Have we found bigfoot? Not yeti
Yeti. Bigfoot. Sasquatch. The abominable snowman. Lots of people through history have claimed that hiding somewhere in one of the world’s remote forests is a big, hairy “missing link” between people and apes. In the new movie “Missing Link,” an adventurer even finds one. (He’s sincere, funny, driven and named Susan). But while many people have claimed that they’ve collected yeti hair, footprints or even poop — again and again science has burst their optimistic bubbles. Yet these searches for bigfoot are not totally fruitless. The sasquatch search might help scientists find out new things about other species.
Yetis come from myths told by people who live in the Himalayas, a mountain range in Asia. Bigfoot and sasquatch are North American versions of these creatures. But what are they exactly? No one really knows. “It's a bit weird to think of [a] 'strict definition' for yetis, since there isn't one really,” says Darren Naish. He’s a writer and paleontologist — someone who studies ancient organisms — at the University of Southampton in England.
A yeti, Naish explains, “is supposed to be human-shaped, large and covered in dark hair.” It leaves tracks that look human-like but are bigger. Much bigger, he says — as in around 33-centimeters (or 13-inches) long. Self-proclaimed yeti-sighters often describe these beasts as “standing and walking around in high mountainous places,” Naish notes. In other words, they appear “pretty slow and boring.” Yet others have accused yetis of chasing people or killing livestock.
Some writers have suggested that yetis are actually giant apes, or even “missing links” — the last members of some species that eventually evolved into humans, Naish says. Without a real yeti to study, though, scientists can’t know what a yeti is. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have ideas about what they are.
Bear with us
Several scientists have attempted to study material that supposedly has come from yetis. In one 2014 study, for instance, Bryan Sykes at the University of Oxford in England gathered up 30 samples of “yeti” hair. They had been collected by people or were sitting in museums. Sykes’ team searched the hair samples for RNA from mitochondria, which are the structures inside cells that produce energy. RNA molecules help read information from DNA. They also produce proteins that can be used to find out what species the hair had come from.
Most of the hair came from animals that no one would mistake for a yeti. These included porcupines, cows and raccoons. Other hair samples came from Himalayan brown bears. And two appeared similar to hair from an ancient, extinct polar bear. Could ancient polar bears have mated with brown bears to produce modern yetis? Sykes and his colleagues raised that possibility in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Charlotte Lindqvist wasn’t surprised to see that some “yeti” hairs came from bears. But she doubted the possibility they came from polar bears. Lindqvist is an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “We know there is interbreeding between polar bears and brown bears” up in the Arctic, she says. But as cold and snowy as the Himalayas are, they are thousands of miles from the polar bears’ Arctic home. That’s too far, Lindqvist thought, to make likely any romance between a polar bear and Himalayan brown bear.
A film company asked Lindqvist to study yeti samples. She agreed, but not for the yetis. “I wanted the samples,” she says, “to study the bears.” Little is known about Himalayan bears.
Lindqvist got 24 samples of hair, bones, meat — even poop. All were said to have come from “yetis.” Lindqvist and her colleagues then analyzed the mitochondrial DNA — sets of instructions for how mitochondria function — in each. Of the 24 samples, one came from a dog. All the rest came from Himalayan black or brown bears. The two bear species live on a plateau on either side of the Himalayas. Brown bears live to the northwest; black bears to the southeast. Lindqvist and her colleagues published their findings in 2017, also in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Sas-squashing bigfoot dreams
Lindqvist was thrilled. Up until then, she notes, “we had very little information and genetic data from the Himalayan bears.” Now, she found, “we got complete mitochondrial DNA sequences and could compare that with other populations of brown bears.” These data would show, she reports, that the two populations of bears had been split for hundreds of thousands of years.
The study, however, probably won’t stop people from hunting for — or believing in —yeti. “I’m sure the mystery will continue,” she says. “[The yeti] will survive the most rigorous scientific results.”
And there are plenty of reasons to keep the hunt alive, Naish adds. “Quite a few large animals have remained unknown to science until recently.” In the end, they were only discovered by chance,” he says. “Before their discovery, there was no hint that they might exist. No bones. No fossils. No nothing.”
