Throwback Thursday: Yeti? Nope, DNA results show the Abominable Snowman is just a bear

The Yeti legend looms large in the folklore and mythology of the Tibetan Plateau-Himalaya region.

Over the past centuries, sightings of the large  fur covered creature have been spotted in the mountainous range but DNA sampling taken from nine specimens have turned out to partially solve the mystery. Turns out samples collected over the years, including bone, teeth, hair and fecal matter taken from the region have been traced to eight bears and one dog.

One of the nine specimens belong to an Asian black bear, one from a Himalayan brown bear, and the other six from Tibetan brown bears.

The results from scientists in the U.S. and in Singapore indicate that DNA can solve some legendary myths.

“Our findings strongly suggest that the biological underpinnings of the Yeti legend can be found in local bears, and our study demonstrates that genetics should be able to unravel other, similar mysteries,” says lead scientist Charlotte Lindqvist, PhD, an associate professor of biological sciences in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, and a visiting associate professor at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore).

One of the reason why the Yeti, also known as the Abominable Snowman, may have survived as a legend is because of the remote sightings of the creature seen over the years.

Remote area affected by environmental changes

The plateau is among the most extensive and highest in the world with an average altitude of 4,500 metres above sea level, surrounded again by the Himalayan range and many of the tallest mountains in the world. Through hundreds of thousands of years, the uplift of the plateau has resulted in dramatic environmental changes.

Lindqvist’s team is not the first to research “Yeti” DNA, but past projects ran simpler genetic analyses, which left important questions unresolved, she says.

“This study represents the most rigorous analysis to date of samples suspected to derive from anomalous or mythical ‘hominid’-like creatures,” Lindqvist and her co-authors write in their new paper published Nov 28 in the Royal Society Proceedings Biological Sciences.

The team included Tianying Lan and Stephanie Gill from UB; Eva Bellemain from SPYGEN in France; Richard Bischof from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences; and Muhammad Ali Nawaz from Quaid-i-Azam University in Pakistan and the Snow Leopard Trust Pakistan program.

Ancient polar bears were once believed to roam region

Recently, two purported yeti samples from the Himalayas showed genetic affinity with an ancient polar bear, suggesting they may be from previously unrecognized, possibly hybrid, bear species, but this preliminary finding has been under question. The paper’s findings show that instead of ancient polar bear, the lineage of the samples collected are from the Himalayan brown bear and Tibetan brown bears.

Tweezers lying next to curly hairs.

A hair sample from a purported Yeti in Nepal. The hair was said to have come from a Yeti that a Jesuit priest spotted in the mountains in the region in the 1950s, according to producers for Icon Films’ “YETI OR NOT” TV special, which aired on Animal Planet in 2016. Biologist Charlotte Lindqvist sequenced DNA from the hair for the show, and found that the sample was actually from a Tibetan brown bear. Credit: Icon Films Ltd.

Lindqvist says science can be a useful tool in exploring the roots of myths about large and mysterious creatures.


DNA can solve ID of other mysterious creatures like the unicorn

She notes that in Africa, the longstanding Western legend of an “African unicorn” was explained in the early 20th century by British researchers, who found and described the flesh-and-blood okapi, a giraffe relative that looks like a mix between that animal and a zebra and a horse.

And in Australia — where people and oversized animals may have coexisted thousands of years ago — some scholars have speculated that references to enormous animal-like creatures in Australia’s Aboriginal “Dreamtime” mythology may have drawn from ancient encounters with real megafauna or their remains, known today from Australia’s fossil record.

But while such connections remain uncertain, Lindqvist’s work — like the discovery of the okapi — is direct.

“Clearly, a big part of the Yeti legend has to do with bears,” she says.

She and colleagues investigated samples such as a scrap of skin from the hand or paw of a “Yeti” — part of a monastic relic — and a fragment of femur bone from a decayed “Yeti” found in a cave on the Tibetan Plateau.

The skin sample turned out to be from an Asian black bear, and the bone from a Tibetan brown bear.

The “Yeti” samples that Lindqvist examined were provided to her by British production company Icon Films, which featured her in the 2016 Animal Planet special “YETI OR NOT,” which explored the origins of the fabled being.

Evolutionary history of Asian bears slowly being uncovered

Besides tracing the origins of the Yeti legend, Lindqvist’s work is uncovering information about the evolutionary history of Asian bears.

“Bears in this region are either vulnerable or critically endangered from a conservation perspective, but not much is known about their past history,” she says. “The Himalayan brown bears, for example, are highly endangered. Clarifying population structure and genetic diversity can help in estimating population sizes and crafting management strategies.”

The scientists sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of 23 Asian bears (including the purported Yetis), and compared this genetic data to that of other bears worldwide.

This analysis showed that while Tibetan brown bears share a close common ancestry with their North American and Eurasian kin, Himalayan brown bears belong to a distinct evolutionary lineage that diverged early on from all other brown bears.

The split occurred about 650,000 years ago, during a period of glaciation, according to the scientists. The timing suggests that expanding glaciers and the region’s mountainous geography may have caused the Himalayan bears to become separated from others, leading to a prolonged period of isolation and an independent evolutionary path.

Photo: Wikipedia 

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