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While most species breed within themselves, there are some animals that have crossed the line into new territory, breeding with members of other similar species. What’s more, humans have taken it upon themselves to become new creators of interesting, albeit potentially useless, hybrid species.
What is a Hybrid Animal?
The term hybrid refers to an animal whose parents are from different species. The result is a creature that has traits of both the mother and the father. However, in order for hybrids to be successfully born, the parents must be within the same family. For example, a lion and a tiger may mate to create offspring known as a liger.
If the parents are unrelated then there is a risk of genetic and developmental problems for the young. This is largely because of chromosomes that are left unpaired in the offspring.
Quite often, hybrids will occur naturally, with two parent species coming together to mate. While you might think that it would be impossible for two different species to mate, you have to consider the definition of the word species.
Scientists explain that for two animals to be considered members of the same species, they should have the ability to produce viable and fertile offspring. However, in the case of hybrids, the resulting offspring often face challenges in reproducing.
Still, that doesn’t prevent animals from interbreeding in the wild, especially when their habitats merge with one another. For example, examples of grizzly bears and polar bears were noted in the wild, and it’s thought that polar bears do not pick up on color when mating.
What’s more, there are currently around 20 reports of dolphins and whales cross-breeding in the wild. Although, wild pairings are few and far between when generally speaking about hybridization.
And it’s not just in nature that we see hybridization; humans have given it a go too by intentionally (and sometimes unintentionally) breeding animals from different species. You could be forgiven for thinking that this was a new advancement, but there is evidence to show that some of the first human-bred hybrids occurred more than 11,000 years ago!
So, judging by this, there must be a good number of hybrid species out there, right? Birds are some of the most common cross-breeders, but in actual fact, only around 10% of the 10,000 bird species in the world are known to hybridize.
Benefits & Drawbacks of Hybrid Animals
Thinking about hybrid animals, you might imagine that they have neither a positive or negative impact. But when you look a little closer, you’ll see that there are advantages and disadvantages to their existence.
When species go extinct in the wild, this leaves a hole in the ecosystem which can throw everything out of balance. However, by introducing hybrids that are similar to their parents, this fills that cap and could be the key to saving endangered species.
What’s more, many of these animals benefit from having traits passed down from both mom and dad so they may be better able to adapt to their conditions where their parents may have struggled. On top of this, these creatures could be more resilient to environmental changes and the effects of climate change which is something that threatens the very existence of many species.
Where this happens, these animals will not only improve genetic diversity of certain species, but they may even have the capacity to replace the activity of lost species. For example, where there are lots of invasive species, having hybrids that will prey on them goes a long way in gaining control over said species. Where these species have caused damage to ecosystems, hybrids could be the key to restoration.
Moreover, since hybrids display traits from both parents, this could be a viable way to produce animals that have better resistance to certain conditions, such as drought or resistance to pests.
In many cases, humans have created hybrids for the farming industry. For example, the beefalo was created with the sole purpose of increasing beef production and the result was much leaner, tastier meat. Another great example of this is the cama which is praised for its exceptional wool production. Hybrids may therefore be beneficial to the human economy.
For humans, there is great importance in understanding animal genetics, evolution, and behavior. To this end, we are using hybrid animals to perform further research in these areas. For example, by studying hybrids, scientists in the 1930s were able to determine that their very presence meant the evolution of certain plant species.
One of the greatest disadvantages of hybrid animals is that most of them are unable to reproduce. This means that, if we want to continue breeding them, the hybridization process needs to continually be repeated.
The reason that most hybrids are infertile is that there is a mismatch in the number of chromosomes. In order for successful reproduction to take place, the two sets of chromosomes from the male and female must match. But with hybrids, this is often not the case.
What’s more, because of their unusual genetics, a lot of hybrid species may suffer with health problems such as being more prone to disease, shorter life expectancy, developmental issues, and deformities; one such case was noted in a tigon by the name of Kenny, which I’ll look at in more detail later on.
