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Facts and Myths About Mammal Hybridization

Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.

Introduction

We've probably all heard the stories about Frankenstein experiments gone awry and creatures being crossed that would never have bred together in nature. Or perhaps we heard stories growing up about cabbits and griffins and wondered if they might really be possible.

Hybrids are a touchy issue and one that has been on our collective conscience for millennia. They make us think about the world around us and the taboos which we enforce. Why would man want to create hybrids and what has he already made? Are there hybrids in nature? All of these are good questions and ones which can be easily answered, but before we start, we must learn the technical meaning of what a hybrid really is. A hybrid is an animal (or plant) created by breeding two parents of wholly different species. Whether this was a natural occurrence or something done in a test tube doesn't matter, the result is the same.

This article will focus on mammalian hybrids only because to list all hybrids would be an immense task. In the future I am hoping to use this article as an index, linking each creature to its own article, so please stay tuned if there's something of particular interest to you. I'll be constantly adding to the knowledge here.

Common Misconceptions

  • "Hybrids are made-up creatures, they don't really exist." Although some hybrids are indeed the result of a fantastic imagination there are in fact a lot of these creatures that live and breathe in our world.
  • "Hybrids are the creation of breeders and scientists, they're never born in the wild." This is a common misconception because mankind really does like breeding hybrids but this isn't to say they don't also occur naturally from time to time without the interference of mankind.
  • "Hybrids can never have offspring of their own." This belief dates back to the study of mules, which were for a long time our most common hybrids. It's actually surprising mules can exist at all because horses and donkeys have a different number of chromosomes they're so distantly related. The result of this unlikely cross is usually a fully functional animal with one exception - the vast majority of them are incapable of breeding. With that being said mules are really the odd ones out here, hybrids resulting from closer related species, with the same amount of chromosomes, usually result in offspring that grow up to be completely fertile in their own right.

Equine Hybrids

Mules have been a very valuable animal to own for many thousands of years. Because they were so common as beasts of burden they became the first well known and studied hybrids. There are however a lot of other equine hybrids that also exist in the world today. Here's a short run down.

  • Mule: The offspring of a female horse and a male donkey.
  • Hinny: The offspring of a female donkey and a male horse.
  • Zorse: The offspring of a female horse and male zebra.
  • Zebroid: Zebroid is an alternate and more inclusive term for any zebra/horse hybrid which includes the reverse of a zorse (a female zebra mother and a male horse father.) The latter of which is rare beause female zebras are normally used to breed more zebras not zebroids.
  • Zony/Zeony: The offspring of a female pony and male zebra.
  • Zebrass/Zonkey/Ze-Donk: These are all terms addressing the offspring of a female donkey and a male zebra.
  • Pegasus: Otherwise known as a winged horse this mythological creature had the wings of an eagle and never had a chance to actually exist in any real form. Still it's a nice legend!

Additional information: The ancient Romans used to have an old saying that meant something that rarely or never happens, it was, "cum mula peperit" or "when a mule foals." And in some cultures the appearance of a pregnant mule and/or her foal is rumored to hail the end of the world. But that's not to say they don't happen. There's been around 50 cases reported over the last one hundred years. Two of these were confirmed through genetic testing.

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Bovine Hybrids

Cows can be a host to a great many different hybrids. They're not as common in the Western world as they are in places like Asia but they have been purposely bred for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years usually to perform as beasts of burden or serve as a source of meat. Fewer specimens are kept for fiber production, milk production, or just for curiosity's sake.

  • Beefalo: The offspring resulting from a buffalo crossed with any breed of domestic cow. Usually bred for meat.
  • Yakow/Dzo: The offspring of a domestic cow and a yak these are usually kept as beasts of burden.
  • Zubron: The offspring of a domestic cattle breed and a wisent (European Buffalo.)
Iron Age Pig - bred for specialty meat market.

Iron Age Pig - bred for specialty meat market.

