Ever See A Liger?
An episode of the edgy, humorous, and often line-crossing show South Parkhad the four young main animated characters singing the song "Pig andelephant DNA just won't splice" after a visit to the South Park GeneticEngineering Ranch. Unfortunately, this is how much of the country thinksabout hybrid animals.When most people hear the term "hybrid animal," they often think of odd,mutant creatures - hippopotamuses mixed with lions, dogs mixed with cats,or squirrels mixed with porcupines. Indeed, the word hybrid invokes theimagination and encourages one to entertain these improbable combinationsas miracles of science.However, the phrase "hybrid animal" merely means a crossbreeding of twoanimals - a process which has occurred for centuries, both artificially andnaturally. The idea of hybrids dates back to the mythology of ancient times. Folk taleswere full of animal-human hybrid stories like mermaids and minotaurs. Theword hybrid comes from the Ancient Greek, meaning "son of outrageousconduct." But understanding hybrid animals lies both in nature and science.Hybridization has been occurring in nature for thousands of years. Diaries of early hunters in the northwestern territories tell of shooting bears that werelarge and off-white with hairy paws, suggesting hybrids of kodiak and polarbears. Recent DNA studies confirmed this is possible. The mixing of animals that are closely related happens naturally more thanyou might think. In fact, scientists have recently identified a number of hybrid zones, or places where animal hybridization is most likely to occurbased on a number of different factors. These hybrid animals are far moreimportant to nature than you might think. Evolutionary biology studies showthat the fittest animals survive, no matter whether they are hybrids or not,and while some are simply not genetically compatible in terms of survival,many others are.A few examples of naturally occurring hybrid animals include the whitetail/mule deer, some Galapagos Finches, and the European Red Deer andChinese Sika Deer. Noted evolutionary expert Charles Darwin evencommented on animal hybridization. "Many species have bred in variousmenageries . . . Strange as the fact may appear, many animals . . . unite withdistinct species and produce hybrids quite as freely as, or even more freelythan, with their own species."Science, as well as nature though, has created some of its own hybrids forvarious purposes. Take, for instance, the mule - a cross between a femalehorse and a male donkey, which has existed since Ancient Roman times. Forcenturies, mules have been used as a means of transportation and labor.Even today, their sure-footedness makes them one of the best animals to