Friday, 22 August 2008

The state of Yeti Research!

There's some good news for bigfoot researchers, despite yesterday's blow to the field. The evidence for bigfoot is still overwhelming, and thanks to Dave Coltman, that evidence has been brought to peer-reviewed journals for scrutiny by the scientific world at large.

Dave Coltman is a researcher in UA: Edmonton, who specializes in Bighorn Sheep and other closely mountain ungulates. His research on the effects of full curl hunting was amazing and revelatory. In my niche of the research community, I'd recognize him as a good scientist - so when he published a molecular study of a hairyman, I took note!

In this study, they took possession of hairs collected from a big-foot researcher in The Yukon (Teslin, YT). There's a possibility that there was cross contamination, as the hairs were sent to a technician for the Yukon Department of Environment, before it arrived in the author's possession. Coltman and Davis then extracted DNA from the hair much like you would with any other hair - Qiagen has a popular DNA extraction kit, and that's exactly what they used. Then, using PCR, they amplified a region of the Mitocondrial Genome known as the D-Loop - it's a region of DNA that shows good diversity, and makes a great tool for analysis. They took this small region and compared it to other species. They then took those sequences closest to it, and compared them to decide who's closely related to whom.

This process is called phylogenetics. Molecular phylogenetics itself is complex, but its roots are very simple. It's driven by the idea that you can reconstruct relationships by tracking mutations. Say you start with a sequence back in time:


Now this Pika that has the sequence has a lot of similar baby Pikas with identical sequences, except one, who has a miiiiinor mutation. So now you have

ACGACGT (Group1) ACGTCGT (group2)

Now both groups of Pikas grow up to be big, strong Pikas (except for the ones that get turned into parkas. :p) and they have baby Pikas of their own. Both groups have mutations with a small number.

ACGACGT (Group1) ACGTCGT (group2)
ACGACCT (Group3) TCGTCGT (group4)

Now a wildlife biologist goes through and samples all the Pikas. By comparing the sequences, you can tell which groups begat who by looking for a variety of things. One popular approach is to make a tree that has a minimum number of changes. Similar things end up getting lumped with similar things.

That's a phylogram. By the branching pattern, you can see who's closely related to who - group 4 and 2; groups 1 and 3. It's impossible to tell who is the most 'basal,' or earliest, group on this one, but often you can. And that's the basics of doing phylogenetics! Isn't that easy? Sure, there's complexities, and it can get real ugly, but the basis of the field is really nice and easy - anyone could get into it! Just replace `generations of pikas` with larger periods of time - usually hunderds of generations for useful mutations to acrue - and you've got it.

Now! That little bit of explanation out of the way, what did Coltman and Davis find? Why, they found this!
There's only one sane explanation for this data, of course: Bigfoot is a highly evolved, upright, bipedal bison. Obviously, the hairs couldn't have come from anything other than an honest to goodness Sasquatch, because they were collected by expert witnesses! The identification is 100%. All this time thinking that Sasquatch was a primate, we were way off the mark. Truely, this finding will rock the world!

Alas, Coltman disagrees with me. He writes,
There are several possible explanations for these results. First, as suggested from molecular analysis of hair from a suspected Yeti [1], the Sasquatch might be a highly elusive ungulate that exhibits surprising morpho- logical convergence with primates. Alternately, the hair might have originated from a real bison and be unrelated to the Sasquatch. Parsimony would favor the second interpretation, in which case, the identity and taxonomy of this enigmatic and elusive creature remains a mystery.
What foolishness is this? He, alas, is Moses. He has brought us to the promised land of Yeti research, but he is unable to see it for what it is: An obvious sign that there are hyper-evolved bison wandering around. One day, I hope he sees the error of his ways, and joins the winning team.

A whole herd of Yeti, grazing in the Yukon Territory.
Picture of these placid giants by yours truely.

Coltman, D., and Davis, C. (2006). Molecular cryptozoology meets the Sasquatch. Trends in Ecology and Evolution (21):2. pp 60-61.

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