PARIS – For fans of the yeti, newly published genetic research on purported specimens of the legendary apelike beast said to dwell in the Himalayan region may be too much to bear — literally.
The long-sought creature, also known as yeti, is in fact a bear, they reported in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
To be precise, it is three bears: the Asian black, the Tibetan brown and the Himalayan brown.
Each of these subspecies inhabits different niches on the roof the world, and all of them have probably been mistaken for the “wild man of the snows,” the scientists said.
“Our findings strongly suggest that the biological underpinnings of the yeti legend can be found in local bears,” said lead scientist Charlotte Lindqvist, associate professor at the University of Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences.
The study is not the first to trace the myth to bears, but it does amass an unprecedented wealth of genetic evidence gleaned from bones, teeth, skin, hair and fecal samples previously attributed to the cryptic creatures.
The artifacts — from private collections and museums around the world, including a monastic relic said to come from a yeti paw — were part of the remains of 23 bears, the researchers found.
Lindqvist and her team reconstructed the complete mitochondrial genomes of each specimen, leading to important discoveries about the region’s beleaguered carnivores and their evolutionary back story.
“Brown bears roaming the high altitudes of the Tibetan Plateau, and brown bears in the western Himalayan mountains, appear to belong to two separate populations,” she said. “The split occurred about 650,000 years ago, during a period of glaciation.”
The two subspecies have probably remained isolated from one another ever since, despite their relative proximity, she speculated.
Today, the Himalayan brown bear — Ursus arctos isabellinus — is listed as “critically endangered” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
Its reddish-brown fur is lighter in color than that of the darker Tibetan brown bear, which also sports a white collar around its neck.
Throughout the 20th century, fascination in the West — notably in the United States and Britain — with the yeti legend was intense.
In a book chronicling his trek across the Lhagba La pass near Mount Everest in 1921, Lt. Col. Charles Howard-Bury describes “tracks rather like those of a barefoot man.”
He attributed them to a large wolf loping through soft snow, but his Sherpa guides said they were left by a “metoh-kangi,” or “man-bear snowman.”
The report by a Royal Geographical Society member in 1925 of a human-like figure crossing a high-altitude glacier further fueled distant imaginations.
At least two expeditions were mounted in the 1950s in search of the creatures, turning up footprints and hair specimens. Claims of sightings continued throughout the second half of the century.
“Scientific work can help explore myths such as the yeti,” Lindqvist said. “Even if there is no proof for the existence of cryptids” — creatures whose existence is disputed — “it is impossible to completely rule out that they live,” she added.
“People love a mystery.”