Space & Innovation

Bigfoot and Yeti DNA Study Gets Serious

A call is out for supposed Big Foot material so university scientists can do genetic testing.

THE GIST

- Scientists have requested that cryptozoologists send them material supposedly from cryptic species.

- They plan to conduct genetic analysis of the material.

- The call is a challenge to those who claim that science simply rejects such claims.

A new university-backed project aims to investigate cryptic species such as the yeti whose existence is unproven, through genetic testing.

Researchers from Oxford University and the Lausanne Museum of Zoology are asking anyone with a collection of cryptozoological material to submit descriptions of it. The researchers will then ask for hair and other samples for genetic identification.

"I'm challenging and inviting the cryptozoologists to come up with the evidence instead of complaining that science is rejecting what they have to say," said geneticist Bryan Sykes of the University of Oxford.

PHOTOS: Rate the Bigfoot Evidence in These Images

While Sykes doesn't expect to find solid evidence of a yeti or Bigfoot monster, he says he is keeping an open mind and hopes to identify perhaps 20 of the suspect samples. Along the way, he'd be happy if he found some unknown species. (Rumor or Reality: The Creatures of Cryptozoology)

"It would be wonderful if one or more turned out to be species we don't know about, maybe primates, maybe even collateral hominids," Sykes told LiveScience. Such hominids would include Neanderthals or Denosivans, a mysterious hominin species that lived in Siberia 40,000 years ago.

"That would be the optimal outcome," Sykes said.

The project is called the Oxford-Lausanne Collateral Hominid Project. It is being led by Sykes and Michel Sartori of the zoology museum.

NEWS: New Bigfoot Sightings: Proof Still Lacking

Origin of a Legend The story of a big hairy monster of the Himalayas stomped into popular culture in 1951, when British mountaineer Eric Shipton returned from a Mount Everest expedition with photographs of giant footprints in the snow.

The cryptic creature goes by many names in many places: yeti or migoi in the Himalayas, Bigfoot or sasquatch in the United States and Canada, respectively; almasty in the Caucasus Mountains; orag pendek in Sumatra. (Infographic: Tracking Belief in Bigfoot)

And while reports of such creatures have abounded around the world since then, there is no real proof they exist; the reports inevitably turn out to be of a civet, bear or other known beast.

Yeti hairs Sykes doesn't want to start receiving loads of skin, hair and other samples haphazardly, so he is asking people to send detailed descriptions of their "yeti" samples.

Once he and his colleagues have looked over the details - including physical descriptions of the sample (even photographs), its origin and ideas about the likely species it belongs to - they will send a sampling kit for those that are deemed suitable for study.

"As an academic I have certain reservations about entering this field, but I think using genetic analysis is entirely objective; it can't be falsified," Sykes said. "So I don't have to put myself into the position of either believing or disbelieving these creatures."

One theory about the yeti is that it belongs to small relic populations of other hominids, such as Neanderthals or Denisovans. While Sykes said this idea is unlikely to be proven true, "if you don't look, you won't find it."

The collection phase of the project will run through September, with genetic testing following that through November. After that, Sykes said, they will write up the results for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal; this would be the first such publication of cryptozoology results, he said.

"Several things I've done in my career have seemed impossible and stupid when contemplated, but have impressive results," Sykes said. When he set out to find DNA from ancient human remains, for instance, he thought, "It's never going to work." It did, and he published the first report of DNA from ancient human bones in the journal Nature in 1989.

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An artist's interpretation of Bigfoot.

1. The Empty Fossil Record When two Georgia men declared they were storing the body of Bigfoot in a freezer -- and that they had its DNA -- more than a few skeptics cried foul. Is the legend of Bigfoot (a.k.a. Sasquatch) little more than a stubborn myth? For the dirt on the doubters, Discovery News contacted Benjamin Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, who was more than happy to rattle off the top 10 reasons Bigfoot is bogus. First on his list: the fossil record. Why, he asked, would a legacy of large mammals reported to exist throughout North America (and beyond) simply disappear from the same soil that has preserved everything from the dinosaur bones pictured here, to woolly mammoths, to tiny marine crustaceans? "There's no fossil record of anything fitting the description" of Bigfoot, said Radford. "There's simply nothing there."

2. Forget Fossils, Where Are the Bodies? Putting aside paleontology, Radford points out that today, if Bigfoot exists, it must disappear when it dies. "There's no hard evidence in the form of bones. There are no hair samples, there are no live or dead specimens," he said. Bigfoot believers argue that the soil in areas where the creatures live -- such as the region surrounding Bellingham, Wash., seen here -- is acidic and quickly breaks down the bones. Nonsense, says Radford: "There's nothing to that, because Bigfoot has been reported in every state but Hawaii."

