Hikers in Tibet and the Himalayas need not fear the monstrous yeti—but they’d darn well better carry bear spray. DNA analyses of nine samples purported to be from the “abominable snowman” reveal that eight actually came from various species of bears native to the area.
In the folklore of Nepal, the yeti looms large. The creature is often depicted as an immense, shaggy ape-human that roams the Himalayan hinterlands. Purported sightings over the years, as well as scattered “remains” secreted away in monasteries or held by shamans, have hinted to some that the yeti is not merely a mythical boogeyman.
But science has not borne this out so far. Previous genetic analyses of a couple of hair samples collected in India and Bhutan suggested that one small stretch of their mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)—the genetic material in a cell’s power-generating machinery that’s passed down only by females—resembled that of polar bears. That finding hinted that a previously unknown type of bear, possibly a hybrid between polar bears and brown bears, could be roaming the Himalayas, says Charlotte Lindqvist, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York in Buffalo.
To find out for sure, Lindqvist and her colleagues took a more thorough look at the mtDNA of as many samples of supposed yeti remains as she could get her hands on. Some were obtained when she worked with a U.K. production crew on the 2016 documentary Yeti or Not?, which sought to sift fact from folklore. The filmmakers got hold of a tooth and some hair collected on the Tibetan Plateau in the late 1930s, as well as a sample of scat from Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner’s museum in the Tyrolean Alps. More recent samples included hair collected in Nepal by a nomadic herdsman and a leg bone found by a spiritual healer in a cave in Tibet. The team also analyzed samples recently collected from several subspecies of bears native to the area, including the Himalayan brown bear, the Tibetan brown bear, and the black bear. Altogether, the scientists analyzed 24 samples, including nine purported to be from yeti.
Of the nine “yeti” samples, eight turned out to be from bears native to the area, the researchers report today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The other sample came from a dog. Similar studies of hair samples supposedly related to North America’s big hairy hominid, the sasquatch (aka Bigfoot), have revealed that those fibers came from bears, horses, dogs, and a variety of other creatures—even a human.
Debunking aside, the new study also yielded lots of scientifically useful info, Lindqvist says. The analyses generated the first full mitochondrial genomes for the Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus) and the Himalayan black bear (Ursus thibetanus laniger), for example. That could help scientists figure out how genetically different these rare subspecies are from more common species, as well as the last time these groups shared maternal ancestors in the past.
“It’s great that we now know these bears’ place in the maternal family tree,” says Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was not involved with the work.
“These guys did a pretty good job,” adds Todd Disotell, a biological anthropologist at New York University in New York City. One finding—that the Himalayan brown bear and the Tibetan brown bear had such clearly distinct mtDNA—was surprising, he notes, because subspecies are often genetically similar: “I didn’t expect that.”
He wonders whether future analyses of these bears’ nuclear DNA (which contains genetic contributions from both the mother and the father) will tell the same story. Male and female bears lead different lifestyles: Mama bears generally don’t wander much beyond their home territory, whereas male bears roam over much larger ranges. So, he suggests, the nuclear genomes of these subspecies might reveal that they’re hybridized more than the mtDNA suggests.
At the very least, when researchers return to the Himalayas to collect new samples, they won’t have to be so concerned about stumbling into the clutches of the infamous yeti.