Are the Yeti Just a Bunch of Bears? Genetics Says

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Everybody loves a good cryptid. If the classic creatures of legend and hearsay — the Loch Ness monster or Sasquatch, for instance — are too campy for your tastes, perhaps your interest would be piqued by the Grootslang, the giant snake with an elephant’s head said to hang out in caves of northwestern South Africa, or the Yowie — basically the Bigfoot of the Australian outback — or the mapinguary, a giant slothlike ape reportedly lurking in the Amazon rainforest on the border between Brazil and Bolivia. If you’re game to dive into the waters of cryptozoology, you’ll be there a while, because they’re fathomless. Scientists, however, will rarely dive in there with you. They will, however, occasionally make an exception for the yeti.

The yeti, or the great, white abominable snowman of the Himalayas, is one of the world’s most beloved cryptids. It’s a major figure in the folklore of Nepal, and hikers are constantly reporting to have seen a giant, white, apelike creature stalking around the mountains. Some even claim to have brought home a piece of one of these beasts: a tuft of hair, a bone, some skin, a tooth, some possible abominable snowman dung. These yeti souvenirs have made their way into museums and private collections over the years, and now nine of them have formed the basis for a study investigating the reality behind the folktales.

The November 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B finds that, of the alleged yeti bits genetically sequenced by the international team of researchers, all revealed themselves to be of very commonplace origin: eight bears and a dog. There was diversity in the species of bears, however: One Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus) was represented, one Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus), and the other six were from Tibetan brown bears (Ursus arctos pruinosus).

“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,” said lead scientist Charlotte Lindqvist, Ph.D., an associate professor of biological sciences in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, in a press release.

Where previous genetic studies of possible cryptids looked only at mitochondrial DNA, Lindqvist and her team gave these cave bones and wads of hair The Works: applied PCR amplification, mitochondrial sequencing, mitochondrial genome assembly and phylogenic analysis.

“This study represents the most rigorous analysis to date of samples suspected to derive from anomalous or mythical ‘hominid’-like creatures,” said Lindqvist and her co-authors in their paper.

The team also sequenced mitochondrial DNA of 23 Asian bears and compared them with bears around the world. They found the Tibetan brown bear to be more closely related to American bears than they are to their neighbors, the Himalayan bear. In fact, the two species probably spit along two separate evolutionary lineages around 650,000 years ago, during a major ice age.

And just in case you were wondering who compiled the bear parts Lindqvist’s team used for their research, they were assembled by a 2016 Animal Planet team for a special titled “Yeti or Not,” which explored the myths behind the monster.

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