Bad News Bears For Yeti Hunters

5:11 minutes

A Tibetan brown bear…not a Yeti. Credit: Shutterstock

The Yeti—also known as the Abominable Snowman—is a mythical ape-like creature that presumably roams the snowy Himalayan mountains. The legendary creature has intrigued locals and even scientists. Researchers at the University at Buffalo received nine supposed Yeti samples and examined the DNA to determine where they came from. Their study was published in the journal the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

[Take a peek inside a recycling sorting plant.]

The results won’t end the search for Yeti hunters, but Stephanie Gill, a Ph.D student in biological sciences, tells us what it reveals about the elusive Himalayan and Tibetan brown bears.  

Segment Guests

Stephanie Gill

Stephanie Gill is a Ph.D. Candidate in Biological Sciences at the University of Buffalo in Buffalo, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW : Now it’s time to play Good Thing, Bad Thing because every story has a flip side. And deep in the remote mountains there are legends of an elusive figure that lives in the cold, snowy wilderness. Locals and scientists have debated his existence for ages.

No, I’m not talking about Santa Claus. I’m talking about the Yeti or the Abominable Snowman. And now researchers have analyzed nine samples supposedly left by Yeti and published their results this week in The Journal of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. So can we confirm the legend or not Yeti?

Here with the envelope please, is Stephanie Gill, a PhD candidate in the Biological Sciences, University of Buffalo who worked on the Yeti research. Welcome to Science Friday.

STEPHANIE GILL: Thank you. Glad to be here.

IRA FLATOW : very nice to have you. If there is bad news in this story, I guess it’s for the fans of the Yeti right?

STEPHANIE GILL: Yeah, unfortunately.

IRA FLATOW : Well what happened to the samples, what did they turn out to be?

STEPHANIE GILL: They all turned out to be from local bears from the area, with the exception of one that was from a dog, actually.

IRA FLATOW : And what area was that?

STEPHANIE GILL: So from the Himalayan area and the Tibetan Plateau area.

IRA FLATOW : And you tested nine different Yeti samples how did you get them?

STEPHANIE GILL: So the Icon Film Company actually approached us and said that they had these samples and they wanted to use these samples and have usa DNA test them to try and get to the bottom of this myth or at least to, hopefully, illuminate some more information about this myth and see what science has to say about it.

IRA FLATOW : And so what kind of tests did you run on them?

STEPHANIE GILL: So we extracted DNA from hair, skin, fecal matter, bone, and the one tooth of a dog.

IRA FLATOW : Say that again. The tooth of a dog?

STEPHANIE GILL: Yes it ended up being the tooth of a dog. It was actually a chimeric taxonomic specimen. It was stuffed Yeti from the Messner Mountain Museum and we took hair from this supposed stuffed Yeti and we took a tooth from that supposed stuffed Yeti, and the hair ended up being of Tibetan brown bear but the tooth ended up being of a dog.

IRA FLATOW : I guess you use what you got, right?


IRA FLATOW : Well the Yeti’s loss is good news for the Himalayan and Tibetan brown bears. What did you find out about these bears? You would learn something about them.

STEPHANIE GILL: Oh, yes. So the Himalayan brown bear, now that we have sequenced the first new mitochondrial genome of them, we know that they are representative of the most ancient lineage of brown bears, which is really interesting. It seems like these bears had migrated into this area and they’ve been isolated ever since. And then the Tibetan brown bear, which geographically is located pretty close to the Himalayan brown bear the two are separated by the Himalayan mountain range, we had thought that perhaps the Tibetan brown bear was more closely related to the Himalayan brown bear, but now with these better sequences, we can see that they’re actually very genetically dissimilar, which suggests that the Tibetan brown bear colonized that area in a separate migratory event.

IRA FLATOW : Wow. So how big are the populations of these bears?

STEPHANIE GILL: The population of the Himalayan bounders are very small. They’re endangered and they’re estimated to be less than 300 in the wild. So it has an important conformational perspective as well.

IRA FLATOW : So now that you’ve given all those Yeti folks the bad news, what about still Sasquatch and Big Foot in those other ones? They distinct from Yeti right? Or is the jury still out on those?

STEPHANIE GILL: I think that there has been some research into the Sasquatch in North America and that they found that many samples once that DNA was sequenced was bears. But in any case, certainly if somebody wanted to do a survey of Sasquatch samples, they could take a very similar approach to what we did with the Yeti samples.

IRA FLATOW : All right. Are you asking for Sasquatch samples?

STEPHANIE GILL: If somebody wants to send us Sasquatch samples they’re welcome to, but not particularly asking.

IRA FLATOW : OK we won’t tell anybody. thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today. Great stuff.

STEPHANIE GILL: Thanks so much.

IRA FLATOW : Stephanie Gill, PhD candidate in the Biological Sciences at my alma mater University of Buffalo. After this break, President Obama’s net neutrality rules could be over in just a couple of weeks. What kind of internet could we get as a result?

We’ve got lots of guests talking about internet neutrality after the break. give us a call, 844-724-8255 or Tweet us @SciFri. 844-724-8255, we’ll be right back after this break.

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