Quirks & Quarks

Abominable Snowman's true identity unmasked

Scientists tested 9 biological samples all thought to have come from Yeti.
Actors dressed as 'Yeti' attend a promotional event for the Travel Channel. Recently, British filmmakers collected bits of hair, bone, a tooth, a fecal sample, and even a bit of petrified skin all thought to have come from Yeti and had the DNA analyzed. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

The folklore

The Yeti or Abominable Snowman is a mysterious, ape-like creature said to inhabit the high mountains of Asia. Stories about this mythological creature have been passed down for generations in places like Nepal and Tibet. 

Recently British filmmakers from Icon Films travelled to the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau to investigate this mysterious creature in a documentary called, Yeti Or Not. In their travels, they collect bits of hair, bone, a tooth, a fecal sample, and even a bit of petrified skin — all thought to have come from Yeti. 

To bring some hard facts to this folklore, the filmmakers brought those samples to a University at Buffalo bear geneticist, Dr. Charlotte Lindqvist, who is currently visiting at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Many people have suspected in the past that Yeti could actually be a type of bear. The results were recently published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B

The genetic results

Dr. Lindqvist and her team isolated DNA from nine samples the filmmakers had given her. They analyzed the mitochondrial DNA, which is much easier to obtain from older samples because there are more copies present in our cells. They compared the sequences they obtained from the "Yeti" samples to the DNA of bears from around the world, as well as with DNA sequences in a publicly available database of animals around the world. 

A hair sample from a purported Yeti in Nepal. The hair was said to have come from a Yeti that a Jesuit priest spotted in the mountains in the region in the 1950s, according to producers for Icon Films' Yeti or Not. (Icon Films Ltd.)

Eight of the samples she tested matched the DNA of local bears living today in the Himalayan region. Several of those matched the sequence of Tibetan brown bears, one matched a Himalayan brown bear, and another matched a black bear also found in the Himalayans. The ninth sample was the tooth. Dr. Lindqvist discovered it came from a dog.

What this tells us about the bears

The black and brown bears from which the "Yeti" samples came from are quite elusive in the region. Not a lot is known about them. But thanks to this study, scientists now know a bit more about their genetics. 

Himalayan brown bear from Deosai National Park, Pakistan. A new study ties DNA from purported Yetis to Asian bears, including Himalayan brown bears. (Abdullah Khan/Snow Leopard Foundation)

"I think it was very interesting what we found," said Dr. Lindqvist. "The brown bears on the Tibetan plateau and the brown bears in the Himalayan mountains, if you look at a map, it looks like they're actually living in fairly close proximity, geographically, but genetically — based on the mitochondrial DNA analysis that we did — are actually quite genetically isolated from one another and also from other brown bears from around the world."

She says to her, that suggests these bears have been living in isolation for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years.