3. Where Do Bigfoot Babies Come From? Even for mammals that are relatively rare in global terms, such as the chimpanzee, it takes a decent population size to maintain a species. "If Bigfoot is a zoological reality," said Radford, "there has to be a breeding population." For that population to be big enough to account for even a fraction of the sightings, there would need to be tens of thousands of the creatures in North America alone. "Think about that for a second. Tens of thousands of Bigfoot, living, breathing, doing what they do. Where are they? Why don't they get hit by a car?" asked Bradford. "The numbers just simply don't add up."

4. Your Lying Eyes The majority of "evidence" for Bigfoot, says Radford, consists of eyewitness accounts. Yet as psychologists and schooled juries know, such accounts are famously inaccurate. What's more, says Radford, "the problem is, that's not evidence, it's an anecdote....It's interesting and you shouldn't dismiss it out of hand, but it's not evidence."

5. The Ever-Mysterious Blobsquatch This black-and-white image was taken in 1977 by a man named Frank White, near Bellingham, Wash. "I'd call it a North American ape," White told reporters at the time. "You can call it a Sasquatch or anything you like." Radford calls it a Blobsquatch. Aside from eyewitness reports, blurry images like this are what most Bigfoot believers rely on. But it's no proof, said Radford: "These photos show something that is probably alive, it's probably dark, it's not a cat, it's not a camel. It could be a Bigfoot, or it could be a deer or it could be a guy in a suit." "Ultimately," he concludes, "it's a two-dimensional image. It's pixels."

6. Doctor Who? For Radford and other skeptics, the only acceptable standard of proof is the scientific one. Why, when there are countless researchers probing the far corners of every continent, is there no rigorous, documented, peer-reviewed evidence for Bigfoot? Only one answer makes sense, says Radford: Bigfoot isn't real. Attendees of the Texas Bigfoot Conference, pictured here, might disagree. The annual event draws hundreds of people -- including Bigfoot enthusiasts, amateur researchers, historians, and tourists -- but few if any academic scientists.

7. The Case of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Speaking of science, Bigfoot believers sometimes complain that funding for Sasquatch Studies is hard to find. But scientists are notoriously good note-takers, Radford points out, even about subjects they aren't directly studying. Consider this league of biologists scouting for the elusive ivory-billed woodbecker in Arkansas' White River National Wildlife Refuge, an area where Bigfoot sightings have been made. "There was a huge, hardcore investigation. They were well-equipped, well-funded and made a sustained search," noted Radford. "What I found interesting was, what didn't they find? They didn't find Bigfoot."

8. This Katydid Couldn't Hide Dozens of new species, previously unknown to science, are discovered each year. But for the most part, they are tiny: microorganisms and insects such as the newly discovered katydid pictured here. Could Bigfoot really hide in such a peopled world? "The last large animal to be found was probably the giant panda, and that was 100 years ago," said Radford. "There has not been a single new creature that doesn't fit the recognized taxonomy discovered in the last century, there just simply hasn't."

9. If It Walks Like a Hoax ... This ruddy strand, about 70 micrometers in diameter, could be taken as a hair. But it isn't -- it's a carpet fiber. A similar thread was once claimed to have fallen from Bigfoot's back. Later, it was shown to be synthetic Dynel fiber, said Radford. An alleged vial of Bigfoot blood once turned out to be transmission fluid, and many Bigfoot sightings, in the end, are admitted fakes. "There is no category of Bigfoot evidence that doesn't have a string of hoaxes attached to it," said Radford. "If you're studying a subject in which virtually all the evidence either comes down to being inconclusive or a hoax, something's wrong."

10. The Case of the Missing Footprint This picture shows Al Hodgson, a volunteer guide at California's Willow Creek-China Flat Musuem, holding up a plaster cast believed by some to be a Bigfoot imprint. Authentic or not, footprints and other physical artifacts are meaningless scientifically, says Radford, when there is no standard to measure them by. "Some of the footprints have three toes, some have four toes, and some of course have five," he noted. "Even if I'm certain a certain track wasn't made by anything else, how do I know it's Bigfoot? You can't." The same goes for DNA. Scientists make a positive identification by comparing an unknown sample to a known one. There is no such standard for Bigfoot, says Radford. Even an educated guess about the giant footprint pictured here or a Blobsquatch gone wild is, at best, a shot in the dark. Benjamin Radford is the co-author of "Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World's Most Elusive Creatures."