Before the Toyota Prius, the word “hybrid” was commonly understood as describing the offspring created by the mating of two genetically dissimilar parents. Nature generally does not allow individuals of separate species to breed, for any number of reasons: perhaps the genitalia don’t fit; the mating behaviors don’t correspond; they are geographically isolated; or when they do breed the genes don’t match up into a complete organism. However, there are rare occasions when two closely-related species — sometimes under man-made circumstances — can produce offspring. Usually, these offspring are sterile. They are evolutionarily invalid. But that doesn’t keep them from being very interesting. Below are a sampling of some interesting “natural” hybrids.
Ligers & Tigons (Lion + Tiger)
Lions and tigers are the largest cats on the planet, and they are also some of the most popular big cats in captivity. It is via this close proximity in captivity that lions and tigers have had the chance to breed with one another. Contrary to their depiction in Napoleon Dynamite, ligers are not fictional. They are the offspring of a male lion (Panthera leo) and a tigress (Panthera tigris). A trick of hormone expression from the genetic combination of the two species causes ligers to grow larger than any other cat on the planet – regularly more than 10 ft in length and weighing over 700 pounds. When the parentage is inverted (female lion and male tiger), the resulting hybrid is a tigon. Sometimes smaller than their parents, they are usually around the same size, as they do get the genes for proper growth inhibition. They are less common and less popular than ligers, possibly because they are less spectacular. It’s been theorized that male tigers find the courtship behavior of female lions too subtle for this combination to work out often. Regardless, both hybrids break the rule of infertility in cross-species hybrids. While the males are sterile, females of either hybrid are often fertile, and both ti-ligers and ti-ligons have been confirmed.
Wholphin (Bottlenose Dolphin + False Killer Whale)
These rare hybrids are represented by only two animals in captivity at Sea Life Park in Hawaii, though they are rumored to occur in the wild. They are the result of the familiar bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus or aduncus) and the less-familiar false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens). Remarkably, false killer whales are often twice as large as their bottlenose counterparts, though both are members of the dolphin family. The hybrids are intermediate between the two species, having, for example, 66 teeth instead of the 88 teeth of the bottlenose or the 44 teeth of the false killer whale. Surprisingly, wholphins have proven fertile, though complications seem to arise with their calves.
Prizzly Bear (Grizzly Bear + Polar Bear)
Lions and Tigers aren’t the only massive predators that occasionally hybridize. The grizzly bear and polar bear, however, have some overlapping habitats, and this hybrid has the distinction of being confirmed as occurring in nature, albeit extremely rarely. Currently, there is only one confirmed wild case, identified in 2006 with DNA analysis, but multiple sightings have been reported. Like many other hybrids, these bears are intermediate between their parents, combining the bulky shoulders and heavy build of a grizzly with the longer, leaner shape of a polar bear.
Leopon (Leopard + Lion)
In the proud tradition of feline hybrids, we have the Leopon: the offspring of a male leopard and a female lion. Unlike ligers and tigons, whose parents (lions and tigers) no longer share overlapping ranges, lions and leopards occur together in the African savanna. However, the size difference between the two species is greater, and they are natural competitors — no leopons have been recorded in the wild. They have, however, been bred in several zoos and the resulting hybrid is quite a sight.
Leopons look, for the most part, like particularly heavy-set leopards, complete with their characteristic spots. However, their head looks almost completely lion-like — broad and large. Most impressive is the stunted excuse for a mane that males grow, which looks more like a ruffled Shakespearean collar than it does a symbol of the jungle monarchy.
Wolf-Dog (Wolf + Dog)
Our second hybrid in this set is the product of two intimately familiar canines: the domestic dog and the gray wolf. To be fair, many scientists now classify the two as the same species, with the gray wolf being Canis lupus and the domestic dog being the subspecies Canis lupus familiaris — so their interbreeding is not very shocking. In fact, of all the hybrids discussed so far, this is probably the most common to occur in nature. Obviously, the more wolf-like breeds (German shepherds, huskies, etc.) are more likely to cross with wolves than, say, chihuahuas.
Wolf-dogs, as they’re so creatively called, often exhibit an unpredictable mix of wolf and dog characteristics. This can be dangerous, as some wolf-dogs show wolven strength and hunting instincts coupled with the domestic dog’s lack of fear toward humans. They can, however, make rewarding pets for those who can handle them, and they are sometimes bred as companion animals.
