There are many tales from the Sherpa who live and work in the mountains of the Himalayas of a bipedal beast who stalks the snow-dusted peaks and valleys, known to us as the yeti. Even Edmund Hillary claimed he saw large footprints as he scaled Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay. Over the years, others have collected “samples” from this mysterious cryptid.
Now, a team have analyzed as many “yeti” samples as they could get their mitts on, publishing their results in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Unsurprisingly, they found that all is not quite as it seems.
Uncovering the identity of the enigmatic yeti has been somewhat controversial. The isolation and mystery of the mountaintops that stretch across central Asia have caught the imagination of many explorers and biologists seeking to uncover the truth. Some claim to have found various body parts of the animal, with some of these becoming revered in the Buddhist temples that dot the peaks.
Previous genetic studies of these “yeti” samples suggested they actually came from an ancient polar bear that once may have survived in the region. Many others, such as Tenzing Norgay himself, suggested that the creature might be an as-yet unrecognized species of ape, not unlike Gigantopithecus.
Now, a new team have decided to test things more rigorously, taking nine samples collected in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau and running modern genetic analyses to determine their origin. All the artifacts – including pieces of bone, a tooth, skin, hair, and feces – are claimed to have been from the yeti.
The DNA, however, suggests that this is unlikely the case. One of the samples was from a humble canine, while the other eight all came from one of three species of living bear still found meandering the high mountain passes and plateaus: the Asian black bear, the Himalayan brown bear, and the Tibetan brown bear. No ape, polar bear, or yeti to speak of.
While the genetic analysis may have unravelled the mysteries of the yeti, it could also help better our understanding of the living species.
“Bears in this region are either vulnerable or critically endangered from a conservation perspective, but not much is known about their past history,” explains lead author Charlotte Lindqvist of the University at Buffalo. “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.”
It has also shown that while the Tibetan brown bear is closely related to their North American and European counterparts, the Himalayan brown bear split from the group much earlier on in their evolutionary history.