Scientists Unravel the Mystery of the Yeti

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DNA tests on 24 "yeti" samples including feces, bone and skin reveal the elusive yeti's secrets.

Leave it to science, what with all of its testing and analyzing and conclusions, to rain on the parade of monster hunters the world over. That said, conservationists studying rare animals are delighted.

"Yetis are believed by some to be shy, furry human-like "snowmen" who live in the remote mountainous regions of Nepal and Tibet," writes Jen Christensen on CNN. "The name sounds much more poetic than what it translates to, which in the local Sherpa language is "that thing there." Yeti was mistranslated to "Abominable Snowman" when stories of the creature captured the imaginations of people in the West."

And indeed, yetis have been the fascination of countless mystery seekers, adventurers, and filmmakers – and many people really believe. And why not? We discover new species all the time. But now a team of researchers have conducted a comprehensive genetic survey of field-collected and museum specimens – 24 in total – of the mysterious yeti and have arrived at a very simple explanation: The so-called yeti evidence all comes from bears and a dog.

"Phylogenetic analyses of mitochondrial DNA sequences determined clade affinities of the purported yeti samples in this study, strongly supporting the biological basis of the yeti legend to be local, extant bears." the authors write in the new research published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

One of the samples (a tooth) turned out to be from a dog; the other 23 samples were grouped into four bear lineages: Himalayan brown bear, Tibetan brown bear, Continental Eurasian brown bear and Asian black bear.

"We didn't set out to debunk the myth. We were open-minded, and we did learn something," said Charlotte Lindqvist, a scientist in the department of biological sciences at the University at Buffalo. "I'm not an expert in the Yeti legend, I'm not an anthropologist, but as someone who works with genetics, I thought this is the kind of the work that could tell an interesting story."

While yeti believers may have hoped that Lindqvist and her team ended up with a different story to tell, conservationists and those studying bears in the region may now reap the benefits of new insights. "Few genetic studies have been conducted of bears in the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding Himalaya region," notes the study, "and their evolutionary history remains enigmatic."

Now we know, for example, that Himalayan brown bears, including the previously reported Gobi bear and Deosai bears, form a well-supported, sister lineage to all other extant brown bear clades included here, say the authors. "This result strongly supports Himalayan brown bears as a relict population that diverged early from other brown bear populations."

The authors conclude that their study represents the most "rigorous analysis to date of samples suspected to derive from anomalous or mythical ‘hominid’-like creatures, strongly suggesting that the biological basis of the yeti legend is local brown and black bears."

Hopefully the new research will help ensure the longevity of beleaguered bears in the area, which someday could be as elusive as the yeti.

Read the full report here: Evolutionary history of enigmatic bears in the Tibetan Plateau–Himalaya region and the identity of the yeti