Genetic hybrids are the result of two animals of differing species mating to form a new species. Species from different parts of the world end up crossing paths for a variety of reasons. Whether it be due to invasive species colliding with locals, habitat destruction, or being placed in captivity, new hybrid species are formed that would not have existed otherwise. In many cases, they would never have existed without humans (for better or worse).
We’ve seen many bizarre animal hybrids in popular culture. In movies, we have Sharktopus and Dinocroc, and in folklore, we have jackalopes and Jersey Devils. But peculiar animal hybrids don’t just exist in the land of make-believe. While you won’t see anything quite like a shark with tentacles or a goat with bat wings, biological hybrids can be just as fascinating as fictional hybrids.
From lions crossed with tigers to zebras crossed with donkeys, these amazing real-life animal hybrids are sure to surprise you…
The leopon is the offspring of a male leopard and a lioness. The head looks similar to a lion, with a partial mane, while the body looks more leopard-like. These animals are only bred in zoos, and would never occur in the wild.
Many cubs have been bred in Japan and Germany, but it’s rare for them to survive to adulthood. If they do, the animals are generally sterile. The most successful breeding program was at Koshien Hanshin Park in Japan, where 5 cubs (though sterile) did survive for a period of time.
This bulky hybrid is a hybrid between domestic cattle and yak. These animals are larger and stronger than yak and cattle, at least those local to the region. They also seem to produce more milk and meat.
Males of this cross are sterile while females are still able to breed. “Dzo” particularly refers to males of this hybrid, while females are called “dzomo” or “zhgrolaom.”
Iron Age Pig or “Sanglochon”
This unique animal is a cross between a wild boar and a domestic pig. They were originally bred to resemble pigs represented in ancient European prehistoric artwork of the Iron Age.
These pigs are raised mainly in Europe, and are much more aggressive and harder to handle than domestic pigs, as one would imagine. This hybrid has been observed occurring naturally in Australia where escapee domestic pigs breed with wild boars.
As you may suspect, coywolves are a combination of coyotes and gray wolves. These hybrids tend to be larger than coyotes, and show behaviors similar to each species.
Extensive hunting of wolves over 4 centuries decimated the population; this limited the options for suitable mates, so the animals had to search outside their species. It appears that they weren’t too selective – researchers have found domestic dog DNA in their genome, too!
Clymene dolphins are another example of hybrid speciation. Endemic to the Atlantic Ocean, clymene dolphins are the result of breeding between spinner dolphins and striped dolphins.
Unlike most animal hybrids, which are the result of captive breeding, Clymene dolphins are natural hybrids. Humans have not played a role in their genesis, and they can breed normally.
In captivity, many bird hybrids exist, and the Catalina macaw is one of them. As a cross between a blue-and-yellow macaw and a scarlet macaw, the Catalina macaw possesses the color patterns of both parent species.
This beautiful parrot possesses the best qualities of both macaws. We like it!
The edible frog is one of three species of European water frog (along with Graf’s hybrid frog and the Italian edible frog) that is the result of a process called hybridogenesis. In this process, the hybrid species must mate with one of its parent species to reproduce, and half of the offspring are clones of the hybrid species.
In the case of the edible frog, which is the fertile offspring of a pool frog and a marsh frog, it must mate with either a pool frog or a marsh frog to produce more edible frogs.
Czechoslovakian wolfdogs are the result of a scientific experiment first conducted in 1955. In Czechoslovakia, scientist Karel Hartl crossed a Carpathian wolf with a German Shepherd to create a breed of dog that could be used as military and police attack dogs.
The resulting hybrid, which contained both wolf and dog genes, proved difficult to train. However, much like the hybrid bengal cat, after four generations of decreasing the “wolf’s blood”, the Czechoslovakian wolfdog was ready for service.
In 1847 in Poland, Leopold Walicki bred a cow with a European bison (wisent). This created a bovid known as a żubroń.
