Science ruins the Yeti – finds eight bears and a dog

  Last updated December 6, 2017 at 11:06 am

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You’re walking through the Himalayas when you get the feeling you are being watched. You hustle onwards towards the next village, every now and again catching glimpses of a humungous ape-like creature in the shadows. Is it a Yeti?

No, according to science.


One the great enduring myths of the world, the Yeti or Abominable Snowman, has taken a hit following DNA sequencing of samples which were thought to be from the mysterious creature. Nine “Yeti” specimens, including bone, tooth, skin, hair and fecal samples from the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau were collected from private collections and museums, including one from a monastery. The results – eight bears and a dog.

The study began in 2013 when Charlotte Lindqvist, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University at Buffalo, was approached by a documentary team wanting to make a film about the mystery of the Yeti. If they could supply the samples, would she be able to sequence their DNA? Lindqvist told The Atlantic that despite warnings from colleagues not to get involved in the area of cryptids, she signed up to join their project.

One of Lindqvist’s research interests is the evolution of bear species, and has previously performed detailed work on the evolution of polar bears. However, much less is known about the brown bear species which live in the Himalayas – so this was essentially a no-lose situation. She either helps discover a brand new species and confirms the existence of the Yeti (unlikely), or gets access to extremely rare samples of critically endangered bear species (much more likely).

When the documentary aired in 2016 on Animal Planet the build up suggested a revolutionary finding. “When I had to reveal to them that okay, these are bears, I was excited about that because it was my initial motive to get into this,” Lindqvist told The Atlantic. “They obviously were a little disappointed.”

However, far from a revolutionary finding about the presence of the Yeti, the findings were revolutionary for our understanding of the bears in the area.

The eight samples from bears turned out to be a mixture of species. One was from an Asian black bear, one from a Himalayan brown bear, and the other six from Tibetan brown bears. Once thought to be subspecies, the results found that the Himalayan brown bear and Tibetan brown bear have a distinctly different evolutionary pathway.

The research found that Tibetan brown bears share a close common ancestry with their North American and Eurasian relatives. However, Himalayan brown bears (right) belong to a different evolutionary line that split from the other brown bear species quite early, about 650,000 years ago. During this time expanding glaciers and the region’s mountainous geography may have caused the Himalayan bears to become physically separated from others, and over a long period of isolation their evolution then took a different track to the other species, making them genetically quite different to other brown bears.

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

For the current study, Lindqvist and her team sequenced mitochondrial DNA, which is genetic material stored in the mitochondria – the engine of the cell. The advantage of mitochondrial DNA is that it is much more abundant – DNA in the nucleus only has one copy per cell, while in the mitochondria the DNA has multiple copies. And unlike the double helix structure of nuclear DNA, mitochondrial is circular, making it stronger and less likely to degrade – especially important when dealing with decades old samples. Lindqvist and her team have now fully sequenced the Himalayan brown bear mitochondrial DNA.

“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 said. “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.”

So thanks science for ruining our fun once again. However, even though this study rules out these samples coming from a Yeti it is impossible to completely rule out that they do exist somewhere, still waiting to be found.


The research has been published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B


Main image courtesy of Joe Penniston on Flickr

Himalayan brown bears image courtesy of Ruchir Patel on Wikimedia


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About the Author

Ben Lewis

Ben Lewis is a Producer at Australia’s Science Channel, and Editor of the Space, and Innovation and Tech channels. He has worked with scientists and science storytellers including Brian Cox, Chris Hadfield, Robert Llewellyn, elite athletes, Antarctic explorers, chefs and comedians. Ben has also been involved in public events around Australia and was co-writer, producer and director of The Science of Doctor Who, which toured nationally in 2014 in association with BBC Worldwide Australia & New Zealand. Want more Ben? You can hear him on ABC radio in Adelaide, regional SA, NSW, and around Queensland, commercial radio in the ACT, and Radio Adelaide. He also speaks at universities around Australia on communicating science to the public. Around the office he makes the worst jokes known to mankind.


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