Expert comment: It may not be the Yeti but bizarre species are still being discovered

Commenting on the recent claim by the Indian army that they found footprints of a ‘Yeti’, Dr David Roberts an expert in extinct species at the University said: ‘The existence of the Yeti has never been conclusively proven and given the location of sightings it is highly unlikely a mythical anthropoid is wandering the snow-capped Himalayas.

‘The recent supposed sighting of the Yeti’s footprints has led to a degree of ridicule, and the footprints more likely have other explanations than a mythical beast – such as the wanderings of a bear.

‘While the suggestion of the sighting maybe somewhat humorous, as pointed out by the eminent conservationist, Sir Peter Scott, in his formal naming of the Loch Ness Monster with Robert Rines, often species have no legal protection until they have been scientifically named.

‘In the case of the Loch Ness Monster, Scott gave it the scientific name, Nessiteras rhombopteryx, based on a blurred image of a supposed flipper. However soon after its naming, the Scottish MP, Nicholas Fairbairn, pointed out that the name was an anagram:​ “Monster hoax by Sir Peter S”.

‘In the case of the Yeti, as well as Nessie, their existence has been based on fragmentary sighting, either supposed direct sights such as photographs, film or scraps of hair reported to be from the Yeti, or through indirect evidence such as footprints.

‘Even the rediscovery of known species that are thought to be extinct is often based on similar – grainy photographs and oral accounts. However, the important difference between the discovery of new species (and cryptids such as the Yeti) and species rediscoveries, is that our understanding of rediscovered species is based on information we gained while they were still known to be extant.

‘This allows us to take new evidence, whether it is a grainy photograph or a footprint, and put it into context. With species still waiting to be discovered, this is not the case, we often lack this context and have to stitch together fragmentary information to form an understanding. In the case of the Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), a species so bizarre that scientists are still arguing over what its closest relatives are, its discovery in 1992 was initially based on a single skull.

‘However spectacular species are still out there and are being discovered. In 2003 the Kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji) was first scientifically recorded, representing a whole new lineage of primate for Africa. Most recently was the discovery of the Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) in 2013 from montane forests of Colombia and Ecuador, a relative of the raccoons but looks more like the love child of a domestic cat and a cuddly toy.

Bigfoot 2

‘With any new evidence for a new species, or even a species that still exists, it needs to be critically analysed and competing hypotheses of what else it could be have to be considered. It is therefore strange the Indian Army decided that the footprints were more likely from the Yeti, rather than some other explanation. It is unlikely that it was the promotion of tourism; for certain cryptid species such as Nessies and Bigfoot, whole industries have developed around something many believe isn’t there! Most likely it was the excitement of the moment of seeing something that appears to be slightly out of context and wanting to believe it is something special.’

Dr David Roberts, reader in Biodiversity Conservation, in the School of Anthropology and Conservation (SAC) at the University of Kent. His main areas of research are the psychology of species identification, plant conservation, especially orchids, and illegal online wildlife trade.

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