March 17, 2015


[Now the question is: what kind of bear? A new study, published in the journal ZooKeys, concludes that hair sample "evidence" for Yeti actually comes from Himalayan brown bears. The finding refutes an earlier study that the hair belonged to an unknown type of bear related to polar bears.]
In legend, Yeti is a huge and furry human-resembling creature also referred to as the Abominable Snowman, but in science, Yeti is just a bear.
Now the question is: what kind of bear? A new study, published in the journal ZooKeys, concludes that hair sample "evidence" for Yeti actually comes from Himalayan brown bears. The finding refutes an earlier study that the hair belonged to an unknown type of bear related to polar bears.
At the center of the controversy are DNA analysis studies. Prior research, led by Bryan Sykes at the University of Oxford, determined that hairs formerly attributed to Yeti belonged to to a mysterious bear species that may not yet be known to science.
Sykes told Discovery News that his paper "refers to two Himalayan samples attributed to yetis and which turned out to be related to an ancient polar bear. This may be the source of the legend in the Himalayas."
The new study, however, calls this possibility into question. The research, in this case, was authored by Eliécer E. Gutiérrez of the Smithsonian Institution and Ronald Pine at the University of Kansas.
Gutiérrez and Pine found that genetic variation in brown bears makes it impossible to assign, with certainty, the samples tested by Sykes and his co-authors to either brown bears or to polar bears.
Because of genetic overlap, the samples could have come from either species, but because brown bears occur in the Himalayas, Gutiérrez and Pine think there is no reason to believe that the samples in question came from anything other than ordinary Himalayan brown bears.
For the new study, Gutiérrez and Pine also examined how the gene sequences analyzed might show the ways in which six present-day species of bears — including the polar bear, the brown bear, and the extinct Eurasian cave bear — might be related.
This opened up a new mystery, as DNA from an Asian black bear in Japan indicated that this bear was not closely related to the mainland members of that species. The researchers believe that this unexpected large evolutionary distance between the two geographic groups of the Asian black bear merits further study.
"In fact, a study looking at the genetic and morphological variability of Asian black bear populations throughout the geographic distribution of the species is yet to be conducted, and it would surely yield exciting results," Gutiérrez concluded.
As for Yeti, believers might point out that the studies only looked at hair samples, and not the footprints, photographs, recorded sounds and other "evidence" for the Abominable Snowman.
Image: A recreation of the legendary Yeti. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In Nepal, some people believe in a legendary creature known as the Yeti. It lives high up on the glaciers of the Himalaya Mountains. Stories about this creature date back thousands of years. The legends say it can be seen only when it comes down from the high mountains to lower elevation and that it passes through the forests and into the villages where it surprises or scares people and sometimes kills a yak for food. Several climbers claim to have seen an unusual animal on their way up Mount Everest. A few have taken photographs of very large footprints in the snow, claiming they belong to the Yeti.

The name Yeti sounds unusual, but it has another name that many people will recognize: Abominable Snowman. Think of a big human-like animal covered in white hair, with huge canine teeth and very big footprints.

What does it look like?

Various sketches and sculptures of the Yeti can be found in the literature and in various sacred sites throughout the Himalayas. The images are similar in some ways: the creature looks like a large ape and it appears fierce. But people who study the legend and lore of the Yeti agree that the mythical animal can appear in different forms.

Could the Yeti be real?

From a scientific point of view, the descriptions of the Yeti raise an interesting question: is there a real animal that lives in the Himalayas that people have exaggerated or imagined to be some kind of oversized hairy human? Could one or more of the large mammals that live in the high mountain forest be the real Yeti? Or are people seeing glimpses of real animals and mixing them together to create a mythical one?

Some people think the Yeti is an unusual form of a common animal – like an albino black bear or a single male macaque. Still others think it is an undescribed species. So far, no one has ever found concrete proof of the Yeti. Aside from footprints, no other form of animal sign has been found. One skull, believed to belong to a Yeti, was recently found to be made from a yak.

Several expeditions have been led to the Himalayas to search for evidence of an actual animal that could be the Yeti, but nothing has been found. Sir Edmund Hilary, the first man to successfully climb Everest, also searched for the Yeti. He invited several scientists to join him. They found nothing. Despite lack of proof, people who believe in the Yeti insist that there could be an undiscovered animal living in the remote parts of these mountains. Others believe the Yeti is part spirit and part animal. Still others believe it is the result of the imagination gone wild.

Nepal is not the only place where people believe in an animal of this type. There are many stories about the Wild Man in China, Bigfoot or Sasquatch in the United States, Ngoloko in Africa, and Kaptar in Europe. All of them have the same features: a cone-shaped head, long hair, bad body odor, huge feet, and the ability to walk upright.

Relationship of the Yeti myth to local culture

People who study the traditional beliefs, myths, tales, and practices of a people are called folklorists. They study folklore to try and understand why certain legends persist and what significance they might play in daily life. One theory is that the myth of the Yeti serves to help protect the forests.

The Nepali people who live in the mountains, the Sherpas, believe in Buddhism, a very important religion in Nepal. Most of the villages in the mountains have a monastery, a sacred place where Buddhist monks practice this ancient religion. Buddhism encourages people to live in balance with nature and discourages people from hunting animals for food or cutting down trees for fuel. Most of the monasteries also establish “sacred lands,” large tracts of forest that are not to be disturbed. It is believed the Yeti favors these sacred areas. The villagers and monks rarely enter dense forest alone or after dark. They believe it is safer to go by twos in case they meet this legendary creature.

Yet, even without proof, belief in the Yeti is very real. This legendary creature has had an actual impact on conservation. Belief in an unreal animal has helped conserve the forest for real animals, like Himalayan black bears, red pandas, leopards, and Himalayan tahr.