• Ritoban Mukherjee

Cross-Breeding Animals Are Birthing Such Abominations

Updated: Jan 13

There was this one time in sixth grade when one of my nerdier schoolmates went around the entire class, asking kids to fill out a survey where they argued who their favorite superhero was and why. Batman, said most people, not surprisingly. My choice was a little unconventional though. Magneto. “Okay but,” I can already hear you protest, “Magneto isn’t even a real hero, more like a supervillain!” And yet, I liked Magneto. I even felt that I understood him. You see, Magneto was the product of one of mankind’s harshest cruelties, persecution. I felt like I understood that.

There has probably been a time in your life when you felt singled out, victimized. That was my entire childhood. It’s not like I was bullied much, no. I was just left alone. I can’t say that’s worse, but sometimes, it can be just as bad.

Before we veer off-topic, though, let’s get to the point. As humans, we often develop this idea of what normal’s supposed to look like, a miserable attempt at finding a shred of certainty in our largely chaotic world. Problem is, history shows that we are prepared to go to really extraordinary lengths to preserve our sense of normal, often to our detriment.

In 2016, an Inuit hunter by the name of Didji Ishalook shot dead what he thought looked like a small polar bear, in the Canadian Arctic. On closer inspection, however, the creature revealed some rather strange features. “It looks like a polar bear but it’s got brown paws and big claws like a grizzly,” recounted Ishalook. “And the shape of a grizzly head.”

That was just the first of many reported sightings of the so-called grolar bear, an interspecies hybrid formed by the mating of a polar bear with a grizzly. As the ice melts in the Arctic, polar bears move further southward, along the Beaufort Sea and towards Canada. As a direct consequence of global warming leading to changing climates, these species naturally mate with the local grizzlies, creating a hybrid creature that is more adapted to our changing planet.

Unfortunately, some experts seem to disagree with that last bit. “Hybridization is one of the overlooked but clearly very, very important causes of species’ going extinct,” said Stuart Prim, professor of conservation ecology at Duke University, in an interview with Quartz. “Hybridization is a major problem. It comes from our moving species around, it comes from our changing habitat.”

Experts who subscribe to Mr. Prim’s school of thought believe that hybridization is a threat to biodiversity, that it causes rarer species of organisms to go extinct as they’re slowly replaced by less remarkable, bad-blooded counterparts. Some have even proposed that we should intervene, killing off these hybrids before they can reproduce, in the interest of protecting ecological diversity.

Ethical questions aside, is forceful human intervention in a phenomenon that is occurring naturally as a response to climate change really the smartest decision? Do we really want to put a clog in evolution’s path as we rush to protect what is merely our own idea of what the ecosystem should look like?

Turns out, grolar bears aren’t alone. Coyotes have been mating with wolves, golden-winged warblers with blue-winged warblers, rainbow trout with west slope cutthroat trout, common barred owls with northern spotted owls, bobcats with lynxes, southern flying squirrels with northern ones, and so on. Most, if not all, of these instances where different species interbreed naturally have occurred, quite ironically, as a slow result of human factors. Factors such as deforestation, climate change and warmer temperatures leading to shifts in the ecosystems.

And it’s true. Some of these hybrids are not nearly as fit to survive as their pureblood parents. But some are more so. The coywolves, for example, are more agile and equipped with larger skulls more well-suited to maw down on the local deer population. And hybrid butterflies of the Heliconius species in the Amazon have developed special, brightly colored wings to warn off birds that they contain cyanide.

There is no denying how much human involvement has changed this planet in the last few hundred years. We know now that this isn’t the first time something like this has occurred, even in human history. However, the sheer speed with which these changes have taken place is what’s most unnerving to ecologists. To say that we’re in the midst of yet another mass-extinction event may be overstating things a bit, some have opined. But it would not be hyperbole at all to say that we’re just one bad day away from the start of another extinction event.

Thankfully, the planet has its own way of working things out, even without us intervening. The birth of hybrid species may not simply be a byproduct of climate change, it could be the planet’s way of adapting to it. Sure, not all of these hybrids will make it. But a lot of them will. Others will simply die out as their pureblood counterparts retake their place in the ecosystem.

But at the end of the day, the planet will survive. And if we want to avoid extinction, perhaps we should focus on stopping the damage we’re causing right now, rather than reverse what’s nature’s own way of reacting to what’s already happened. But that’s just my opinion.

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