts MUST listen to the latest episode of the Tetrapod Zoology (Tet Zoo) podcast. Episode 3 is the Bigfoot special. This podcast is by Dr. Darren Naish, PhD who writes the blog Tetrapod Zoology on the Scientific American network, and science artist John Conway.

Still of "Patty" from the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film
Still of “Patty” from the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film

This is a one and a half hour discussion about the best evidence known for the Bigfoot phenomenon. The three “best” pieces prior to this year are the dermal ridges confirmed by print expert Jimmy Chilcutt [Check out this interview on Monster Talk], the Skookum cast from Washington, and the Patterson Gimlin footage. Conway and Naish discuss the pros and cons of each one. The point of the discussion is that these three pieces, compelling when they appeared, have since fallen apart. The Chilcutt dermal ridges can be duplicated unintentionally through artifacts from the plaster casting process. Credit is given to the work of Matt Crowley. The Skookum cast that was interpreted by primate experts to possibly be consistent with a reclining primate, showing body and heel impressions in mud, has a far more mundane explanation as resulting from a native elk (wapiti) wallowing in the mud. Credit is given to the Chris Murphy book Meet the Sasquatch (which I have thanks to the aforementioned Matt Crowley). And finally, the Patterson Gimlin film, while certainly impressive on the surface and has not been completely debunked to my satisfaction, does suffer from some serious problems surroundings it’s documentation and history. Noted contributors for this information are Dan Loxton (of Skeptic magazine) and Dr. Don Prothero, who have a new book on cryptozoology coming out that I CAN NOT WAIT to get. Hope to see it this spring.

All the evidence, if solid, should have held up and led to ADDITIONAL finds to strengthen the case for Sasquatch, but that is not what happened.

Continue reading Serious science talk about Bigfoot – the new Tet Zoo podcast

Paper on Amateur paranormal investigation groups: Being Scientifical

I finished my thesis last year on amateur paranormal investigation groups. Many of you have requested copies. It can be purchased but not many would want to spend the money for that so I’m giving it away via PDF.

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Mind the gap: Entering strange new territory on my Bigfoot weekend

Are you a believer or a skeptic?

Awful categories, aren’t they? No one fits neatly into one or the other all the time. I apologize in advance for using these words as descriptors. I couldn’t think of a good way to express what we mean when applying these as processes, not a broad brush label.

Everyone is skeptical about something. Some of us apply it more evenly or have embraced it more thoroughly (as a process we use to judge claims). Even true believers harbor doubts about aspects of their subject. Sometimes, the doubts win and they drift away from their believing community.

I’m not talking about God, I’m talking about ghosts and Bigfoot.

I want to share some interesting episodes that took place in what I’m calling my Bigfoot weekend of October 21-23. I discovered many people existing in the gap between skepticism and the paranormal. They can tell us a whole lot about these topics we might otherwise miss.

Continue reading Mind the gap: Entering strange new territory on my Bigfoot weekend

New cryptozoology: less credulous, more scientific

There is a stereotype about Bigfoot and Nessie devotees. Typically, they are middle-aged or older men, often with facial hair. They seem obsessed and the public might see them as a bit “off”.  It’s true that there is not that much diversity in the list of monster researchers. But, cryptozoology is changing.

Today’s researchers are examining questions from a new perspective. They can organize and communicate better thanks to the internet. There are new types of books and media. I feel positive about the future of the field of cryptozoology and excited for new things to come. At The Amazing Meeting 9 (TAM 9) in Las Vegas in July, gathered together was a group of people that had everything to do with my positive attitude.

All the people in this photo contribute to moving the subject of cryptozoology away from the stereotypes and the paranormal realm and into the circle of popular cultural and scientific understanding. This group is no less excited by the idea that cryptids are real, unknown animals. It’s just that we are realistic about it. We don’t assume the stories can be taken at face value because we know mistakes are made. We do not come in with a presupposed notion about what a person saw. Our scope is larger; our conclusions are based on what we know is likely true, not what we wish to be true.

From left: S. Hill, B. Smith, B. Radford, D. Prothero, J. Nickell, M. Crowley, K. Stollznow, D. Loxton

Photo by M. Crowley

Continue reading New cryptozoology: less credulous, more scientific