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New study: ‘Yeti’ hairs do not point to unknown bear species

Polar bear in Alaska. Polar bears are the world's largest land carnivore. Photo by: Alan Wilson.

Polar bear in Alaska. Polar bears are the world’s largest land carnivore. Photo by: Alan Wilson/Creative Commons 3.0.

A new study casts doubt on findings from 2013 that hairs from a purported Yeti belonged to an unknown bear species or polar and brown bear hybrid. Instead, two researchers—who took a fresh look at the DNA in question—say the hairs are simply that of a Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus).

Experts have long believed that the Himalayan brown bear is the real source of the Yeti legends, as many contend that black and brown bears are the source of the Bigfoot legends in North America.

But in 2013 when geneticist Bryan Sykes with Oxford University and his team compared DNA from ‘Yeti’ hairs to actual animals, they found one surprise: two of the hairs were 100 percent match of a polar bear jawbone from 120,000 years ago.

“I don’t think it means there are ancient polar bears wandering around the Himalayas,” Sykes said at the time. “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. Or it could mean there has been more recent hybridization between the brown bear and the descendent of the ancient polar bear.”

But writing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Ceiridwen Edwards and Ross Barnett say their re-analysis of the two hairs in question point to the Himalayan brown bear and not some form of unknown bear. The Himalayan brown bear, which is endangered and elusive, is today found in Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet and India. It is believed to be extinct from Bhutan.

In a response to the paper, Sykes and his team admitted their mistake, calling it “certainly unfortunate.” But they wrote that it did not change the fact that the so-called Yeti hairs were “certainly not from a hitherto unknown primate.” However, they argued againsy the conclusion of Edwards and Barnett that the hairs came from a Himalayan brown bear, but instead contend that it came from a modern day polar bear.

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