Charlotte Lindqvist never expected to be studying Yetis – she's a geneticist at the University at Buffalo with a particular interest in bear evolution. But her latest research shows there is much to be learned about Himalayan bears – their genetic history, their relationships and clues to help us protect them – by examining the supposed signs of Yetis.

It is said that the Himalayan region is home to the Yeti, a large and mysterious ape-like creature, star of film, folklore and fan theories. Yetis have featured prominently in local legends, but like their cryptid cousins – the American Sasquatch and the Australian Yowie – hard evidence of their existence is consistently lacking. Strange footprints, blurry videos and passionate anecdotes generally fail to hold up under scientific scrutiny.

But this is the 21st century, which means modern investigative tools like genetic testing can help to reveal more than ever about the fabled "Abominable Snowman". And when Lindqvist and her colleagues sequenced the DNA of several alleged Yeti samples, they found a match ... not to an unknown species of primate, but to elusive and enigmatic Himalayan bears.

This femur was reportedly pulled off the dead, decayed body of a Yeti in a cave in Tibet. Lindqvist's DNA analysis showed that it actually belonged to a Tibetan brown bear. Image: Icon Films Ltd.

For the research team, these results are exciting, since bears of the Himalayas are notoriously difficult to study. "It's not exactly an area that's easy to get to and to travel around in," Lindqvist explained, "and certainly also not to sample bears."

But how did a bear scientist end up working on Yetis in the first place?

"I certainly don't work on Yetis generally, and never really thought I would," Lindqvist said. "But I was contacted by a film company in the UK."

In 2016, Icon Films was working on a documentary called "Yeti or Not?" and approached Lindqvist for her expert input on a 2014 study that had also found bear DNA in supposed Yeti hair. That study claimed the DNA matched an ancient and unknown species of polar bear, or a local hybrid polar-brown bear, a very intriguing result that was challenged by other researchers soon afterwards (and then again later). Lindqvist also disagreed with the "hybrid bear" proposition, but explained that more data would be needed for any proper identifications to be made on such samples.

That's when the film company offered to provide her with more "Yeti samples" to test.

Lindqvist accepted the offer. "I thought it could be a really interesting way to get a hold of samples of bears in the region if it really proved that these Yeti samples actually turned out to be bears," she said.

A mother Himalayan brown bear with her two cubs. Image: Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Snow Leopard Foundation.

The Tibetan Plateau-Himalayan region is home to a number of bear subspecies, including the Himalayan brown bear, the Tibetan brown bear (also called the blue bear) and the Asian black bear (also called the moon bear). These animals are somewhat mysterious, not only because their homeland is tough to traverse, but also because their populations tend to be imperilled by human activity; the Himalayan brown bear, in fact, is critically endangered.

In total, the researchers were able to examine nine "Yeti" samples – including hair, teeth, bone and skin – that came from an earlier Icon Films expedition and from the collections of the Messner Mountain Museum.

The verdict? No DNA of anything primate-like – sorry, Yeti fans. Eight of the specimens, however, were most definitely from the known local bear subspecies, including one sample possibly belonging to the same specimen as that supposed "hybrid" bear. The ninth specimen, a tooth from the museum, came from a dog.

This hair is said to have come from a Yeti spotted by a Jesuit priest in the mountains of Tibet – the DNA, though, says Tibetan brown bear. Image: Icon Films Ltd.

According to Lindqvist, the accuracy of a genetic identification depends on how you handle the DNA. The "hybrid bear" study, for example, targeted an area of the genome that isn't very variable between species, and so not as useful in making an identification. In this new study, meanwhile, the team looked at much more distinctive sections of DNA, allowing for a much more concrete identification of subspecies.

These not-Yeti samples, combined with over a dozen other specimens from local bears, plus the first-ever full sequences of mitochondrial DNA from the Himalayan brown bear and Asian black bear, also allowed the researchers to take a very thorough look at the genetic story of these animals. They found, for example, that the Himalayan brown bears are the most distinct of all brown-bear subspecies, having split from their cousins over 600,000 years ago, at a time of intense glacial activity.

Meshing bear genetics with our understanding of geologic history can reveal how these animals have migrated, evolved and diverged in response to climatic shifts of the past. This is invaluable information for conservationists trying to protect these bears in the face of dramatic modern-day changes.

Might these bears also be the secret to understanding Himalayan myths? "Our findings strongly suggest that the biological underpinnings of the Yeti legend can be found in local bears," Lindqvist said in a press release, "and our study demonstrates that genetics should be able to unravel other similar mysteries."

There's still more to be learned about the bears. While this study focused on mitochondrial DNA, which tracks only maternal lineages, Lindqvist suggested that future research might look at nuclear DNA for the male bears' side of the evolutionary story. And researchers will always benefit from more samples, including more pieces of bear-masquerading-as-Yeti samples!

"It has been a really fun study to be part of, because it was a little bit unusual, even ending up in a TV show and everything," Lindqvist said. "I hope that it really gives more attention to the bears in the region. Hopefully [we can] make sure that they don't go away, that we take care of them and conserve them."