Photographer N.A. Tombazi didn’t know what to make of the towering, shaggy-haired creature he saw pulling up rhododendrons in the snow-topped Himalayan mountains in 1925. Tibetan locals said it was a mythological creature called the yeti or meh-teh; around the same time, British reporters writing about the region coined the enduring term “The Abominable Snowman.” The name stuck, as did the mystery.
Tombazi later wrote an account of his strange experience, but for decades, nobody could figure out what the Yeti actually is. On Tuesday, however, a team of scientists led by University at Buffalo College biologist Charlotte Lindqvist, Ph.D. set the mythological record a little straighter in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
In the study, Lindqvist’s team sequenced DNA from previously collected “Yeti” samples, comparing the results to the genomes of known, non-mythical animals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their analysis didn’t turn up any supernatural explanations, but it does point to animals most people have never seen in real life.
“Clearly, a big part of the Yeti legend has to do with bears,” Lindqvist said in a statement on Tuesday.
The shaggy monster has been described for centuries as an, ape-like, bipedal creature that’s leaves behind huge footprints in the Himalayan mountains in Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet, and in some cases, locals have been able to collect samples. These stray bits of fur, bone, teeth, skin, and feces drove Lindqvist’s genetic analysis.
Altogether, her team sequenced the DNA of 24 field-collected and museum Yeti specimens and compared them to the complete mitochondrial genomes of bears in the region, which include the Himalayan brown bear and Asian black bear, both of which were sequenced in this study for the first time.
The analysis revealed that Yeti DNA is largely local bear DNA, though there isn’t a single species of bear that gets mistaken as a Yeti. Of the samples, eight were from Asian black bears, Himalayan brown bears, or Tibetan brown bears, and one belonged to a dog.
Bears are indeed known to walk on their hind legs, and, per Tombazi’s description, the Asian black bear has been known to occasionally snack on rhododendron. Unlike pop culture portrayals of Yetis, none of the bears that turned up in the analysis are white — though one could imagine a snow-covered bear looking fairly abominable through distant, terrified eyes.
“Our findings strongly suggest that the biological underpinnings of the Yeti legend can be found in local bears, and our study demonstrates that genetics should be able to unravel other, similar mysteries,” said Lindqvist.
Her team isn’t the first to study Yeti genetics and propose that the mythological creatures are simply local bears, but theirs was the most in-depth comparison ever made to existing animals. While sequencing the genomes of the bears, the team discovered that Himalayan brown bears, in particular, are genetically quite separate from their brown bear relatives in Tibet and North America, which may account for some of the mystery surrounding them. Glaciation that occurred 650,000 years ago, they explain, cut off this family of bears from their kin, and the resulting geographical isolation caused them to evolve a little differently. These days, Himalayan brown bears are considered vulnerable or critically endangered, and spotting them may be as rare an occurrence as a Yeti sighting.
Lindqvist’s study may lay bare the science behind this long-running myth, but it’s unlikely to decrease our fascination in the legend. If you can’t make it all the way to the Himalayas to investigate for yourself, you can catch Channing Tatum, also a mythical white, towering creature, voicing an animated Yeti in Smallfoot in 2018.