Release Date: May 25, 2016
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Among scientists, not much is known about the evolutionary history of brown bears in the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau. These rugged creatures, which represent two subspecies of the world’s brown bears, are critically endangered and rarely sighted in the wild.
That, says University at Buffalo biologist Charlotte Lindqvist, was one reason she jumped at the opportunity to analyze DNA for YETI OR NOT, an Animal Planet special that explores the origins of the fabled Yeti — a mysterious bipedal creature that is part of the mythology of the Himalayan region of Nepal and Tibet.
Many people have speculated that bears may have played an important role in the provenance of the Yeti legend, so Lindqvist, an internationally known expert on bear genomics, thought the Animal Planet project could yield samples of Himalayan bear DNA for her research. She was also fascinated by the idea of using modern science — in particular, genomics — to help trace the roots of ancient myths.
The Animal Planet special, YETI OR NOT, will air on Sunday, May 29 at 9 p.m. EST as part of the network’s popular television event, MONSTER WEEK, which runs from May 26 to June 2.
The show will be hosted by Mark Evans, a veterinarian and explorer, who will seek to sift fact from folklore as he searches for a rational explanation for the Yeti.
The special will feature Lindqvist's genetic analysis of untested biological specimens believed by locals to be from Yetis. Produced by British production company Icon Films, the show will include scenes shot on UB's North Campus and in UB's New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences in downtown Buffalo.
“Previous genetic tests of alleged Yeti samples suggested that it might be some kind of special or perhaps hybrid bear, and I was excited to test this theory and collect more samples and data from bears in this region since they are really hard to get,” said Lindqvist, PhD, an assistant professor of biological sciences in UB's College of Arts and Sciences.
As one of the world's foremost experts on bear genomics, her past research on polar bears, black bears and brown bears has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a high-profile academic journal.
While Lindqvist was initially drawn to YETI OR NOT by the opportunity to analyze rare bear samples, she is also fascinated by the subject matter. She suspects that many human myths have roots in phenomena observed in the physical world, and she is interested in how science can give context to folklore.
“I’m interested in this idea of legends: Where do they come from? They may be something that have been passed down for thousands of years, from generation to generation, and they may represent a kind of collective memory about something people may have actually encountered in the environment,” she says. “Myths and legends are not my area of expertise, but it certainly is intriguing how science can help shed light on some of these mysteries.”