The yeti, aka the Abominable Snowman, has been part of Himalayan lore for centuries—but has also long intrigued people around the world. Even Alexander the Great demanded to see a yeti when he conquered the Indus Valley in 326 B.C. (he was told they only lurked at higher altitudes). Modern explorers have also tried to track the elusive beast, collecting "evidence" in the form of scat, hair, bones and more from across the Himalayan mountain range.
Now, reports Sarah Zhang at The Atlantic, some of the best of this evidence has been put to the test. And it turns out, most yeti samples actually come from brown bears.
The latest tale began with the filming of a special production on the yeti for the cable television channel Animal Planet. As Zhang reports, the production company, Icon Films, contacted biologist Charlotte Lindqvist in the fall of 2013 with a request: they needed DNA testing of yeti evidence.
Lindqvist is a professor at University of Buffalo who specializes in species genetics and agreed to the unusual project. So the team began sending her samples. According to Sid Perkins at Science, these included a tooth and hair collected from Tibet in the 1930s, scat that was in the collections of a museum operated by the Italian mountaineer and Yeti-chaser Reinhold Messner, as well as a leg bone and other hair samples—all of these were claimed to come from yetis.
In all, Lindqvist and her colleagues examined the mitochondrial DNA of nine supposed yeti samples. They also studied 15 additional samples obtained from Lindqvist's network of contacts that were from Himalayan and Tibetan brown bears and Asian black bears for comparison. They detailed their results in a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Of the nine purported yeti samples, seven came from Himalayan or Tibetan brown bears, one came from a black bear, and one came from a dog. While the producers and "true believers" are likely dismayed by the finding, Lindqvist was ecstatic.
Though it would've been a coup to find some yeti DNA, Lindqvist was after the genetic material of the brown bear sub species—creatures that are still elusive but more rooted in reality.
“When I had to reveal to them that okay, these are bears, I was excited about that because it was my initial motive to get into this,” Lindqvist tells Zhang. “They obviously were a little disappointed.”
As Perkins reports, the team did indeed find some interesting data from the samples. They were able to create the first full mitochondrial genomes for the Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus) and the Himalayan black bear (Ursus thibetanus laniger). As Zhang reports, the research also showed the Himalayan brown bear and the Tibetan brown bear are more genetically distinct from one another than previously thought.
Brown bears roam across the northern hemisphere, and many subspecies, like the American grizzly and Alaskan Kodiak bear, are spread across the world, reports Ben Guarino at The Washington Post. The research indicates that the Himalayan subspecies was likely the first to diverge from the ancestral brown bear about 650,000 years ago.
“Further genetic research on these rare and elusive animals may help illuminate the environmental history of the region, as well as bear evolutionary history worldwide—and additional 'Yeti' samples could contribute to this work,” Lindqvist says in a press release.
As Zhang reports, the research also puts the kibosh on another theory that emerged from a previous Icon Films investigation of yetis. For that film, the company collaborated with Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes who examined yeti samples, concluding that one sample matched the DNA from an ancient polar bear. That led to some speculation that the yeti might be a hybrid of a brown bear and polar bear. However, re-examination found that the sample came from a Himalyan brown bear, and Lindqvist believes she sequenced hair from the same sample, confirming that the creature was nothing out of the ordinary.
Even if science doesn't support the yeti's existence, don’t worry: We’ll always have Sasquatch. This mythical beast continues to persist in popular culture amid a sea of hoaxes, blurry photos and breathless cable shows.