Separating fact from fiction: the truth about the yeti

The truth is out - DNA analysis of 39 pelts has shown they really belong to brown bears and Asian black bears.

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A drawing of mountain climbers in the Himalayas spotting an Abominable Snowman or Yeti in the distance circa 1950 in Nepal © Ed Vebell / Getty 

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What did you do?

A paper published in 2014 analysed two samples purported to be from yetis and claimed they actually came from a brown-polar bear hybrid, while the mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who was obsessed with unravelling the identity of the yeti, had previously suggested that yetis were really bears. We looked at 24 samples from both bears and creatures claimed to be yetis.

What did find?

We concluded that all the samples were indeed from ursids, but none of them were polar bear hybrids. We found they belonged to Himalayan, Tibetan and Eurasian brown bears and Asian black bears.

So, the yeti is a myth?

Our results from this research strongly suggest that the belief in yetis has its roots in biological facts and is closely connected to bears that still live in the region today. Personally, I have no doubt that the existence of a primate-like cryptic species in the Himalayan-Tibetan region is indeed a myth.

Is that it for yetis?

I’m sure they will continue to live on in the Himalayan region and local folklore, as similar myths do in many other cultures. Besides, even if there is no proof for the existence of these creatures, it is impossible to completely rule out that they live or have ever lived. And, of course, people love mysteries!

Did your research reveal anything else?

Yes, we showed that Himalayan brown bears appear to be from an ancient lineage that may have been isolated from other brown bear populations – including the relatively close ones living in the Tibetan Plateau – for more than 600,000 years. So the Himalayan bears have special significance, and since their population is dwindling, this suggests they should be of high conservation priority.

Dr Charlotte Lindqvist is an associate professor of biological sciences in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences

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Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys live in the lofty evergreen forests of south-west China. © Xi Zhinong/Minden Pictures/FLPA
Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys live in the lofty evergreen forests of south-west China. © Xi Zhinong/Minden Pictures/FLPA

Yetis and humans aside, this record goes to the Yunnan (or black) snub-nosed monkey, which lives on the Tibetan Plateau at altitudes of up to 4,700m.

The survival of the species on the roof of the world is no doubt aided by its dark fur, which efficiently absorbs heat from the sun.

Counter-intuitively, these mountaineering monkeys move to the highest elevations during the winter. The drop in temperature seems to be offset by an increase in sunlight, which melts fresh snow quicker to expose the lichens and foliage on which they feed.

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Fewer than 2,000 individuals now remain, and they are vulnerable to becoming caught in snares set for deer.