Separating fact from fiction: the truth about the yeti

The truth is out - DNA analysis of 'yeti' pelts has shown they really belong to brown bears and Asian black bears, says Charlotte Lindqvist. 

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Separating fact from fiction: the truth about the yeti

A drawing of mountain climbers in the Himalayas spotting an Abominable Snowman or Yeti in the distance circa 1950 in Nepal © Ed Vebell / Getty 

 

What did you do?

A paper published in 2014 analysed two samples purported to be from yetis and claimed they actually came from a brown-polar bear hybrid, while the mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who was obsessed with unravelling the identity of the yeti, had previously suggested that yetis were really bears. We looked at 24 samples from both bears and creatures claimed to be yetis.

 

What did find?

We concluded that all the samples were indeed from ursids, but none of them were polar bear hybrids. We found they belonged to Himalayan, Tibetan and Eurasian brown bears and Asian black bears.

 

So, the yeti is a myth?

Our results from this research strongly suggest that the belief in yetis has its roots in biological facts and is closely connected to bears that still live in the region today. Personally, I have no doubt that the existence of a primate-like cryptic species in the Himalayan-Tibetan region is indeed a myth.

 

Is that it for yetis?

I’m sure they will continue to live on in the Himalayan region and local folklore, as similar myths do in many other cultures. Besides, even if there is no proof for the existence of these creatures, it is impossible to completely rule out that they live or have ever lived. And, of course, people love mysteries!

 

Did your research reveal anything else?

Yes, we showed that Himalayan brown bears appear to be from an ancient lineage that may have been isolated from other brown bear populations – including the relatively close ones living in the Tibetan Plateau – for more than 600,000 years. So the Himalayan bears have special significance, and since their population is dwindling, this suggests they should be of high conservation priority.

 

Dr Charlotte Lindqvist is an associate professor of biological sciences in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences.

 

This article first appeared in the February 2018 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine. Take a look inside the current issue and find out how to subscribe

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