Other Livestock Hybrids

From time to time livestock breeders have sought to strengthen the genetic diversity of their lines or create a desirable characteristic in domestic animals that only their wild counterparts have. At other times the farmyard has produced a fertile environment for animals who have a mind of their own, jumping the fence, as they say. Here are just some of the oddities that have resulted from these two separate scenarios.

  • Cama: The offspring resulting from a female llama and a male dromedary (one-hump) camel.
  • Goat Sheep Hybrids: Sometimes called a "geep" or a "shoat" these hybrids appear from time to time, usually as still births but every once in a while you'll have one that lives.
  • Iron Age Pig: The offspring of a domestic sow and a wild boar. These animals are however not true hybrids as pigs and boars are in fact the same species.

Canid Hybrids

Dogs have been a source of constant genetic fascination for as many years as we've cared to breed them. Of course breeding dogs to other dogs is usually how these breeding programs go there have always been people who have branched out and bred dogs to other species of canid. It's also been reported that dogs can cross with their wild counterparts on their own without any humans directing them to a possible mate. This is most common in rural areas where dogs come across coyotes or wolves quicker than finding another unfixed dog.

  • Wolf-Dogs: The offspring of a wolf and a dog, with either being the mother. Wolf dogs are legal to breed and own in some parts of the United States. They lack the fear of people a wolf has but maintain much of their look. They're also said to inherit the wolf's superior intelligence but this can of course lead to a very dangerous animal if it's not in the right hands.
  • Coy-Dogs: The offspring of a male coyote and a female dog. Female coyotes in particular have been known to lure male dogs into the woods when they're in heat to allow for their chosen coyote mate to attack and eat them. What happens when things go too far? Possible coy-dogs! They've also been bred purposely in captivity as well.
  • Dogote: The offspring of a female coyote and a male dog. This probably happens fairly frequently in the wild but since no one's recording these things there has been only one confirmed case in a wild setting. That being said these hybrids might be responsible for the only fatal coyote attack of an adult in 2009, Nova Scotia Canada.
  • Coyote-Wolf/CoyWolf: The offspring of a coyote and a wolf with either being the mother. Declining populations of wolves may have forced at least three different species of wolves in the US to naturally cross with coyotes when other wolf mates couldn't be found. Initially this first generation creates an animal that is in between the size of a wolf and a coyote and may look distinguishable as either. Genetic studies have found these hybrids often lead full reproductive lives, choosing either pure wolf or pure coyote mates until their offspring no longer look any different but still maintain certain genetic markers.
  • Huskals: The offspring of a wolf and a jackal with either being the mother. These have been recorded in captivity although wild specimens probably don't exist due to the different regions where each species lives.
  • Sulimov Dogs: Sulimov Dogs are a Russian creation, a type of working dog that was bred to have the superior smell of a jackal and the working abilities of a dog. Initial crosses of dog and jackal proved to create offspring that had that superior intelligence and smell but not enough of the dog's desire to work for humans. Crossing these first generation hybrids back to huskies provided offspring that were 25% jackal, small, and perfect for sniffing out contraband at airports.
  • Beast of Gevaudan: Between 1764-1767 a wild beast roamed France slaughtering peasants in a brutal and bloody rampage. There's no real way of knowing now what the beast could have really been but some speculate it may have been a wolf-dog or possibly hyena that was trained by the aristocracy to devour the poor.

Domestic Cat Hybrids

Domestic cat hybrids have been in vogue as of late but they have been bred for generations, decades, and for different reasons. Unlike dogs cats aren't bred with any job in mind but breeders have sought to recreate the beauty of their wild counterparts in these common house pets. It's as the old Chinese Proverb says, "Man domesticated the cat so that he could pet a tiger." With that being said you can't exactly graft the spots of a leopard onto your favorite tabby. Cross breeding wild felines with domestic cats often results in some rather extreme animals being produced, first generation couch shredding terrors, perhaps. However undaunted many breeders have further refined these hybrids through multiple generations and some are gaining ground as recognized cat breeds now. Still this is not a hobby for the faint of heart!

