July 7, 2010
Let’s face it. Centaurs, chimeras, griffins, the Little Mermaid, the Thunder Cats and all those cool hybrid creatures from Avatar: The Last Airbender are just legends and fantasies. And Peter Parker remains the only human, as of yet, to gain super-powers from a radioactive spider. Sigh.
But human fascination with animal hybrids, as hyperbolic as it is, has some basis in reality. Here are a few of the most interesting animal hybrids that actually exist. Move over mules, there are much more interesting characters in the mixed animal game.
Ligers and Tigons (and Jaguleps and Leopons)
Remember Napoleon Dynamite from a few years ago?
Deb: What are you drawing
Napoleon: A liger.
Deb: What’s a liger?
Napoleon: It’s pretty much my favorite animal. It’s like a lion and a tiger mixed … bred for its skills in magic.
Well, ligers do, actually, exist. Minus their skill in magic … as far as we know. When a male lion and a female tiger fall in love (yes, I just anthropomorphized them) and their cross-species relationship results in cubs, those cubs are called ligers. Switch the genders and you have tigons. Add a jaguar or leopard to the mix (any of the four species of the big-cat genus, Panthera, can interbreed) and you get all sorts of crazy combinations. Though many hybrid animals are infertile, ligers and tigons are not. They are perfectly capable of breeding and producing Li-Tigons, Ti-Ligers and other such amalgamations.
Savannah cats are hybrids of domestic house cats and African servals, similar to the wolf-dogs in the canine world. Though illegal in some cities and states, the hybrid cats have been described as more dog-like in their behavior than cat-like. They like swimming, walking on a leash and even playing fetch on occasion. Breeding domesticated pets with their wild cousins seems to be a new trend in pet rearing. Don’t get me started on Toygers or Cheetohs.
Yeah, that’s right, spider goats. No, you didn’t read it wrong. They exist. Honest-to-god spider goats.
They’re not horror-movie quality (they don’t have eight legs with eight little hoofs or eight eyes). But, with spider genes implanted in them when they were just a fertilized egg, these chimera-goats are one seventy-thousandth arachnid.
What could possibly compel a scientist to create such a creature? You know, besides the obvious pre-human testing for a real-life Spider Man? The genes specially selected from the spiders are the silk-making genes. When the spider goats reach maturity, silk proteins appear in their mammary glands.
Milk the goat, extract silk proteins and vóila, you’ve manufactured spider-silk fibers.
Spider silk is one of the strongest materials in the world and these scientists are hoping to manufacture it in bulk (something you can’t do by farming spiders) for commercial use.
Don’t be surprised if you see spider-silk protective vests replace Kevlar in the near future.
Zorses, Zonkeys, Zonys, Zetlands, Zedonks, and, of course, Zebrasses. Zany, right? Breeders have been crossing zebras with other equines for some time. The point, other than general curiosity, was to create a beast of burden that could work harder under hot weather than traditional mules, horses or donkeys.
Not quite a grizzly, not quite Klondike the polar bear, they’re pizzlies (sometimes known as the grolar bear). Like the big cats, species in the Ursidae family can interbreed. Though most commonly found as the result of captive breeding, they also appear on rare occasions in the wild. Some scientists believe that the natural occurrence of these hybrids might be explained by climate change. As ice barriers melt, species that have been separated for millennia can comingle once again. While other ursine hybrids known to occur in the wild, such as mixes between black bears and grizzlies, are infertile, the grizzly and the polar bear are so close genetically that they are likely capable of reproducing.
The spider goats may be providing us with ultra-strong spider silk, but the beefalo—the result of breeding buffalo with cattle—is a hybrid engineered and raised to eat. There’s a long tradition of ranching beefalo in the United States, so long that we have an entire organization dedicated to its advocacy, the American Beefalo Association. Though early incarnations of the beefalo were sickly and infertile, in recent decades, the crossbreed has become more robust. With the genetic hardiness of buffaloes and the tastiness of beef, the beefalo provides the best of both animals. At least … that’s what the ABA tells me.
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