While there is an advantage in terms of creating a more diverse wildlife population using hybrids, we also have to consider that there is a significant loss of genetic diversity when they’re bred. Moreover, because these animals have positive traits from both parents, they may often outcompete their parent species for resources, which could lead to their total wipeout, especially if the hybrids are able to breed.
Not only this, but if hybrids are allowed to thrive in the wild, then there is a risk that they may outcompete other native species. This has a direct negative impact on the entire ecosystem.
There are also some people that consider engineering hybrid creatures to be an unethical practice owing to the need to interfere with genetics. Of course, this is a very personal issue and there are also those who see hybrids as beneficial because of the points I discussed earlier on.
Hybrid Animal Types
Big cats are among some of the most commonly hybridized animals, but there are many other species that are able to crossbreed. Let’s meet some of the most weird and wonderful members of the hybrid community.
The zorse, sometimes called a zebroid, is a hybrid of a male zebra and a female horse. In most cases, the resulting offspring has the striped coloration of the zebra but the other physical characteristics of the horse.
However, these pairings are extremely rare in the wild, so most zebra hybrids only ever happen in captivity. The earliest record of pairing a zebra species with any kind of horse was back in 1815, although every example of the zorse since has been infertile.
Worryingly, there are reports that zorses could become the new racehorse as they’d have the incredible running abilities of their mothers. Although this is unlikely to happen because while horses have been domesticated for thousands of years, zebras are still very much wild, untamed animals that are known for their aggressive nature.
The tigon is a hybrid of a female lion and a male tiger, and unlike their liger cousins (which I’ll talk about next), they tend to be much smaller than either of their parents. While they do have mainly tiger traits, these are very social animals which is something they get from their lioness mothers.
Tigons may look amazing, but they’re prone to several health problems, including deformities, poor disease resistance, and reduced life expectancy. For example, one tigon, named Kenny, only survived for half of the usual life expectancy of a tiger, and he was born with a cleft palate and crossed eyes.
While the Asiatic lion was once recorded to have bred with a tiger, the habitats of lions and tigers don’t usually overlap, so you’ll only find tigons in captivity.
The liger is perhaps one of the most well known animal hybrids and is the result of breeding a male lion with a female tiger. What’s amazing about these animals is that they’re some of the largest cats in the world, with an individual named Hercules holding the title for the biggest cat in the world.
Ligers rarely occur in the wild simply because the natural habitat of lions and tigers doesn’t usually overlap. What’s more, you’ll notice that this species looks much more like its lion father, although they do have some stripes on the back and are adept swimmers like their tiger mothers. But their poor mothers undergo quite the ordeal when giving birth as these animals are prone to gigantism and often need to be delivered by caesarian section.
For the most part, ligers are only found in captivity and can be seen in places like zoos, and it’s thought that there are fewer than 100 in the world. For many years, it was believed that, like many hybrids, ligers were infertile. However, in the 1940s, successful mating occurred, and it’s now believed that female ligers are able to reproduce.
When a lioness mates with a jaguar, we end up with a jaglion, but there are so few of these hybrids in existence that we still don’t know much about them.
An accidental mating between a pair resulted in two cubs being born, and interestingly, one had more of the physical traits of the jaguar while the other looked much more like the lioness.
5. Grolar Bear
The grolar bear is one example of hybrid animals that have been known to occur in the wild, and it’s climate change that’s to blame. With temperatures rising, the paths of the polar and grizzly bears are now crossing, and the first wild account of one of these hybrids was in 2006.
However, grolar bears, sometimes called pizzlies, have been successfully bred in captivity, with the first such example occurring at a zoo in Germany, in 2004. The offspring were similar to the grizzly in that they have a humped back and long claws but have other traits that are more polar bear, including a long neck and short tail.
Interestingly, it would seem that this species doesn’t struggle to survive in terms of health, and some individuals are even fertile.
We’ve met the zorse, but what happens when you cross a zebra with a donkey; a zonkey. It might sound like a bad joke, but these animals are indeed real, although they are incredibly rare.
