Search For Yeti Leads Scientists To New Discovery

People have been exploring the Himalayan Mountains in search of the illusive Yeti for over a century. Stories told by visitors and locals alike fuel the legend, but new evidence suggests the Yeti may just be a common bear.

A team of researchers from Oxford, collaborating with the Lausanne Museum of Zoology announced that they would sequence the DNA of any material thought to be a Yeti. Most were common, but two samples caused a stir.

In 2014 Bryan Sykes, a professor of genetics at Oxford, analyzed some strange hair samples from the mountain range. After analyzing two hair samples Sykes and his team concluded that the samples belonged to an extinct breed of polar bear. The announcement made headlines, and many were excited for the possibility of discovering an extinct species still alive.

However, Eliecer Gutierrez, a professor of evolutionary biology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., was suspicious of the new findings of an extinct bear. Sykes and his team used only a fragment of the genes from the two hair. Gutierrez found the genetic sequence of the hair samples by looking them up in GenBank, an official database for publicly available gene samples.

After doing a full comparison Gutierrez concluded that the samples did not have enough complete DNA to differentiate between the Alaskan polar bear and the brown bear. The samples likely come from the brown bear because there are no polar bears in the Himalayas.

Gutierrez is actually the second to discredit Sykes’ theory of an extinct bear species. When the findings were first announced in 2014, two other scientists quickly pointed out that his data had not been analyzed sufficiently for the claim.

Ceiridwen Edwards, one of the scientists who disagreed said that Skyes should have run further tests after they found that the hair belonged to a species of polar bear. Edwards says they should have analyzed the extracted DNA and looked at other regions of the mitochondiral genome, or DNA from the mother.

“The explanation by Gutierrez and Pine might be right, or it might not be,” Sykes wrote. “The only way forward, as I have repeatedly said, is to find a living bear that matches the 12S RNA and study fresh material from it. Which involves getting off your butt, not an activity I usually associate with desk-bound molecular taxonomists.”

His book about the project, titled “The Nature of the Beast,” is set for publication in April.

Sykes said that the important thing is that there is no possible way the hair samples belong to an undiscovered primate. While his “discovery” created a lot of press, and a boon to people who believed in the Yeti, Sykes’ peers have determined it was just bad science.

The study by Gutierrez and Pine is titled “No Need to Replace an ‘Anomalous’ Primate (Primates) With an ‘Anomalous’ Bear (Carnivora, Ursidae).”