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Bear or Yeti?

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Dr Meldrum weighs in. A press release coming soon for a new publication.


There is no question that the the folklore surrounding the potential existence of a relict hominoid species in the Himalaya has been conflated with bears to varying degrees. However, the recent publication by Lan et al can hardly be considered the final word on the identity of the yeti. The supplemental information (not accessible by all readers) provides descriptions of the samples submitted by Icon Films, but a casual viewing of their documentary makes it apparent that most of the sources were known bear specimens to begin with, for example the hideously taxidermied bear mount in the Messener Museum, endowed with obvious canid teeth. Pluck some hairs from an obvious bear pelt and it should come as no surprise that the resulting DNA identification is bear! The documentary producers had a clear agenda from the outset -- dispel the yeti mythos as mere folklore surrounding bear. This was quite apparent throughout the course of my interview with them and in the resulting production (The same was attempted in the documentary with the North American sasquatch, focusing nearly all their attention on samples, provided by an admitted bear poacher, which had previously been identified as bear!)


The most compelling evidence of a relict hominoid species in the Himalaya remains the footprints documented by the McNeely-Cronin Expedition to the Arun Valley in 1972. [The Arun: A Natural History of the World’s Deepest Valley (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979); “The Yeti – Not a Snowman,” in Oryx (1973, 12: 65-73).] The Icon Film producers were not interested in considering this evidence during my interview. Unraveling the bear and hominoid threads remains the challenge before serious investigators. But to ignore the evidence suggesting a possible hominoid, while making dismissive statements based on questionable "yeti" evidence readily attributable to bears is hardly an objective approach.


Forthcoming press release re a new publication in PNAS.



Abominable Snowman? Nope -- study ties DNA samples from purported Yetis to Asian bears -- New paper shows how science can explore the roots of folklore


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Yeti or Abominable Snowman -- a mysterious, ape-like creature said to inhabit the high mountains of Asia -- looms large in the mythology of Nepal and Tibet.

Sightings have been reported for centuries. Footprints have been spotted. Stories have been passed down from generation to generation.


Now, a new DNA study of purported Yeti samples from museums and private collections is providing insight into the origins of this Himalayan legend.


The research, which will be published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, analyzed nine "Yeti" specimens, including bone, tooth, skin, hair and fecal samples collected in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau. Of those, one turned out to be from a dog. The other eight were from Asian black bears, Himalayan brown bears or Tibetan brown bears.


"Our findings strongly suggest that the biological underpinnings of the Yeti legend can be found in local bears, and our study demonstrates that genetics should be able to unravel other, similar mysteries," says lead scientist Charlotte Lindqvist, PhD, an associate professor of biological sciences in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, and a visiting associate professor at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore).


Lindqvist's team is not the first to research "Yeti" DNA, but past projects ran simpler genetic analyses, which left important questions unresolved, she says.


"This study represents the most rigorous analysis to date of samples suspected to derive from anomalous or mythical 'hominid'-like creatures," Lindqvist and her co-authors write in their new paper. The team included Tianying Lan and Stephanie Gill from UB; Eva Bellemain from SPYGEN in France; Richard Bischof from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences; and Muhammad Ali Nawaz from Quaid-i-Azam University in Pakistan and the Snow Leopard Trust Pakistan program.


The science behind folklore

Lindqvist says science can be a useful tool in exploring the roots of myths about large and mysterious creatures.

She notes that in Africa, the longstanding Western legend of an "African unicorn" was explained in the early 20th century by British researchers, who found and described the flesh-and-blood okapi, a giraffe relative that looks like a mix between that animal and a zebra and a horse.


And in Australia -- where people and oversized animals may have coexisted thousands of years ago -- some scholars have speculated that references to enormous animal-like creatures in Australia's Aboriginal "Dreamtime" mythology may have drawn from ancient encounters with real megafauna or their remains, known today from Australia's fossil record.


