Hybrid moments: Interspecies relationships among captive and wild animals
I was recently at the national park in Białowieża, Poland where I saw a zubron, a hybrid between European Bison and domestic cattle. Like their North American counterparts, the ‘beefalo’, zubrons were first bred for hardiness and size. The hulking beasts proved to be more disease resistant, easier to care for, and due to their enormous size, provided more meat than either cattle or bison.
But for whatever reason, they never really caught on.
Man-made animal hybrids have a way of not flourishing. Mules – the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse – are sterile, aside from a minority of females. Still, humans have found uses for hybrids, as work animals like mules or curiosities such as the liger, the progeny of a male lion and a tigress or the zorse, a cross between a horse and zebra.
But what about hybrids that naturally occur in the wild? Polar bear-Grizzly mixes have been discovered and dolphins have mated with false killer whales of their own accord in captivity as well as perhaps in the wild.
While one might think that these oddities are examples of some kind of moral breakdown in the animal kingdom, it turns out that hybridization among distinct species is not so rare. Some biologists estimate that as many as 10 percent of animal species and up to 25 percent of plant species may occasionally breed with another species. The more important issue is not whether such liaisons occasionally produce offspring, but the vitality of the hybrid and whether two species might combine to give rise to a third, distinct species.
–Sean B. Carroll, molecular biologist and geneticist at the University of Wisconsin, in the New York Times
A recent piece in the New York Times explores the possibility that some hybrids may result in offspring more suited to survival in certain conditions than their parents. It’s already been observed with sunflowers and flies, and there is evidence that modern humans of European and Asian descent are part Neanderthal.
Check out the entire NYT article for more: