The Yeti: A hoax or an ancient polar bear species?
The purported Yeti, an ape-like creature that walks upright and roams the remote Himalayas, may in fact be an ancient polar bear species, according to new DNA research by Bryan Sykes with Oxford University. Sykes subjected two hairs from what locals say belonged to the elusive Yeti only to discover that the genetics matched a polar bear jawbone found in Svalbard, Norway dating from around 120,000 (though as recent as 40,000 years ago).
"I don't think it means there are ancient polar bears wandering around the Himalayas," Sykes told the Independent. "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."
Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) may have separated from brown bears (Ursus arctos) as recently as 150,000 years ago, but more recent research argues for a longer evolution, around 4-5 million years ago. Hybridization remains possible between the two species, and is currently a threat to polar bears as their climate heats up from global warming melting the ice the bears depend on.
The theory that the Yeti is in fact an unknown bear is not a new one. In his searches for the Yeti, mountaineer Reinhold Messner found a reference to the Yeti in a 300-year-old Tibetan manuscript that described it as a type of bear.
However, Sykes' DNA analysis is the first to undercover hard proof. The two tested hairs came from over 1,285 kilometers (800 miles) apart, one from India and the other from Bhutan; the Indian hair is reportedly from an animal killed 40 years ago, while the hair from Bhutan was discovered just ten years ago. The region is already home to one distinct bear: the Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus).
Sykes' research has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and other scientists have showed some skepticism.
Bill Amos, a research with the University of Cambridge, told the Guardian that it really depends on whether or not the hairs came from a "Yeti" or if the hair was taken deliberately from a polar bear as a Yeti-inspired hoax.
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Polar bear image via Shutterstock.