  • Bengal: A breed of cat developed by cross breeding domestic cats with Asian Leopard Cats. "F1" is a term used to denote first generation offspring.
  • Bristol Cat: A breed created using domestic cats and Margays. This is currently not a recognized breed as it's still in its infancy.
  • Cat/Bobcat or Cat/Lynx: There are people who purposely breed these but currently there's no real name for them. At one point it was claimed that Pixie-Bobs were the natural result of a Bobcat cross but so far no genetic evidence of this has been proven. There is currently no substantiated evidence of this happening naturally in the wild although I am sure it probably sometimes does.
  • Chuasie/Stone Cougar: A breed created by crossing domestic cats with Jungle Cats. This breed is gaining a little bit of traction but probably won't be recognized for many years to come.
  • Savannah: This breed, sometimes called the tallest of the cat breeds, was created using a foundation stock of domestic cats and Servals. These rank behind Bengals as being currently the most popular hybrids in the pet trade.
  • Safari: An obscure breed created with domestic cats and Geoffrey's Cats.
  • Jungle-Bob: A cross between one of the tailless domestic cat breeds and a Jungle Cat resulting in bobbed offspring.
  • Machbagral: This very rare hybrid is that of a domestic cat and a Fishing Cat.
  • Punjabi: These cats may or may not be actual hybrids. We're just not sure yet but they are a cross between a domestic cat and a Desert Cat which may or may not be the original ancestor of cats to begin with and thus the same species. I have heard of no cases of these in the US, although there might be.

Bengals Show Off Their Energy on a Wheel

Cat Hybrids in Urban Legends & Mythology

People have kept cats in their homes for thousands of years and through our domestic partnership we have grown fond enough of their company to weave them into our legends, fairy tales and folklore. In ancient times you may have been regaled with tales of griffins. Today someone might try to pull the wool over your eyes and tell you some of the many urban legends involving our feline friends. Below are just a few examples of these mythical creations.

  • Cabbit: As with many wild stories this one comes with a tiny hint of truth. For many years farmers told their children of Cabbits, strange crosses between a cat and a rabbit. Of course cats and rabbits are not close enough related to breed so how do you explain the strange felines hopping around in feral populations? It's really quite easy, these are just extreme manxed cats. Instead of having a bob tail their genes took it one step further and they ended up with not only a missing tail but also a lack of the last few vertebrae in their spine. This causes them to have the rounded back and hop of a rabbit. These animals should not be actively encouraged to breed as this is actually a harmful mutation that often causes further health complications later in life.
  • Cacoon: Maine Coons are probably the oldest cat breed created in the United States. In fact they inhabited the homesteads of some of the earliest settlers of New England. They were very large, very furry, and often had tufts on their ears, extra toes, and vaguely raccoon-like markings. So you can't blame these early settlers for believing these might not be cats at all but the hybrid offspring of a cat and a raccoon. This is however impossible and only makes for a quaint little old wive's tale.
  • Cat/Skunk Hybrids: Skunks and cats often inhabit the same city streets so it's not really that much of a stretch for some to believe there's some hanky panky going on between these two animal populations. Often these hybrids turn out to be common black and white cats who have taken to living out of dumpsters and have thus picked up a really foul smell. There's also a weird origin story that surrounds the Ragdoll breed. According to it the first Ragdoll female was just a beautiful fluffy cat who lived the life of a pet. One day she got out, got ran over by a car, and was brought miraculously back to full health by a mad scientist veterinarian who somehow had the ability to infuse skunk genes into the cat to heal her injuries. How this would heal a cat whose been run over by a car or how the vet had the knowledge and equipment to do this tn or twenty years before such gene technology officially existed is not explained. It's a really bizarre story, probably favored among drunks. Skunks and cats cannot interbreed in any natural way.
  • Giraffe: When an African giraffe was first marched into a Parisian zoo people were shocked by such a bizarre animal. Unable to fit it into their known animal kingdom they speculated it was the monstrous hybrid offspring of a leopard, where it got its spots from, and a camel, where it got its trunk from. No explanation for the elongated legs and neck were added to this curious speculation.