In the United Kingdom, only two zonkeys have been successfully bred in captivity, with one notable individual called Zippy, who was born on a Somerset farm back in 2018.
It’s unlikely that zebras and donkeys would breed in the wild, but there was one example of a female zebra escaping a national park and finding love with a domestic donkey. It wasn’t until after the zebra was released back into the wild that she was spotted, some months down the line, with a tawny colored foal at her side; a zonkey!
Found in the high Arctic, narwhals and beluga whales are the only two species within their family, and they are able to breed, producing a baby known as a narluga. The first recorded example of this occurred in 1990 when a researcher spoke to an Inuk hunter who had caught one such creature and preserved its skull.
The skull had traits of both the narwhal and the beluga, but since then, only 20 narlugas have been recorded and seven of those occurred in captivity.
These two species are successfully able to reproduce due to having the same number of chromosomes. Although looking at narlugas, you will notice that individuals either appear more like their mom or their dad as opposed to having an equal blend of both parents’ features. At the time of writing, it is still unknown whether narlugas have the capacity to reproduce.
What do you get when you breed a lioness with a male leopard? A leopon, of course. This hybrid species has characteristics of both the parents, including the size of a lion but the agility of a leopard when in water.
Leopons are very unlikely to occur in the wild because it’s said that a leopard would not be able to mate with a lioness unless she was sedated so are currently only found in captivity, where they’re bred for scientific research. Some of the most famous examples of this occurred in Japan in the late 1950s, with one individual living for more than 2 decades, which is far longer than the life expectancy of the lion parent.
That said, there are records of references to leopons dating back as far as the 1st century. But, like most hybrids, leopons are unable to reproduce, so they’re very much a dead end.
9. Savannah Cat
The savannah cat is a hybrid of the domestic cat and a type of wild cat from Africa called a serval. The first successful attempt happened when a male serval was bred with a female Siamese cat, and the result was a kitten aptly named Savannah. Fast forward 15 years to 2001, and the Savannah cat was officially recognized as a cat breed.
So, why did humans want to create this hybrid? Well, it all started as a bit of an experiment with a cat breeder but now, this species has become an incredibly popular pet.
These beautiful cats are a little larger than a domestic cat and have beautiful markings, which is one of the reasons that people want them as pets. What’s more, these are very intelligent cats that can be walked on a leash and, when raised properly, are compared to the feline version of a dog.
It might sound like the latest offering from McDonald’s, but the beefalo is a real creature that is the result of breeding a domestic cow with an American buffalo. But to what end? Well, initially, this pairing was made by farmers looking to improve beef production and what’s more, beefalo are able to reproduce so they can keep things going.
Not only is their meat much leaner, but beefalo tend to have a more docile nature like their buffalo parents, so are typically easier to rear. They don’t seem to succumb to the effects of either hot or cold weather and are much hardier than domestic cows.
Out of all of the hybrid animals on this list, it would appear that the beefalo is one of the most useful.
Another of the most well-known types of animal hybrid is the mule; a cross between a horse and a donkey. While mules are not known to be fertile, it’s pretty easy to breed them, and they’re common across the world.
However, in order to qualify as a mule, the animal must have a donkey father and a horse mother. Switch the parents around, and you end up with an animal known as a hinnie. In any case, these creatures share a mixture of physical traits from both mom and dad.
Mules were initially bred to be working animals, and they are much stronger and more resilient than horses. Plus, they live longer. On the flip side, they’re far more intelligent than donkeys, so you’re really getting the best of both worlds!
The cama is the offspring of a camel and a llama, but since this pairing is not really viable owing to the size difference between the two species., it is usually done by artificial insemination. The reason for this process occurring in the first place was to create an animal that would benefit humans in much the same way that both parents do.
While the cama is an excellent wool producer, like the llama, it is also viable to be sent out as a pack animal in the desert, like the camel. This is because of its docile temperament and strength, although it does lack a hump.
