You don’t have to look to look to the future to find cloned wolves and hybrid bears. They’re already among us …
Many conservationists call our current epoch the Anthropocene, an age when humanity impacts everything on earth. Not surprisingly, the large human population and its attendant resource use has not been kind to wildlife. A recent report estimated that the world has lost 58 percent of its wildlife over the past 40 years.
Still, some wildlife species adapt and even thrive. Humans also look to technology and science to assist endangered or even extinct animals. This has led to a lot of speculation and even fantasy. Consider the ongoing obsession with cloning woolly mammoths and passenger pigeons. This in turn has spawned a lot of science fiction that paints a dystopian future inhabited with clones and mutant beasts.
But some is not science fiction. In reality, the Anthropocene is already home to weird instances of rapid evolution and adaptability. Some species have made significant changes to thrive in cities. Humans have altered other species through scientific advances – some for conservation purposes, some for vanity. New hybrids have reclaimed novel habitats. The list goes on.
Here are 10 beasts of the Anthropocene. There are many other examples. Please feel free to share yours in the comments – and I’ll include them in a future post.
In South Africa, an effort is underway to restore the quagga – a zebra with unusual stripe patterns – to national parks and game reserves. The weird factor: quaggas have been extinct since 1883. In fact, only one photo exists of a living quagga, and only 23 quagga skins are left.
Quaggas are often described as zebras without stripes, although in reality their coats exhibited a wide range of colorations and stripe patterns. For years, scientists considered the quagga a distinct species, perhaps even more closely related to horses than zebras. Genetic tests in 1984 revealed, however, that the quagga is actually a subspecies of the common plains zebra.
Some conservationists wondered: Using selective breeding, could the quagga be bred back into existence? An effort has been underway since 1987 to do just that. The Quagga Project selects zebras that exhibit quagga-like characteristics and breeds them. The results are carefully documented and bloodlines tracked. Each year, the resulting foals look more and more like quaggas. They are now roaming a number of parks and game ranches, often notably distinct from other zebras. Is this resurrecting an extinct animal or a stunt?
Perhaps no hybrid animal has captured recent attention like the polar bear-grizzly cross – creatively called the grolar bear or pizzly. The polar bear’s habitat is usually inhospitable to grizzly bears. But some believe that as the climate warms, grizzlies have been able to move north, encountering the other bear species – and breeding with them. Despite all the press, in modern times there have only been a few documented cases of grolar bears, with the most famous being the one shot by a hunter in 2006.
But, interestingly, at least a few zoos have bred the two species as a promotional gimmick. Some animal enthusiasts gush over zoo grolar bears, calling them “rare” and “special.” In reality, zoos and other animal attractions have a long history of breeding different animal novelties (think white tigers, or lion-tiger crosses known as ligers). This is neither good conservation or good wildlife education, but the human propensity to tinker with continue. The future of grolar bears in wild conditions, though, is difficult to predict.
Grolar bears may be appearing due to climate change. For coywolves, it’s simply the case of a large predator filling a void. Following extermination of wolves in the eastern United States following European colonization, western coyotes began colonizing the habitat.
But as they were moving east, coyotes encountered eastern wolves. And bred with them. The coyotes that exist in the eastern United States thus are coyote-wolf hybrids, or coywolves. Determining canid genetics is extraordinarily complicated, but recent genetic testing has offered some clarity. For instance, the wolf genes in coywolves are not those of gray wolves, but of a separate species, the eastern wolf.
As a researcher I interviewed on the topic suggests, though, what is important is not to obsess over species but rather over ecosystems. Ecosystems are healthier when they have top predators. Recolonizing coywolves may play an important role in healthier eastern forests. Read more about wolf hybrids.
As noted above, people love to breed wildlife to create hybrids. Arguably one of the biggest drivers for hybrid creation is recreational fishing. State fish and game agencies breed fish varieties that will create novely, or harder-fighting fish, or easier-to-catch fish, for their angling constituents.
Some of these are admittedly striking. Tiger trout – a brown trout/brook trout hybrid – has beautiful barring on its sides. But as Cool Green Science contributor Ted Williams pointedly wrote in his Fly…