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DNA analysis solves the 'Yeti' mystery: They're bears

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Both Sykes and Lindqvst were asked to research the science behind the Yeti myth by the British television production company Icon Films. Sykes' work was shown on a series called "The Bigfoot Files." Lindqvst's subsequent research was featured on the 2016 Animal Planet special "Yeti or Not."

"I'm a biologist and bear geneticist and certainly Yetis have never really been on my radar at all from scientific perspective," Lindqvst said.

Still, when Icon Films came calling she was happy to sign on to the project in part because she wanted to learn more about the genetic diversity of the bears in this remote region of the world.

Over the course of a year and a half Lindqvst analyzed the genetic sequence from a total of 24 specimens, including 12 scat samples from Himalayan brown bears collected from Khunjerab National Park in northern Pakistan.

Her research suggests that the Himalayan brown bears diverged from all other brown bear lineages approximately 658,000 years ago, making them one of the earliest subspecies to branch off the brown bear group. The Tibetan brown bear split from its sister North American and Eurasian lineages much later, an estimated 342,000 years ago.

In addition, she found that even though the Tibetan and Himalayan brown bears live close to one another, it appears that there has been little intermingling of the two subspecies.

"The data that we analyzed, which is mitochondrial DNA and maternally inherited, shows that at least the female brown bears are very genetically isolated from each other," she said.

This is probably because the unique and challenging topography of the Himalayan region has kept these two subspecies separate from each other, and other bears, for hundreds of thousands of years, she said.

 

Lindqvst would like to get more samples from the brown bears of the Himalayas to better understand their origins, but she may be running out of time.

As she notes in the paper, it has been reported that the brown bear population in the Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya region have been reduced by half over the last century due to habitat loss, poaching and intense hunting by humans.

"I know this paper will get a lot of interest because it has to do with the Yeti, but I also hope to put some attention on this group of bears that have evolved independently for hundreds of thousands of years," she said. "They are highly valuable, and their numbers are dropping."

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