Camas are one of the most recent human created hybrids, with the first only being born in 1998, although there were reports of similar attempts back in the 1800s. After studies, it was determined that female camels were not viable parents, and only female llamas inseminated with male camel sperm were able to create the hybrids.
The wholphin is a hybrid of a false killer whale and a bottlenose dolphin and interestingly, this is one example of a hybrid that occurs in the wild. The first report of this was in 2018, when a hybrid of a melon-headed whale and a rough toothed dolphin was spotted off Hawaii.
However, this isn’t a true wholphin, and those that are born of false killer whales and bottlenose dolphins are only found in captivity. But amazingly, they have the average number of teeth from both of their parents; the dolphin has 88, the whale has 44, and the resulting offspring has 66. The skin is also a perfect blend of its parents’ skin.
The first captive wholphin was born in 1985 and has since given birth to several calves, although some of them survived merely days. This animal is considered to be the rarest type of hybrid.
Dogs and wolves come from the same family and are therefore able to breed and this is something that often happens in the wild in both America and Europe. However, many examples of captive breeding have taken place and, as of the end of the 20th century, it’s thought that there were as many as 100,000 individuals in North America alone.
Most notably, in the 1950s wolfdogs were bred using Carpathian wolves and German shepherds as part of a military experiment to raise ferocious guard dogs.
One of the most fascinating things about these animals is that it’s often incredibly difficult to tell the difference between a wolf, a dog and the resulting offspring.
Wolfdogs have the personality traits of both parents and are often very healthy. For this reason, many people keep them as pets but if this is something you’re considering, you have to be aware that they are extremely demanding and energetic.
The first example of a coywolf in the wild occurred in 2009, and this is a cross between a wolf and a coyote, although there is a third species where the domestic dog is also thrown into the mix. What’s amazing about the young is that they display characteristics of all species, including being unafraid of humans, excellent hunting skills, and pack behavior.
The coywolf is a viable creature because of the similarity in the chromosome makeup of its potential parents. Each of the involved species all have 78 chromosomes, so produce healthy young, and it’s thought that there could be coywolves in almost all populations of the gray wolf in North America. And while it’s thought that they’ve only been around for about 100 years, they’re now extremely common.
In terms of appearance, these animals tend to be smaller than a wolf but larger than a coyote and may have fur in a range of colors. Since they are so common, many scientists now recognize them as a fourth species of North American wild dog.
The last animal on this list is the geep, which is the result of breeding a goat and sheep and for all intents and purposes, it’s actually pretty cute. However, it is also incredibly rare and scientists debate whether they even exist at all.
Owing to the way that goat and sheep chromosomes differ, scientists state that cross breeding would not be possible. Therefore, it’s often stated that a geep is nothing more than a sheep with genetic abnormalities.
Where mating is successful, the offspring usually dies at birth or is stillborn. Although there was one report of a healthy geep being born on a farm in Ireland.
Growing Threat of Hybridization Caused by Climate Change
I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of rising temperatures as a result of climate change and the many devastating effects this is having on the planet. But did you know that these effects are also one of the ways that hybrids are being allowed to happen in the wild?
The best examples of this can be seen in the Arctic, where several different types of natural hybrids have occurred. Scientists are concerned that, if they are able to thrive, they may outcompete native species and eventually put a dent into the biodiversity of the ecosystem.
One of the most famous examples of cross breeding in the wild occurred in the North American Arctic when a polar bear/grizzly bear was spotted. This animal has been dubbed the grolar bear, and it’s thought that many more individuals could be born because climate change has forced the two species to move and share the same hunting grounds. Other animals, such as the harbor and ring seals, have also started to overlap territories, and they’re already interbreeding.
And it isn’t just mammals; there are several bird species that are now having to share territories as a result of climate change. In North America, scientists have noticed a boom in the number of golden warblers breeding with blue-winged warblers.
Practical Applications of Hybrid Animals
If there’s one thing that’s certain about humans, it’s that we are naturally curious. That’s why scientists perform so much research, and where hybrids are concerned, this research could be invaluable.
