Yetis May Just Be Common Brown Bears, Study Suggests

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Scientists examined "yeti" hair samples and found that the sequence of nucleotides in this fragment could have come from a brown bear. Ints Kalnins / REUTERS

Whether you call it the yeti, the abominable snowman or Bigfoot, tales about a primate-like beast roaming the hills have been told and retold for centuries, and even inspired some serious scientific inquiry.

Last year, Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes and colleagues did DNA tests on various animal hairs that allegedly came from a yeti. They concluded that all of the hairs derived from other common animals like dogs, save two, which contained genetic material most closely matching that of a paleolithic polar bear fossil dating to tens of thousands of years ago. The study suggested that there may be an as-yet undiscovered population of polar bear–like animals living in the Himalayas, which could explain the yeti legend.

But new research refutes that, saying that DNA from the hairs in question likely belong to a brown bear, a common species found throughout much of Asia.

In a study published in the journal Zookeys, scientists looked more closely at the gene fragment that Sykes examined, which came from the mystery hairs. They found that the sequence of nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA) in this fragment could very well have come from a brown bear. After all, the fragment contained only four nucleotides that were different from the same gene in brown bears. And these differences occurred at spots in the genetic code that are known to vary between different individual brown bears. These animals are recognized inhabitants of the Himalayas, as well as Alaska, western Canada and northwestern U.S.—all places where Bigfoot sightings have been reported.

So Bigfoot may be explained perhaps by the occasionally odd, aggressive or strange-looking individual big brown bear, the study suggests. But why spoil folklore with a little science?