But while such connections remain uncertain, Lindqvist's work -- like the discovery of the okapi -- is direct: "Clearly, a big part of the Yeti legend has to do with bears," she says.


She and colleagues investigated samples such as a scrap of skin from the hand or paw of a "Yeti" -- part of a monastic relic -- and a fragment of femur bone from a decayed "Yeti" found in a cave on the Tibetan Plateau. The skin sample turned out to be from an Asian black bear, and the bone from a Tibetan brown bear.


The "Yeti" samples that Lindqvist examined were provided to her by British production company Icon Films, which featured her in the 2016 Animal Planet special "YETI OR NOT," which explored the origins of the fabled being.

Solving a scientific mystery, too: How enigmatic bears evolved

Besides tracing the origins of the Yeti legend, Lindqvist's work is uncovering information about the evolutionary history of Asian bears.


"Bears in this region are either vulnerable or critically endangered from a conservation perspective, but not much is known about their past history," she says. "The Himalayan brown bears, for example, are highly endangered. Clarifying population structure and genetic diversity can help in estimating population sizes and crafting management strategies."


The scientists sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of 23 Asian bears (including the purported Yetis), and compared this genetic data to that of other bears worldwide.


This analysis showed that while Tibetan brown bears share a close common ancestry with their North American and Eurasian kin, Himalayan brown bears belong to a distinct evolutionary lineage that diverged early on from all other brown bears.

The split occurred about 650,000 years ago, during a period of glaciation, according to the scientists. The timing suggests that expanding glaciers and the region's mountainous geography may have caused the Himalayan bears to become separated from others, leading to a prolonged period of isolation and an independent evolutionary path.


"Further genetic research on these rare and elusive animals may help illuminate the environmental history of the region, as well as bear evolutionary history worldwide -- and additional 'Yeti' samples could contribute to this work," Lindqvist says.

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Funny how they weren't interested in the tracks. ;);) 


Physical evidence?

In the scientific and serious popular literature most of the debate has centered on the tracks which, whatever one makes of the sightings or the credibility of witnesses to the animal itself, undeniably exist. Skeptics usually explain these as the spoor of - conventional animals such as snow leopards, foxes, bears-or even wandering Tibetan lamas (who evidently do not mind freezing their feet)-and sometimes claim that melting has distorted their shapes into "yeti" prints. Though by now a virtual article of faith among skeptics, this last notion is a dubious one. Napier, no yeti believer, writes that "there is no real experimental basis for the belief that single footprints can become enlarged and still retain their shapes, or that discrete prints can run (or melt) together to form single large tracks."

In any case, some of the tracks are found fresh-in other words, before the elements have had a chance to act on them. Among the more impressive incidents involving tracks is one that happened in 1972 to members of the Arun Valley Wildlife Expedition, a multidisciplinary ecological survey of a deep river valley in far-eastern Nepal where many rare animals and plants live isolated and undisturbed. Its participants, including leader Edward Cronin, a zoologist, were open-minded about the yeti's possible existence and even looked for evidence in the course of their two-year effort, but this was not the main purpose of their endeavor.

On the night of December 17, Cronin and expedition physician Howard Emery, along with their Sherpa guides, camped on a depression at 12,000 feet in the ridge of Kongmaa La mountain. The next morning, when Emery awoke and stepped outside, he was startled to find footprints of a bipedal creature which had walked between the two tents sometime in the night. Nine inches long and four and three-quarters wide, perfectly preserved, the tracks showed, Cronin recorded, a "short, broad, opposable hallux, an asymmetrical arrangement of the four remaining toes, and a wide, rounded heel." They looked very much like a yeti print photographed by mountaineer Eric Shipton in 1951.

Expedition members followed the prints for some distance. The creature had come up and down the slope to the north, crossed through the camp, and proceeded over the south slope. Then it returned to the top of the ridge. Its tracks disappeared down the south slope in scrub and rock. "The slope was extremely steep," Cronin wrote, "and searching for the prints was arduous and dangerous. We realized that whatever creature had made them was far stronger than any of us."




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