Rigorous Genetic Analysis Proves the Yeti is Not an Unknown Species
According to folklore of Nepal, the “Yeti,” also known as the “Abominable Snowman,” is an ape-like entity, taller than the average human, that is said to inhabit the Himalayan region of Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet. But is its existence just a myth or is it a reality? A new DNA study based on purported Yeti samples from museums and private collections is attempting to finally achieve a definitive answer to the debate.
First Systematic Genetic Survey of Yeti’s Origins
Numerous sightings have been reported; many footprints have been spotted and even more stories have been reproduced for centuries, but in the heads of most people the “Yeti” is nothing more than just another mythical creature of worldwide mythology. However, science attempts to clear things up. In the first ever systematic genetic survey, scientists have collected a good deal of samples attributed to anomalous primates in order to identify the species origin, including bone, tooth, skin, hair and fecal samples collected in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau.
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. (Image: Icon Films Ltd.)
As Phys Org reports, two Himalayan samples, one from Ladakh, India, the other from Bhutan, had their closest genetic affinity with a Palaeolithic polar bear, Ursus maritimus. Another turned out to be from a dog, while the majority of them came from Asian black bears. "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," bear scientist at the University of Buffalo, Charlotte Lindqvist, said via Phys Org. Lindqvist's team is not officially the first to examine "Yeti" DNA, but is undoubtedly the most thorough in history. Past projects conducted way less organized genetic analyses, which left many significant questions unanswered. "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.
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Science Can Separate Legend from Reality
Lindqvist suggests that in such cases science is the only way to separate legend from reality. She uses as a major example the legend of the "African unicorn," which eventually was explained in the early 20th century by British researchers, who discovered and described the flesh-and-blood okapi, a giraffe relative that looks like a mix between that animal, a zebra and a horse. Lindqvist strongly believes that the “Yeti” – just like the okapi—is linked with the existence of a popular and well-known animal. "Clearly, a big part of the Yeti legend has to do with bears," she says as Phys Org reports.
A femur bone from the decayed body of a purported Yeti found in a cave in Tibet. Biologist Charlotte Lindqvist tested DNA from the bone for Icon Films' "YETI OR NOT" TV special, which aired on Animal Planet in 2016. (Image: Icon Films Ltd.)
She goes on explaining that she and her colleagues examined many samples such as a scrap of skin from the hand or paw of a "Yeti” (part of a monastic relic), and a piece of femur bone from a decomposed "Yeti" discovered 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 Evolutionary History of Asian Bears
Tracing the origins of the “Yeti” legend, however, doesn’t seem to be the only focus of Lindqvist's research, as the project has already uncovered a lot of previously unknown details 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. 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," she says as Phys Org reports.
Her team sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of 23 Asian bears (including the purported Yetis), and compared their DNA to that of other bears worldwide. This investigation showed that while Tibetan brown bears appear to have common ancestry with North American and Eurasian kin, Himalayan brown bears belong to a separate evolutionary ancestry that split early on from all other brown bears.
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Himalayan brown bear from Deosai National Park, Pakistan. A new study ties DNA from purported Yetis to Asian bears, including Himalayan brown bears. (Image: Abdullah Khan, Snow Leopard Foundation)
Ultimately, the researchers suggest that the separation took place almost 650,000 years ago, during a glacial period. The timing implies that expanding glaciers and the region's rocky ground possibly forced Himalayan bears to separate from the rest, leading to a lengthy period of isolation and an individualistic evolutionary passageway. "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 via Phys Org, implying that there’s much more work and investigation to be done by her team in order to give definite answers about “Yeti’s” origins and the bear’s evolutionary history.
Top image: Depiction of Yeti shadow from wall of the mountain of the roller coaster Expedition Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. (Joe Penniston/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)