Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Bigfoot paper corrected because it doesn’t exist — the author’s institution, that is

with 8 comments

Image via Joe Shlabotnik

Image via Joe Shlabotnik

A paper on the genetics of mythical creatures — yeti and bigfoot — is being corrected after the journal discovered the first author, Bryan Sykes, listed a mythical institution.

The Proceedings of the Royal Society B paper, “Genetic analysis of hair samples attributed to yeti, bigfoot and other anomalous primates,” examined 30 samples from “museum and individual collections” that had been labeled as the North American bigfoot, Tibetan yeti, Mongolian almasty, and Sumatran orang pendek. The analysis showed the samples actually came from a variety of species, such as bears, horses, and cows. Perhaps the most striking is the paper’s claim that two samples match with a prehistoric polar bear, “but not to modern examples of the species.”

According to a spokesperson for the journal, “The correction is being made because the institution the author Brian Sykes gave as part of his affiliation does not exist.” The exact wording of the notice has yet to be decided.

According to Jonathan Leake at the Sunday Times:

The paper gave Skyke’s affiliation as the Institute of Human Genetics at Wolfson College, Oxford. Sykes is a fellow of Wolfson but he admitted the institute was mythical. “The journal required some sort of additional address in the college and, hey presto, I became an institute!”

Here’s some text from the introduction to Sykes et al:

Despite several decades of research, mystery still surrounds the species identity of so-called anomalous primates such as the yeti in the Himalaya, almasty in central Asia and sasquatch/bigfoot in North America. On the one hand, numerous reports including eye-witness and footprint evidence, point to the existence of large unidentified primates in many regions of the world. On the other hand, no bodies or recent fossils of such creatures have ever been authenticated. There is no shortage of theories about what these animals may be, ranging from surviving populations of collateral hominids such as Homo neanderthalensis, Homo floresiensis [1] or Denisovans [2], extinct apes such as Gigantopithecus [3] or even unlikely hybrids between Homo sapiens and other mammals [4]. Modern science has largely avoided this field and advocates frequently complain that they have been ‘rejected by science’ [5]. This conflicts with the basic tenet that science neither rejects nor accepts anything without examining the evidence. To apply this philosophy to the study of anomalous primates and to introduce some clarity into this often murky field, we have carried out a systematic genetic survey of hair samples attributed to these creatures.

The paper’s claim to have matched two samples with prehistoric polar bears has been disputed, most notably in another paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B,Himalayan ‘yeti’ DNA: polar bear or DNA degradation? A comment on ‘Genetic analysis of hair samples attributed to yeti.‘” That comment involved a reanalysis of the two “polar bear” samples, which concluded the hair was probably from a Himalayan bear, which is native to the location the samples were found.

The authors of the yeti paper responded to the criticism with a statement, which read, in part:

Importantly, for the thrust of the paper as a whole, the conclusion that these Himalayan ‘yeti’ samples were certainly not from a hitherto unknown primate is unaffected.

We’ve contacted Sykes, and will update if we hear back.

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Written by Cat Ferguson

April 14th, 2015 at 9:30 am

  • Blinky April 14, 2015 at 10:35 am

    “Importantly, for the thrust of the paper as a whole, the conclusion that these Himalayan ‘yeti’ samples were certainly not from a hitherto unknown primate is unaffected.”

    However, see this paper for further comment on why it is silly to propose that the hair came from an unidentified species of bear rather than an unidentified species of primate:

    • Warren Gallin April 15, 2015 at 1:30 am

      Actually the paper you point to says clearly that this is a bear, just not an unknown bear. It says nothing to suggest that this could be a primate. The analysis indicates that it is not a primate.

      • Blinky April 15, 2015 at 2:07 am

        I don’t think I said otherwise.

  • herr doktor bimler April 14, 2015 at 8:15 pm

    “Importantly, for the thrust of the paper as a whole, the conclusion that these Himalayan ‘yeti’ samples were certainly not from a hitherto unknown primate is unaffected.”

    The other conclusion — that they did come from a hitherto unknown bear — should not be swept under the carpet, as it provided the authors with a reason to plan an expedition to the Himalayas.

  • April 15, 2015 at 10:56 am

    The front cover of the book he’s promoting in the press also implies he’s a current professor at Oxford.

    Sykes wrote that “despite lack of positive proof from his analysis of the purported yeti hairs, he had developed a strong sense from speaking to dozens of witnesses that there was “something out there”.”


  • Eliecer E Gutierrez April 16, 2015 at 11:29 am

    There are some inaccuracies in what the journal’s spokesman said about the papers that pointed out mistakes in B. Sykes and collaborator’s paper.

    Our publication is ZooKeys was the one that demonstrated that there is no reason to believe that the two samples (that Sykes and team regard as from the Himalayas) do not belong to ordinary Himalayan Brown Bear (Ursus arctos). It seems convenient for the editorial team of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B to claim that this correction was published in their journal, which after all published Sykes et al.’s paper with colorful mistakes; however, this is not true/correct. That journal, however, published a reply article in which the authors demonstrated that the Sykes and team’s claim about their sequences matching that of 40,000-years-old remains of Polar Bear was incorrect, and that rather matches sequences of recent Polar Bear (no mention of Brown Bear in that article; it was our ZooKey paper that pointed that there was no need to believe that the sequences correspond to anything other than Brown Bear).

  • Debbie Kennett May 23, 2015 at 11:23 am

    The Royal Society have now corrected the Sykes et al paper to remove the affiliation to the mythical Institute of Genetics: See:

  • Debbie Kennett May 23, 2015 at 8:00 pm

    Sorry I posted the wrong link on my earlier comment. Here’s the link to the Royal Society’s journal with details of the correction that has been made:

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