An edited version of this piece was previously published by the Scientific American blog on May 3, 2018.
As a biologist in a lab studying how monkeys and other primates are related, Bigfoot has become an object of fascination to me. Often described and portrayed as half man, half ape, Bigfoot represents a possible link in the evolution of humans from our primate ancestors. Bigfoot also represents the realm of the unknown or undiscovered. Rumors from all over the world about sightings of Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and yeti tantalizingly hint that there are mythical creatures just waiting to be discovered.
So the story of Charlotte Lindqvist, and her own brief experience with the Bigfoot mythology, caught my attention. Lindqvist was probably the last person to expect a call about mythical creatures rumored to live in Tibet. She’s a geneticist at the University at Buffalo in New York—quite a long way from the Himalayas—where she studies bears.
But in 2013 a documentary production company, Icon Films, wanted to see if the creatures known as yeti (or Bigfoot or Sasquatch) really existed, and they thought Lindqvist could help. The company had collected sample of fur and bone in the Himalayas, and Lindqvist had the technology to determine whether they came from an animal unknown to science.
“I saw my opportunity to get hold of some samples that would otherwise be very hard to get,” said Lindqvist.
Lindqvist didn’t believe that the samples were from yetis—large, hairy, mythological creatures. Instead, she suspected that the samples were from bears—large, hairy, observable creatures.
“Bears in the Himalayan region and Tibetan Plateau are fairly elusive. We don’t know much about them, and the Himalayan brown bear is endangered,” said Lindqvist.
So she said yes, she’d analyze the DNA. She knew that she could identify bear DNA, and that the DNA of a mysterious monster wouldn’t look like any animal previously analyzed. In that case she would have discovered a new species—perhaps the infamous yeti.
But Lindqvist expected that she would find bear DNA in the collected samples, not the DNA of a new species. Although the film production company may have been hoping to pinpoint the elusive mythological beast, Lindqvist’s instincts turned out to be correct. For the most part, the samples were from bears. Specifically, they were from Tibetan brown bears, an Asian black bear, and a Himalayan brown bear.
From bits of hair and bone, Lindqvist was able to sequence the bears’ mitochondrial DNA.
Usually, when we talk about DNA, we’re talking about DNA from the cell nucleus. Mitochondrial DNA is different from the genetic code that makes up our 23 chromosomes. It’s found in another part of the cell, an energy-producing organ. It’s not always good for identifying individuals, but it is good for distinguishing among species.
Mitochondrial DNA is also easier to sequence than the rest of the animal genome because there are more copies of it in each cell. Sure enough, Lindqvist was able to fully sequence the mitochondrial genome of a Himalayan brown bear, the first time that had been achieved.
Lindqvist didn’t stop at identifying the species of bear the Himalayan samples came from. Using this full mitochondrial DNA sequence, plus partial sequences from the regular DNA of Tibetan brown bears and an Asian black bear, and information about the geography of the region, Lindqvist concluded that 650,000 years ago glaciers forced a single population of bears apart, creating two isolated populations. Over time, these populations became the two distinct subspecies—Himalayan brown bears and Tibetan brown bears—that they are today.
This was not the first time that legendary creatures had inadvertently lent a hand to genetics studies. In 2013, a geneticist at Oxford University, Bryan Sykes, also leveraged the yeti frenzy for genetics studies of bears, to great effect. And it doesn’t stop with yetis. I was surprised and delighted to find that other creatures of myth will benefit the field of genetics.
In 2017, a scientist from New Zealand embarked on a sequencing journey similar to that of Dr. Lindqvist. Neil Gemmell, a geneticist at the University of Otago, proposed sequencing DNA from Loch Ness, the lake in Scotland where a mythical sea monster is supposed to live (or to have lived at some point). The project officially started in June of this year, when Gemmell’s team began collecting water samples.
Gemmell, who studies environmental DNA—the DNA that animals shed in hair, skin, scales and feces and then floats free in water—has never believed in the dinosaur-like sea monster. But he does believe in its ability to get people excited about science. Although some may not have been initially interested in Gemmell’s current work in New Zealand, the Loch Ness project is instantly accessible.
“Not that many people are interested in hearing about what we’re discovering, but they are interested in the Loch Ness Monster,” he said.
Although Gemmell is candid about the fact that he doesn’t believe the researchers will discover the elusive dinosaur-like sea monster, he still believes the project will yield interesting results and be an influential science communication platform. Thanks to the monster, Gemmell’s project made headlines around the world before it had even begun.
“I think it’s neat! And my kids think it’s neat.”
Regardless of whether “Nessie” is found, Gemmell and his research group will gather useful information about the population of creatures present in Loch Ness. He plans to test several hypotheses using sequenced DNA from the lake.
“Hypothesis one is that [the Loch Ness monster] is an ancient remnant plesiosaur population or something like that—the so-called Jurassic hypothesis,” said Gemmell. “Which, let’s be honest, is basically bogus stuff—it’s just ridiculous. But nonetheless, we could test that.”
He also plans to test whether there is evidence of giant fish, such as sturgeon, or even evidence of sharks occasionally getting into the lake. And while he’s testing the water for things that might explain Nessie sightings, he’ll be asking some questions that address different issues. For example, what is the microbial and bacterial diversity like in Loch Ness? And are there invasive species in the lake?
“There’s been an awful lot of people taking an awful lot of gear into Loch Ness over the years,” said Gemmell. “There’s suggestions that there’s an invasive shrimp species from the Southern United States in Loch Ness. There’s been reports recently of pink salmon, which is of course a Pacific salmon, in the Ness River.”
There are just as many questions about species we know to exist as about species that probably don’t exist. Powerful datasets can come out of the search for elusive creatures, whether or not they are real. My fascination with Bigfoot aside, it might be time to start thinking about how we can leverage myths about fairies to study the skies. So, the question now for evolutionary biologists and geneticists alike is: what other mythological creatures can we search for in order to learn more about the less charismatic—but just as magical—creatures on Earth?
By Alison Gilchrist