Genetic research is incredibly important to humans because it allows us to discover more about how the body responds to diseases and certain conditions. Not only this, but genetic research allows us a glimpse into inheritance patterns and gene expression. Mice are often used in these studies as they have 98% the same DNA as we do! Although most mice used in the lab are hybrids of various subspecies.
So, how do humans get their hands on these hybrids in the first place? Well, we breed them! For the purpose of scientific research, humans will breed two strains of mice with obvious genetic differences. For example, they may breed one species of mouse that’s prone to obesity with one that is not. By doing this, they are then able to isolate which genes are responsible for causing obesity by looking at the inherited traits of the hybrid. They’re also able to study how these genes interact with environmental factors and whether this has any bearing on the related disease.
While this may seem like a challenging task, scientists have come up with techniques that make it easy to identify responsible genes, such as the Quantitative Trait Locus. Within these studies, scientists compare the genes of the parents to those found in the hybrids, allowing them to determine which ones make the mouse prone to obesity (or other diseases, depending on the study.)
Another method that scientists regularly use is called Gene Expression Profiling. This is a very interesting type of study that allows humans to look at the way in which genes activate or deactivate depending on the conditions. The benefit of this is that we’re able to identify which genes are responsible for certain traits.
In the 1990s, the number of wild Florida panthers was so low that conservationists feared the animal’s extinction. Not only were the populations declining at an alarming rate, but individuals that remained were often lacking in genetic diversity and suffered from a range of health problems. Much of this was to do with forced inbreeding due to a lack of unrelated partners because of small numbers.
One of the ways in which hybrid animals are used is to increase genetic diversity as well as bringing near extinct animals back from the brink.
Going back to the Florida panther, scientists had the idea of releasing a number of female pumas into the habitat of the panthers. The results were amazing and the new cubs were seen to be much healthier, and genetic diversity began to grow once again, which would limit future instances of inbreeding.
Throughout this article, I have mentioned a few species of hybrid that were engineered purely for their capacity to benefit us agriculturally. Remember the beefalo; that’s a prime example of this but it’s far from being the only one.
Pigs are a common candidate for hybridization and are often used because the resulting offspring produces much leaner meat. A great example of this is Duroc pig and the Yorkshire pig. Not only are their young much more muscular and ideal for turning into meat, but they also grow at a more rapid rate. The result? A much more profitable animal, although research has shown that the best outcome occurs when the Duroc plays the role of the father.
Going back to cows, another example of hybridization occurs in dairy cows, with farmers often breeding Holstein varieties with brown Swiss or Jersey cows. Not only are these cows able to produce much more milk, but it’s been shown that they may be 20% more fertile than their parents, which is not a trait often seen in hybrids. These new genetic traits can then be passed down through generations, which holds many benefits for the agricultural industry.
But there’s even more to this; researchers often use hybrid animals to find ways to improve the yield of livestock and increase its productivity. What’s more, desirable traits such as a better resistance to disease can ensure livestock thrives and this means greater food security for humans.
In the study of evolution, it’s clear that thousands of species have adapted to changing conditions throughout history. This process continues today, as animals will likely keep evolving. Utilizing hybrid animals can offer valuable insights into evolutionary biology, helping us better understand speciation, diversification, and adaptations.
Speciation involves the emergence of a new species within an existing one, often occurring when a group of individuals becomes isolated and develops unique adaptations to their environment. Hybridization can also lead to speciation when two closely related species interbreed, producing offspring capable of reproducing and forming a new hybridized species. However, it’s important to note that the process of speciation typically takes many generations and significant genetic changes.
For instance, consider Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands. Researchers found that a new bird species resulted from interbreeding between finches and cactus finches native to a location more than 62 miles (100 km) away. Although this is an interesting example, it’s worth emphasizing that the formation of a new species within just two generations is an exceptionally rare occurrence. Evolution and speciation usually require longer periods of genetic divergence and adaptation.