A Changing World Is Creating These Hybrid Animals

As the Arctic warms and natural habitats are transformed by human activity, strange new hybrid animals are starting to wander the earth.

New animals have started to appear when two similar species have been forced into the same territory.

In 2006, a white bear with brown splotches, believed to be a hybrid of a polar bear and a grizzly, was shot by Arctic hunters. Hunters have killed three similar bears, sometimes called pizzly or grolar bears.

In 2009, a possible hybrid of a right whale and a bowhead was photographed in the Bering Sea.

In some cases hybrid animals are a response to a changing ecosystem. White-tailed deer populations have exploded on the East Coast of the U.S. and a new predator — the coywolf — has appeared that hunts them. It’s a combination of Western coyotes and wolves, with some dog in the mix. Also known as the Eastern coyote, these canines are strong and social hunters like wolves, so packs can hunt deer; but they are also adaptable enough to live near humans, like coyotes.

In other cases, the increased hybridization of animals is a strong indication that our climate is changing. As Arctic sea ice continues to melt at drastic rates, different species of seals, whales, and bears previously blocked by huge slabs of ice will begin mingling in the same regions and possibly mating.

Hybrid animals are generally infertile, and the trend is worrisome because it could drive certain species to extinction since those animals are no longer mating with their own kind.

But genetic tests showed that at least one of the polar-grizzly hybrids was a second-generation animal, and the coywolf is a successful hybrid, which shows that some species might be resilient.

A study published in the journal Nature in 2010 listed 34 species that are at risk of cross-breeding because of a warming climate.

In the case of the coywolf we’ve used actual photos, but for the rest we asked artist Nickolay Lamm to help us imagine what some of those hybrid animals would like if they came to life.

Elin Pierce, a writer and editor with a Ph.D. in biology, helped to hypothesize what features the hybrid animals would have, based on dominant features of the original two species, and any descriptions or photos of those hybrids that already exist in the wild.

A beluga whale is on the left and narwhal is on the right.

This is a beluga-narwhal hybrid. In this artist's interpretation, the hybrid has some narwhal colouring and the forehead has less of a bump. In the late 1980s, a whale skull thought to be that of a beluga-narwhal mix was found in west Greenland. Local hunters say they have also spotted the hybrid.

A polar bear is on the left and a grizzly bear is on the right.

This is polar-brown bear hybrid. The hybrid has splotches of brown, a more blunt snout, and a hump similar to that of the grizzly bear. The ears are also smaller than the grizzly's. As sea ice melts, polar bears will spend more time on shore where they will meet grizzly bears, some of which are moving north because of warming temperatures.

A polar bear cub is on the left and a grizzly bear cub is on the right.

This is polar-grizzly bear cub hybrid. The hybrid looks like a polar bear cub but with some brown fur.

A harbor seal is on the left and a ringed seal is on the right.

This is a harbor-ringed seal hybrid. The hybrid's fur has more spots than the harbor seal, but is darker. Its body shape is similar to the ringed seal.

A harbor seal pup is on the left and a ringed seal pup is on the right.

This is a harbor-ringed seal pup hybrid. The hybrid is mostly white, with some of the hooded seal pup's coloration.

A harbour porpoise is on the left and and dall's porpoise is on the right.

A harbour-dall's Hybrid. The hybrid is darker and its hypothetical size is somewhere in between the two species. As harbour porpoises begin to move north from the temperate waters in the North Atlantic and North Pacific, they will begin to mingle with dall's porpoises. Several hybrid porpoises have been documented off the coast of British Colombia.

A southern flying squirrel is on the left and north flying squirrel is on the right.

A southern-northern flying squirrel hybrid. As the climate warms, southern squirrels are pushing north to mate with northern flying squirrels. The hybrids are small like the southern species but have the grey-white belly fur of the northern animals.

This coyote-wolf hybrid was photographed in Virginia.

Researchers created these hybrids by breeding Western coyotes with wolves.

Climate change is also leading to sea level rise.

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