For example, scientists only found out about the saola — also called the “Asian unicorn” — in 1992. Related to goats and antelopes, this animal lives in Vietnam and Laos. “The fact that animals like this can remain unknown for so long always gives scientists hope that other big, amazing mammals might still be out there, awaiting discovery,” Naish says.
People really do want to believe in yetis, bigfoot and sasquatch, he says. After all, whoever finds one will become instantly famous. But belief is more than that, he notes: “People are fascinated by it because they long for the world to be surprising and full of things that most other people no longer believe in.”
ape A group of rather large “Old World” primates that lack a tail. They include the gorilla, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gibbons.
Arctic A region that falls within the Arctic Circle. The edge of that circle is defined as the northernmost point at which the sun is visible on the northern winter solstice and the southernmost point at which the midnight sun can be seen on the northern summer solstice. The high Arctic is that most northerly third of this region. It’s a region dominated by snow cover much of the year.
biology The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.
cell The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.
colleague Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.
DNA (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.
evolutionary An adjective that refers to changes that occur within a species over time as it adapts to its environment. Such evolutionary changes usually reflect genetic variation and natural selection, which leave a new type of organism better suited for its environment than its ancestors. The newer type is not necessarily more “advanced,” just better adapted to the conditions in which it developed.
evolutionary biologist Someone who studies the adaptive processes that have led to the diversity of life on Earth. These scientists can study many different subjects, including the microbiology and genetics of living organisms, how species change to adapt, and the fossil record (to assess how various ancient species are related to each other and to modern-day relatives).
extinct An adjective that describes a species for which there are no living members.
forest An area of land covered mostly with trees and other woody plants.
fossil Any preserved remains or traces of ancient life. There are many different types of fossils: The bones and other body parts of dinosaurs are called “body fossils.” Things like footprints are called “trace fossils.” Even specimens of dinosaur poop are fossils. The process of forming fossils is called fossilization.
genetic Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.
Himalayas A mountain system in Asia that divides the Tibetan Plateau to its north from the plains of India to the south. Containing some of the highest mountains in the world, the Himalayas include more than 100 that rise at least 7,300 meters (24,000 feet) above sea level. The tallest is known as Mount Everest.
hybrid An organism produced by interbreeding of two animals or plants of different species or of genetically distinct populations within a species. Such offspring often possess genes passed on by each parent, yielding a combination of traits not known in previous generations. The term is also used in reference to any object that is a mix of two or more things.
livestock Animals raised for meat or dairy products, including cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens and geese.
mammal A warm-blooded animal distinguished by the possession of hair or fur, the secretion of milk by females for feeding their young, and (typically) the bearing of live young.
mitochondria (sing. mitochondrion) Structures in all cells (except bacteria and archaea) that break down nutrients, converting them into a form of energy known as ATP.
mitochondrial DNA DNA passed on to offspring, almost always by their female parent. Housed in mitochondria, this DNA is double-stranded but circular. It’s also very small, only possessing a small share of the genes found in the main package of DNA, the material found in a cell’s nucleus.
molecule An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).
organism Any living thing, from elephants and plants to bacteria and other types of single-celled life.
paleontologist A scientist who specializes in studying fossils, the remains of ancient organisms.
plateau A flat area of land, high above sea level. It’s sometimes referred to as “tableland.” Several of its edges tend to be steeply sloped (cliffs).
population (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.
protein A compound made from one or more long chains of amino acids. Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms. They form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues; they also do the work inside of cells. Among the better-known, stand-alone proteins are the hemoglobin (in blood) and the antibodies (also in blood) that attempt to fight infections. Medicines frequently work by latching onto proteins.
range The full extent or distribution of something. For instance, a plant or animal’s range is the area over which it naturally exists. (in math or for measurements) The extent to which variation in values is possible. Also, the distance within which something can be reached or perceived.
RNA A molecule that helps “read” the genetic information contained in DNA. A cell’s molecular machinery reads DNA to create RNA, and then reads RNA to create proteins.
sequence (in genetics) n. The precise order of the nucleotides within a gene. (v.) To figure out the precise order of the nucleotides making up a gene.
species A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.