Later on, after World War I, Polish scientists bred the hardy, adaptable żubroń en masse as a cheap replacement for domestic cattle.
However, in the 1980s, their progress came to a halt due to economic difficulties and fear that żubrońs would breed with native wisents, causing genetic pollution.
Similarly, in 1880 in Canada, Col Samuel Bedson bred cows with American bison, creating another bovid hybrid known as a cattalo. When first created, cattalo were far from perfect, since male offspring were usually sterile. However, in 1965, a male hybrid bull was born, and this changed everything. Since that day, cattalos were rebranded as beefalos and sold to the general public as such.
Like the rest of the hybrids on this list so far, the Savannah cat is an artificial hybrid, originally created by humans. Savannah cats are a cross between a domestic cat and a serval, which is a species of wild cat native to sub-Saharan Africa.
Savannah cats are unusual among domestic cats because they are comparable to dogs in loyalty and behavior. In fact, they are quite sociable and can be trained to walk on a leash and play fetch.
Most Savannah cats are not afraid of water and will readily play or immerse themselves in it. They are the ultimate anti-cats.
A wholphin is a very rare cross between a false killer whale and a common bottlenose dolphin. The name suggests this hybrid is a mix of whale and dolphin, but the false killer whale is actually a species of oceanic dolphin as well. Purportedly, wholphins exist naturally in the wild, but so far, they’ve only been bred and documented in captivity.
Bengal cats are the result of breeding between domestic cats and Asian leopard cats. They were bred to evoke the feline denizens of the jungle. However, in order to make them as tame as regular domestic cats, they must be four generations removed from their wild leopard cat ancestors.
Unlike most cats, bengal cats love water. This is likely due to their leopard cat ancestor’s affinity for water.
Heliconius is a genus of brush-footed butterflies native to the New World, from South American and the southeast United States. While Heliconius butterflies seem no different from other butterflies, they are prime examples of hybrid speciation.
Many of the species in the Heliconius genus originated as hybrids of other Heliconius species and are now reproductively isolated from their parent species. This means that the Heliconius butterfly species have interbred so much that they have created completely new species.
Zebroids are a variety of zebra hybrids, and these hybrids have dozens of different names.
A zebra stallion and a horse mare will produce a zorse or zebrula; a zebra stallion and a pony mare will produce a zony; and a zebra crossed with a donkey is often called a zonkey or zedonk, among other names.
Physically, zebroids resemble their non-zebra parents, but they generally inherit the zebra’s stripes on parts of their body, whether on the head, flanks, or legs.
Mentally, zebroids are more wild in nature. Unlike the domesticated horses, ponies, and donkeys, zebras are wild animals, and they pass down their renegade temperaments and aggression.
The tiger muskellunge, or tiger muskie, is the first hybrid animal on this list that has not been created as the result of humans and naturally occurs in the wild. This carnivorous fish is a cross between the northern pike and the muskellunge, which both reside in freshwater lakes and rivers in upper North America.
Tiger muskies are born sterile, but like most other hybrid animals, they grow very quickly and are less susceptible to disease. In one study, tiger muskies grew 1.5 times faster than non-hybrid muskellunge.
Among anglers, they are called the “fish of 10,000 casts” because they are so difficult to catch.
Africanized honey bees, also known as “killer bees”, are a hybrid between European and African honeybees. They were originally created by biologist Warwick E. Kerr in Brazil when he was attempting to breed a strain of bees that would produce more honey and be better adapted to tropical climates.
Dubbed “killer bees” due to their highly defensive behavior and tendency to swarm, these bees were much more aggressive and competitive than their European counterparts, although their fierce reputation is mostly unfounded.
Unfortunately, in October 1957, 26 swarms of Kerr’s killer bees were accidentally released, and since then, they have spread rapidly. Branching out from Brazil, they have proliferated across South America, throughout Central America, and into the southern United States. Largely unassisted by humans, they are among the most successful invasive species.
