NEW DELHI : It’s been called a brown bear, a furry snowman, a great ape and even the long-lost cousin of a hybrid of the polar bear and brown bear—without anyone ever sighting it. On Tuesday, the Indian Army fuelled the debate—and a measure of disbelief and mirth—after claiming that its mountaineering team sighted the “mysterious footprints of mythical beast Yeti" in the far reaches of the Himalayas.

Alongside, it tweeted photographs of footprints on snow.

The Yeti, sometimes called the Abominable Snowman, is often said to have been sighted, but has seldom left any evidence other than giant footmarks in the snow, nimbly sidestepping researchers for decades.

The mysterious ape-like bipedal creature, alleged to have been sighted in the Himalayas, has captured the imagination of mountaineers for decades, many of whom have ventured into remote areas for a glimpse of the elusive snowman.

Although alleged Yeti sightings sporadically make their way from the remote mountaintops to the internet, concrete evidence of their existence has eluded scientists.

On Tuesday, the Indian Army tweeted pictures of the footprints made by the alleged snowman. They were captured by an expedition team close to Makalu base camp in Nepal, at an altitude of 3,500m above sea level on 9 April.

“For the first time, an #IndianArmy Mountaineering Expedition Team has sited Mysterious Footprints of mythical beast ‘Yeti’ measuring 32x15 inches close to Makalu Base Camp on 09 April 2019. This elusive snowman has only been sighted at Makalu-Barun National Park in the past," the army said.

Unsurprisingly, the tweet prompted a flurry of responses on social media, with some poking fun at the army for propagating pseudoscience and others taking jibes at the government.

“After the Indian Air Force’s Success in Balakot, the Indian Army had to find a Yeti! The Supreme Leader should now direct the Indian Navy to find out the Sea Monster!" tweeted Ashok, an academic.

Soon enough, the photos were given a political colour. Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav took a dig at Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“It seems that ‘Achhe din’ are more elusive than the #Yeti," Yadav tweeted, referring to Modi’s 2014 election promise of good days.

The strangely linear footprints spawned further disbelief.

While modern science has never accepted the existence of the Yeti, there has been wide speculation about the possible identity of the enigmatic creature. Some say it could be a surviving population of the “great apes", extinct apes or even unlikely hybrids between Homo sapiens and other mammals.

In 2004, an international team of geneticists led by Michel Milinkovitch from Free University of Belgium analysed the DNA sequence data from a sample collected in Nepal and said the so-called Yeti was genetically closer to an ungulate or a hoofed animal.

In 2012, researchers from Oxford University conducted genetic analysis of 30 hair samples attributed to these anomalous primates to try and trace their origin.

Two Himalayan samples, one from Ladakh and the other from Bhutan, had their closest genetic affinity with a hybrid of polar bear and brown bear that existed in the early phase of the Stone Age, about 2.5 million years ago, the team said.

However, a more recent genetic survey of 24 purported Yeti samples, led by researchers from the University at Buffalo, who published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the Royal Society’s flagship biological research journal, in 2017, supports the biological basis of the Yeti legend to be local bears.

Two brown bear subspecies, the Himalayan and the Tibetan brown bear, inhabit the north-western Himalayan region and south-eastern Tibetan Plateau, one of the most extensive and highest plateaus in the world.

The genetic analysis showed that the Himalayan brown bear is one of the first branching biological groups within the brown bear lineage, while the Tibetan brown bear diverged much later.

Research suggests that the surviving bears in the region are likely descendants of populations that survived during repeated glaciation events 11,700 years ago.

Scientists, however, say there are not many studies on the evolution and migratory history of these two brown bear subspecies.

US-based conservationist Daniel C Taylor, who spent 35 years working in Nepal’s Barun Valley and has dispelled most yeti myths, is certain the footprints are of a female Himalayan black bear and her cub. “The most logical explanation is that it is almost certainly a mother Himalayan black bear (Ursus thibetanus) and her cub," says Taylor, who led the movement for the creation of the park and its community-based conservation programme. With bears, the hind foot normally falls on top of the print of the front foot when they walk so that they make less noise in the jungle. “When they walk up a slope, typically, the hind foot will fall a bit behind the front foot and the footprints become elongated. That makes it look like a human footprint as opposed to a bear footprint, which is more round," explains Taylor, who is also author of the 2017 book from Oxford University Press ‘Yeti: The Ecology of a Mystery’. The cub usually hops behind the mother, putting all four feet down at once on top of the mother’s prints. “The cub’s feet are going down on the mother’s feet and creating a 35-inch footprint," he says.

Taylor is certain the Army made a genuine mistake. “The thing to remember is the altitude. We all make mistakes at that altitude when our brains get less oxygen." Taylor, who has worked with teams that ran DNA tests on ‘yeti artefacts’ and proved they are relics from Himalayan animals, says it is important the Army opens up its material to outside experts. “When the Indian Army comes out with a statement such as this, it has an added level of credibility. It is good that they reported it but they should be called upon to provide their documentation for external scientific review. Otherwise, people’s imaginations just run," he says.

Shalini Umachandran contributed to this story