A geneticist believes he may have begun to solve the riddle of one of most enduring myths in all of cryptozoology: the yeti, or Abominable Snowman, of the Himalayas.
The mystery has swirled through the snows of the mountainous region for centuries, since Alexander the Great searched for a yeti on his eastward march across the Indus Valley. In the 1950s, even respected mountaineers such as Sir Edmund Hillary claimed to have seen footprints of the legendary beast, which reportedly walks upright and is covered with hair.
Now, using DNA analysis from two different hair samples — one from a strange animal shot by a hunter about 40 years ago in northern India's Ladakh region, and a second sample found in a Bhutan bamboo forest 10 years ago — geneticist Bryan Sykes of the University of Oxford claims to have linked those samples to the jawbone of an ancient polar bear found in Norway. [Rumor or Reality: The Creatures of Cryptozoology]
A rare bear?
In the early 1970s, a French mountaineer trekking through the rugged Ladakh region (at the western edge of the Himalayas) encountered a hunter who had saved the remains of a bizarre, bear-like animal — about the size of a human being — that he had recently shot. The mountaineer saved a sample of the hair, which he later passed to Sykes.
Sykes found the Ladakh hair sample especially intriguing. "The fact that the hunter … thought this one was in some way unusual and was frightened of it, makes me wonder if this species of bear might behave differently," he told The Telegraph. "Maybe it is more aggressive, more dangerous or is more bipedal than other bears."
Sykes began by comparing that hair sample, and the 10-year-old sample from Bhutan, against a database of collected animal DNA. "In the Himalayas, I found the usual sorts of bears and other creatures amongst the collection," said Sykes, as quoted in Phys.org.
"But the particularly interesting ones are the ones whose genetic fingerprints are linked not to the brown bears or any other modern bears, [but] to an ancient polar bear."
That polar bear lived in Norway between 40,000 and 120,000 years ago, and its DNA is a 100-percent match with the recent hair samples from Ladakh and Bhutan. "This is a species that hasn't been recorded for 40,000 years," Sykes said. "Now, we know one of these was walking around 10 years ago."
More research needed
Sykes — whose research has not yet been published in any peer-reviewed journal — stops short of saying that the Himalayas are home to an ancient breed of polar bear. "There's more work to be done on interpreting the results. I don't think it means there are ancient polar bears wandering around the Himalayas," he told the Telegraph.
"It could mean there is a subspecies of brown bear in the High Himalayas descended from the bear that was the ancestor of the polar bear," Sykes added. "Or it could mean there has been more recent hybridization between the brown bear and the descendant of the ancient polar bear."
Scientists recently discovered that polar bears and brown bears are more closely related than was previously thought. Mitochondrial DNA analysis from 2011 suggested that brown bears from Ireland may have given rise to the modern polar bear, but more recent research finds that — due to a long history of interbreeding — the genetic lines of polar bears and brown bears are muddled at best.
Though further study is needed to determine whether or not a yeti actually exists, Sykes' research is "much better science" than most other yeti investigations, Benjamin Radford, LiveScience's Bad Science columnist and deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, told LiveScience.
"What's different about the Sykes study is that he's using good science and genetic testing," Radford added. "It is certainly much more plausible that a bear was mistaken for a Yeti than that there exists a giant, bipedal hominid race that no one has discovered!"
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