Hair samples claimed to come from a Yeti, the mysterious "Abominable Snowman" of the Himalayas, aren't all that mysterious, a new study suggests - they're just from a common type of brown bear found in the towering mountains today.
The Yeti "samples" made news in 2014 when geneticists suggested they were in fact from a now-extinct kind of polar bear, suggesting descendants of such bear might still exist in the remote valleys of the Himalayas.
Now a new team of researchers says the samples aren't even that exotic, that they're likely from a kind of brown bear still seen among the Himalayan peaks.
"There is essentially no reason to believe that they [the hairs] belong to a species other than the brown bear," says team member Eliécer Gutiérrez, an evolutionary biologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
Gutiérrez re-examined a 2014 study in which British geneticist Bryan Sykes along with some colleagues examined two hair samples from the Himalayan region.
Sykes and his colleagues said their genetic analysis linked the "Yeti" samples to a 40,000-year-old fossil of an extinct polar bear, Ursus maritimus, that existed in Norway, and that the samples could have come from "a previously unrecognized bear species" still living among the Himalayas.
However, Gutiérrez says, their study only considered a fragment of a gene and they based their identification of the species on that incomplete fragment.
"We made this discovery that basically that fragment of DNA is not informative to tell apart two species of bears: the brown bear and [modern-day Alaskan] polar bear," he says.
Since today's polar bears do not inhabit the Himalayas, the subject hair samples most likely come from the Himalayan brown bear, Gutiérrez and colleague Ronald Pine from the University of Kansas report in the journal ZooKeys.
Sykes, a professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford in England, says he stands by his study findings.
"What mattered most to us was that these two hairs were definitely not from unknown primates," he says. "The explanation by Gutiérrez and Pine might be right, or it might not be."
What is required to settle the matter is finding a living bear that matches the sample's genetic makeup and study fresh samples from it, says Sykes, who has authored a book, "The Nature of the Beast," due out in April.
"Which involves getting off your butt, not an activity I usually associate with desk-bound molecular taxonomists," he says.