Tiger Trout & Splake
Most hybrids are the offspring of two species in the same genus. However, in some rare cases, hybrids can occur between two species in two different genera. Tiger trout are good examples of this. Tiger trout are a cross between brown trout (Salmo trutta) and brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). They are commonly created in fish hatcheries and stocked in lakes and rivers for sport-fishing. However, like most hybrids, they are sterile.
On the other hand, splake, which are a cross between a male brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) and a female lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush), are fertile. Splake are also stocked in lakes and rivers for sport-fishing, but even though they are fertile, they do not commonly produce offspring.
Hybrid “Super Snakes” Discovered in Florida Everglades
Over 30 years ago, various pet snakes were released in the wild in Southern Florida. These invasive species, most notably the Burmese python, have established growing populations, decimating the native species in the process.
Florida’s battle against invasive species got a lot tougher when a new hybrid snake was found lurking in the Everglades.
A recent US Geological Survey (USGS) study on the genetics of invasive pythons has revealed that a number of the snakes in the Everglades are actually a hybrid between two species orginally from Southeast Asia — the Burmese python and Indian rock python.
Burmese pythons, which have colonized the state in recent decades, are colossal constrictors generally found near water, while the agile, more aggressive Indian rock python spends the majority of its time on high ground. The resulting hybrid could lead to something of a “super snake,” a well-adapted reptile suited for both swamps and dry land. And, in fact, South Florida’s Burmese pythons have been spotted in both environments.
“When two species come together they each have a unique set of genetic traits and characteristics they use to increase their survival and their unique habitats and environments,” USGS geneticist Margaret Hunter told the Guardian. “You bring these different traits together and sometimes the best of those traits will be selected in the offspring. That allows for the best of both worlds in the Everglades, it helps them to adapt to this new ecosystem potentially more rapidly.”
This phenomenon, where the best traits from both parents are enhanced in the hybrid offspring, is known as “hybrid vigor”. What this means for the snakes in the Everglades, though, is still unclear.
This isn’t the first time the idea of a super snake in Florida has come up. Back in 2010, reports of a possible hybrid between Burmese pythons and African rock pythons — which have been known to attack humans — stoked fears that it could give rise to an unusually aggressive super-predator.
But as alarming as this all sounds, the researchers say that a new reptilian terror isn’t necessarily taking over the state. In fact, they believe the interbreeding between the Burmese and Indian pythons likely happened before they became established in the area.
Still, the findings suggest that it will likely be even more difficult to reduce the already staggering python population than scientists had originally thought.
Grizzly-Polar Bear Hybrids
As global temperatures rise, ecosystems and the species they harbor are adjusting in response. Many habitats are either shifting their boundaries polewards—or disappearing altogether—sending wildlife into new regions, where they interact with resident creatures in surprising and often unprecedented ways.
When this geographic collision is between two closely related species, they sometimes cross-breed, leading to the emergence of an entirely new species. Perhaps one of the most fascinating examples of this is the grizzly-polar bear hybrid: the “pizzly” or “grolar” bear.
Brown bears (Ursus arctos)—of which grizzlies are a subspecies—and polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are different species with different adaptations to their respective ecosystems, but they are closely related. Polar bears diverged from brown bears less than 500,000 years ago—not long at all on an evolutionary timescale—and the two animals retain enough genetic similarity that they can interbreed and produce fertile offspring.
When the hybrid offspring come from a polar bear father and a grizzly bear mother, the hybrid is typically called a “pizzly” bear, a portmanteau of “polar” and “grizzly.” When the parentage is reversed? A “grolar” bear.
Much of what we know about “pizzlies” and “grolar bears” comes from hybridization in captive conditions, specifically in zoos. In these situations, the hybrids are often the result of the two bear species cohabitating in the same enclosures. Around seventeen of these hybrid bears are known to exist, mostly in European zoos.