Zebroid (Zebra + Equids)
As you may have noticed, most hybrids only occur between closely-related groups of species — among similarly sized felines or canines, for example. In this vein, there are several hybrids that can occur with zebras and other equine animals.
The Zorse is a cross between a zebra and a domestic horse, and it looks an awful lot like a zebra with a slightly-different pattern of stripes. Zonkeys are the offspring of zebras and donkeys, and they look like donkeys with a smattering of stripes on their legs and flanks. Finally, Zonies are a result of crossing ponies and zebras, and are the strangest-looking of the bunch, with disproportionate bodies and uneven striping. Of course, appearances tend to vary by individual, as hybridization is often a bit unpredictable.
These hybrids are better-suited for riding than pure zebras, but can be temperamental and difficult to handle. This just begs the question: why not use pure horses instead, seeing as we’ve been breeding them for thousands of years to meet our needs?
Cama (Camel + Llama)
The most artificial of the hybrids on our docket is the cama — a hybrid between a camel and a llama. In point of fact, camels and llamas cannot breed naturally. The size difference (900 pounds of camel vs. 100 pounds of llama) is simply too great, and, to be blunt, the parts don’t fit. Through the wonders of modern science, however, it’s possible to cross them through artificial insemination. (This actually provides an excellent illustration of the fact that, while their bodies are incompatible, they are not so evolutionarily distant that their genes cannot form a functional body.)
In terms of features, camas tend to have the cloven hooves of llamas, but the shorter ears and longer tails of their camel halves. They also lack humps. They, like both camels and llamas, appear awkwardly long-limbed.
…And the list of interesting hybrids goes on and on. Check out some of the links I’ve included below for more information. It’s actually amazing the number of species that have mixed, illustrating the problems with a reproduction-based definition of species. There are actually several more big cat hybrids, dolphin hybrids, and bear hybrids — all documented in the linked pages. Enjoy a trip down Hybrid Lane, and watch out for the Ligers, Tigons, Wholphins and Prizzlies!
Another example of a natural hybrid animal is the Mullard duck, which is a combination of the domestic Pekin duck and the domesticated Muscovy duck:
Another fun hybrid is the Zsorse, which is the hybrid of a zebra and a horse:
The mule is a hybrid between a horse and a donkey, and they are naturally sterile.
I hope this helped!
One natural occuring hybrid animal is the liger/tigon. They are a crossbreed between a male lion and tigons are crossbreed between a male tiger and female lion. Ligers are the worlds largest cats and are usually smaller than either of their parents.
All of the plants that we eat, be they fruits, vegetables, or grains, are hybrids. Most are simply variations in strains. There are som more obvious hybrids however, like the pluot, a cross between an apricot and a plum.
One naturally occurring hybrid with a terrific name is the Iron Age Pig (a name which cries out to be bolded), the result of wild boars mating with domesticated pigs. The resulting animal is gentler than a wild boar but has a gamier meat than household pigs and makes delicious specialty sausages widely available throughout Europe.
There are many hybrids in the world today particularly in the horticultural area. Many plant species have grown together to create variations of the originals. Many Rose bushes and other shrubs have come together to create hybrid varieties as well as many of the flowers we plant in our gardens every year. Many of the pets we include in our lives are also hybrids or mixed breeds.
One of the most interesting hybrids (in my opinion) would be the Elysia Chlorotica, which is a solar powered sea slug! It’s a slug that gathers energy from the sun using “stolen” plant genetics. The animal actually photosynthesises with the genes that it takes from algae that it eats. It’s pretty interesting.
Take a walk around your local grocery store, and you’ll find an array of hybrids right under your nose. There are “tangelos”, a cross between a tangerine and a pomelo. There are “pluots”, a plum/apricot combination. Science continues to make possible exciting and strange combinations.
The liger isn’t really a naturally occurring hybrid, as it’s impossible for tigers and lions to mate in the wild -their ranges don’t overlap. Tigers live only in Asia, and lions only in Africa. They do mate in captivity however.
Some scientists believe that the ancestors of modern humans mated with chimpanzees, and that we carry some DNA from that union to this day.
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