Himalayan ‘yeti’ may be a relative of ancient polar bears

Does the Yeti really wander the Himalayas? A geneticist analyzes DNA.
(Narendra Shrestha / EPA)
<i>This post has been updated, as indicated below.</i>

The Himalayan yeti — or some version of that mythical creature — may be a relative of an ancient polar bear, according to new research by a University of Oxford geneticist.

Bryan Sykes, a human geneticist at Oxford, analyzed the hairs from two alleged yetis, one that came from an unknown animal mummy in the western Himalayan region of Ladakh and the other from an animal discovered 10 years ago in Bhutan.

Sykes sequenced the DNA from each of the two hairs and then looked for a match in a large database of other animal genomes.


[Updated 1:52 p.m. PDT Oct. 17: Sykes put the call out last year for samples from “formally undescribed species,” according to a release, and then chose 30 of what he deemed “credible” samples to test.]

What he found surprised him.

Sykes believes he found a 100% match with a DNA sample from the jaw of an ancient polar bear that lived tens of thousands of years ago.

That doesn’t mean a mythical Bigfoot-like yeti is alive and well. And Sykes in a statement said, “I don’t think it means there are ancient polar bears wandering around the Himalayas. But we can speculate what the possible explanation might be. It could be there is a subspecies of brown bear in the High Himalayas descended from the bear that was the ancestor to the polar bear.”

Alternatively, he said, the yeti could be a more recent hybridization between brown bears and the descendant of the ancient polar bear.

Sykes’ results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, (although they have been submitted), but his work will be featured in a television series called “Bigfoot Files” that airs Sunday on the Britian’s Channel 4.

At least one scientist not involved in the study has suggested that the bear explanation is plausible.

“It’s a lot easier to believe that than if he had found something else,” Tom Gilbert, a professor of paleogenomics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark told the Associated Press. “If he had said it’s some kind of new primate, I’d want to see all the data.”

In an interview with Live Science last year, Sykes acknowledged that wading into the yeti conversation was controversial.

“As an academic, I have certain reservations about entering this field, but I think using genetic analysis is entirely objective; it can’t be falsified,” he said. “So I don’t have to put myself into the position of either believing or disbelieving these creatures.”

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