Not only is the Italian Reinhold Messner the first climber to have reached the summit of Mount Everest without oxygen, but, after decades mastering the Himalayan terrain, he also declared himself a believer in the Yeti. “They call it a bear with human abilities,” Messner once said of the spellbinding tales told by his Tibetan hosts. “It goes on two legs when it meets people ... it’s telling you to go away, or you are a dead man.” And now it seems that Messner, like other locals and climbers who have long reported strange footprints and fearsome silhouettes in the snowy landscape, is neither misguided nor mad.
DNA analysis of two “yeti hair” samples, one collected from the western Himalayas and one from Bhutan, has uncovered a genetic match to a species of ancient polar bear. Professor Bryan Sykes, the Oxford University geneticist who conducted the analysis by comparing the hair DNA to a polar bear jawbone found in Norway, has called the finding “exciting and completely unexpected”.
The dazzling discovery raises the possibility that a mysterious beast previously unknown to science indeed roams the peaks, and not just the fevered imaginations of locals. Professor Sykes offers two alternative explanations as to how an animal living today in the Asian mountains shares its genes with a Nordic polar bear that existed between 40,000 and 120,000 years ago: the creature is possibly a sub-species of brown bear that shares a common ancestor with the polar bear, or there has been recent interbreeding between brown bears and descendants of the polar bear.
Interestingly, Messner’s investigations, including studying local writings and checking recorded sightings, led him to believe that the Yeti was a Tibetan bear, sometimes called the Tibetan blue bear, a terrifically rare creature also thought to be a sub-species of brown bear. Hardly any traces of these animals have been found, and it is not clear whether there is shared ancestry between the animal that Professor Sykes has described, and the Tibetan bear cited by Messner.
This dramatic denouement in Yeti mythology follows two recoveries last month: of a 9-metre-long giant squid washed up on the Cantabrian coast of Spain, and a 5.5-metre-long oarfish in California, its silvery corpse reminiscent of the sea serpents described by terrified seamen throughout history. While these fabulous creatures might be new or barely known to science, they have long lurked in the annals of cryptozoology, a rather strange and disreputable field of inquiry focused on finding evidence for creatures of legend.
Of course, it includes the Yeti, or Abominable Snowman. (That term was first used in 1921 by a journalist after he had interviewed the Indian porters involved with a British reconnaissance expedition to Everest, and asked them about their sightings. The story goes that metoh kangmi, which in Tibetan loosely corresponds to “man-bear of the snow” was mistakenly translated as “filthy snowman”, and then journalistically upgraded to “abominable snowman”.)
Alongside the Yeti sit such exoticisms as the Loch Ness Monster and the sailor-scaring Kraken (now thought to be a giant squid). But cryptozoology, which is viewed by scientists as sceptically as ghost-hunting, does not catalogue just the mythical; it can also encompass the extinct (dinosaurs) and the geographically displaced (such as the big cats rumoured to roam Devon, reliably thought to be either zoo escapees or pure fakery designed to part media barons from their money).
Every so often, though, an animal is cast out from the shadows of cryptozoology to take its rightful place in the real-life domain of zoology, after scientists have verified its existence. Another notable example is the okapi, a most peculiar animal that looks like a short-necked giraffe crossed with a zebra. Bewildering descriptions first cropped up in newspaper dispatches of Henry Stanley’s exploration of the Congo in the 1880s; its existence wasn’t confirmed until 1901, and the creature is now a staple of zoos the world over.
Our fascination with weird creatures, which perhaps reached its zenith in the Victorian era when Stanley was sending back word of striped giraffes and fossil collectors were piecing together skeletons of gigantic lizards that once stalked Dorset, has not abated. But today, nature surpasses legend in her ability to create animals of intoxicating strangeness.
Some of them are captured beautifully in Caspar Henderson’s “The Book of Barely Imagined Beings”, which is shortlisted for this year’s Royal Society Winton Prize for science books (regarded as science’s equivalent of the Booker, to be awarded on November 25). As befits a modern bestiary, the idea came to Henderson in a dream: “I woke with the thought that many real animals are stranger than imaginary ones, and it is our knowledge and understanding that are too cramped and fragmentary to accommodate them: we have barely imagined them. And in a time that we are now learning to call the Anthropocene a time of extinctions and transformations as momentous as any in the history of life, this needs attention.”
And so he serves up an imaginative A-Z of the world’s oddest organisms: the axolotl is a salamander that looks like a walking fish, while the zebrafish demonstrates that black-and-white stripes are not confined to the jungle. Many entries, such as the giant squid, reside unseen in the deep, dark ocean. Accompanying each is a wide-ranging essay, musing not only on the creatures themselves but whether their existence has any meaning for us. In so doing, Henderson continues a tradition started by our ancestors, who, more than 18,000 years ago, lovingly depicted bulls, horses and deer in cave paintings.
Which brings us to an even more profound notion: science is not just discovering new animals, but also new hominids. These are creatures that share a common ancestry with us; we are not descended from them but rather they occupy different branches of the same evolutionary tree. In 2004, scientists confirmed they had found an extinct dwarf species of hominid; nicknamed the hobbit, its real name is “Homo floresiensis”, honouring the Indonesian island of Flores where skeletons were uncovered. There followed a very public row between two camps: one believed the hobbit genuinely constituted a hitherto unknown hominid, while the other cautioned that the small skeletons belonged to more modern hominids whose growth had been stunted through disease. The former turned out to be correct. Not only had a new race of 3-foot-tall people been identified, but they could have been living until just 18,000 years ago.
That raised the unsettling possibility that the hobbits had been living alongside modern humans. It is also horribly possible that our species, “Homo sapiens”, wiped out these smaller rivals. This episode, as science writer Henry Gee noted in the journal Nature, reminds us that science has the endless capacity to surprise and confound. “The discovery that ‘Homo floresiensis’ survived until so very recently, in geological terms, makes it more likely that stories of other mythical, human-like creatures such as Yetis are founded on grains of truth.
“In the light of the Flores skeleton, a recent initiative to scour central Sumatra for ‘orang pendek’ can be viewed in a more serious light. This small, hairy, manlike creature has hitherto been known only from Malay folklore, a debatable strand of hair and a footprint. Now, cryptozoology, the study of such fabulous creatures, can come in from the cold.”
We know that nature must have further surprises in store. Two years ago, experts estimated that our planet is home to 8.7 million species of living organisms, give or take a million, of which only just more than a million had been named and classified. The figure was arrived at by putting all known living things (except bacteria) on the evolutionary tree of life, looking at the gaps in the branches, and then estimating how many species would fill them. A large proportion will be insects and other underrated, unglamorous species. But, beyond that, who knows? Maybe the orang pendek will graduate from figure of folklore to fully documented, genetically analysed, almost-human phenomenon. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell once said: “The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2013