The hybrid bears present as an amalgamation of the key characteristics of their parents. Their fur isn’t white or brown, but a dingy, creamy blond. They have long necks like polar bears, but hunched shoulders like grizzlies. Their feet are partly covered in fur, intermediate between the bare paws of grizzlies and the fuzzy feet of polar bears. Their heads blend together the sleek features of polar bear heads and the thick, rounded features of grizzly heads.
In regards to behavior, though, the hybrids more resemble their polar bear parents, hurling large toys and stamping on objects in a similar fashion. They also lie down with their hind limbs splay-legged—a distinctive polar bear pose.
Pizzlies and grolar bears are undoubtedly striking curiosities, but how regularly do they show up in the wild? Not that often. Many purported hybrids end up being purebreds of one of the two bear species. In 2016, a bear shot in Nunavut, Canada was thought to be a hybrid based on its cream-colored coat, but genetic testing later determined that it was just a grizzly with a rare, blond coat.
However, true hybrids have definitely turned up in the wild in recent years. One of the most famous cases also comes from Nunavut, but a decade earlier. In 2006, an American hunter shot what was thought to be a polar bear (for which he had a hunting permit), albeit with strange features.
After much drama and the possibility of incurring fines and jail time for targeting a species for which he had no permit, the hunter was let off the hook by genetic testing results, which confirmed that this was a special case: a wild grizzly-polar bear hybrid, thought to be the first ever recorded. In 2010, another bear—this time from the Northwest Territories—was confirmed by genetic testing as a three-quarters grizzly hybrid.
These hybrid bears come from areas in northern Canada where grizzlies and polar bears are crossing paths with increasing frequency as grizzlies encroach on polar bear habitat. A large part of this upswing in grizzly and polar bear encounters is likely due to climate change.
Grizzlies don’t typically stray north of the treeline in the Arctic, and permafrost is too frigid for them. But as permafrost rapidly melts and prey moves poleward into polar bear-inhabited coastlines, grizzlies are bumping into polar bears and mating with them. Likewise, as sea ice wanes, polar bears will likely find themselves stuck in terrestrial locations filling with a slow creep of grizzly invaders.
Rather than “grolar bears” taking over the Arctic, the real risk is that what we know as polar bears will simply be absorbed into a tide of grizzly DNA through successive crossbreeding events. While research suggests that the possibility of climate change-induced hybridization is still low for most species, it is already threatening animals like cutthroat trout, and could someday pose a similar extinction threat to polar bears if it continues unabated.
The Liger: Half Lion, Half Tiger and the World’s Largest Feline
Meet the world’s largest feline: the liger. While ligers are certainly something to marvel at, you’ll never found one outside of a zoo—they’re a man-made hybrid cross between a male lion and tigress, something that would never occur in nature.
Ligers look something like a striped lion. They tend to inherit the tawny brown fur from their lion fathers and the dark stripes from their tigress mothers.
As a result of this union between the tiger, the largest and heaviest feline, and the lion, the second largest, ligers tend to be much larger and heavier than their parents. In fact, the largest feline in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records is a liger named Hercules, who weighs 922 pounds and measures 11 feet in length and 4 feet at the shoulder. He resides at Myrtle Beach Safari, a wildlife attraction in South Carolina.
At 922 pounds (418.2 kilograms) and 11 feet (3.33 metres) in length and measuring 4 feet (1.25 metres ) tall at the shoulder, he is considered the world’s largest living feline. Photo by Ali West.
Unfortunately, ligers face a host of challenges. Like many other unnatural hybrids, ligers often die in the womb or prematurely. If they do make it to adulthood, they are genetically or physically sterile and unable to reproduce.
They also suffer from a variety of uncomfortable genetic defects and diseases associated with both lions and tigers, such as neurological problems, cancer, arthritis, and organ failure.
For these reasons as well as the lack of conservation value and the threat to the mother tigress during birth, ligers are banned in most zoos and animal sanctuaries; and those that choose to breed the animals are frowned upon by big cat conservationists around the globe.