The liger is greater than the sum of its parentage


Ligers and wolphins and zorses, oh my!

The New York Times has a great story about hybrid animals and plants, and why those hybrids are sometimes better adapted to survive than the pure species that gave birth to them.

Because species hybrids create new combinations of genes, it is possible that some combinations might enable hybrids to adapt to conditions in which neither parent may fare as well. ... Two widespread species, the common sunflower and prairie sunflower, have combined at least three times to give rise to three hybrid species: the sand sunflower, the desert sunflower, and the puzzle sunflower.

The parental species thrive on moist soils in the central and Western states, but the hybrids are restricted to more extreme habitats. The sand sunflower, for instance, is limited to sand dunes in Utah and northern Arizona and the puzzle sunflower to brackish salt marshes in West Texas and New Mexico. The species distributions suggest that the hybrids thrive where the parents cannot.

That's got implications for humans, as well, given the mounting bits of evidence suggesting that we are not purely Homo sapiens, and, instead, the result of sapiens dalliances with neanderthals and other related species. It's possible that we owe our success as a species to a hybrid nature as hardy as that of any beefalo.

Image: Some rights reserved by aliwest44


  1. Uh, yeah, but who would I rather trust- billions of years of slow, natural evolution or the severely-limited, microscopic human mind just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding the genome?

    Let’s keep our hubris in check, please.

    1. what hubris? it’s been shown time and time again that it’s actually hubris to think that our modifications/combinations to DNA will have more (and uncontrollable) reproductive advantages to “natural” evolution.

  2. Before people jump in to say “well if they can breed then they’re not species QEDthxbye”: the definition of species is a lot blurrier than what we learned in high school. Rigid categories are created by man, not evolution.

  3. we also owe much of our “staying power” to genetic mutation through radiation and other biological, random sources.
    and we are the ones who just “got lucky”.

    compare with genetic engineering, and so called GMO food/medicine. in that case the modification is specific and robust (relatively).

    eric forks conversation for anti-GMO crowd and…


  4. One thing to point out, of course, is that, while plant hybridization is relatively easy, the majority of animal hybrids (eg, dog/wolf, ligers, mules, zorses, etc) are either completely sterile or can only produce sterile offspring. So even assuming they are better adapted (which is dubious, eg: polar bear/grizzly bears are bad at surviving in either habitat), they generally cannot produce viable offspring, thus making this hybridization kind of useless.

    1. Ligers are sterile, as are Tions (If I’m not mistaken, that’s when the sex of the parentage is swapped around).
      Also, mules are too. Seems like nature is cautious when it comes to selective breeding.

  5. The concept of “hybrid vigor” has been known for a while. Interesting to learn that it’s not as clear-cut as all that, though, and that one of the requirements for a successful hybrid seems to be that it finds a niche of its own, where it’s not in direct competition with either of its parents.

  6. Neanderthals and Homo saps can only have interbred in Europe and the Middle East, Maggie, so when you talk about “our success as a species” you’re automatically excluding Asians, Africans, and native Americans from humanity (or from its successes). I suspect in your excitement to connect the dots you didn’t think through the implications.

    1. If humans succeeded in Europe and the Middle East when they otherwise might not have (or as well), I’d consider that a success for the home team, even if my immediate ancestors didn’t come from there. I don’t think it’s exclusionary at all to suggest that some subpopulations’ success is success for the population as a whole.

    2. No, I’m not. I should have made this more clear, but read the links. There’s evidence for this kind of hybridization going on all over the world. Neanderthals in Europe are just a common example where a lot of research has been focused, but there’s evidence in Asia, Middle East, etc.

      And the general assumption these days is that we (and by “we” I mean the line of hominids related to humans) have probably been fooling around with other hominids since there were other hominids to fool around with.

      This isn’t just a European thing. I’m not meaning to exclude the rest of the world, though I can understand how it would read like that. My bad.

      1. There’s evidence in the articles Maggie pointed to that Homo sapiens people interbred with Neanderthal people in Europe before moving off to Asia, and potentially with Homo erectus people in Asia (not sure if those people just headed south to Australia or also went over to North America.) On the other hand, humans in Africa have a much broader genetic variation because only some of them headed up to Europe (including the Neanderthals, H.erectus, and later H.sapiens.)

        On the less serious side: Kitteh! And it’s “Lord John Whorfin, monkeyboy!”
        (Actually, rimstalker#30, a wholphin is a hybrid of a dolphin and a False killer whale, which are a genus of the dolphin family rather than regular whales. (Technically Delphinidae, which include dolphins, orcas, and some others, are a subset of toothed whales, so False Killer Whales are whales tot he same extent that dolphins are.)

    3. There was — and clearly has been — gene flow all the way from Africa, through Europe and Asia, and down into Indonesia. It’s why Sapiens populations across the world share the skeletal discrete traits of the Erectus populations that preceded them.

  7. “That’s got implications for humans, as well, given the mounting bits of evidence suggesting that we are not purely Homo sapiens.”

    But that evidence was also supposed to say that African’s WERE purely homo sapiens! So Africans are less fitly adapted? O_o

  8. My dad used to always call my mom a bitch. I used to always get mad at that. Then one day he told me, “Son your mom is a bitch. Here let me show you. HERE GIRL HERE GIRL!”

    My mom came in from the backyard and sat so politely. Her big nose a bit damp from rolling around in the grass.

    Yea I know. I get the Michael J. Fox TEEN WOLF comparisons all the time. I’m quite sensitive to that, thanks.

  9. Deb: What are you drawing?
    Napoleon Dynamite: A liger.
    Deb: What’s a liger?
    Napoleon Dynamite: It’s pretty much my favorite animal. It’s like a lion and a tiger mixed… bred for its skills in magic.

  10. I’m glad to see ligers making the news so much lately. Two of them were just born at a zoo in southern Taiwan about a month ago. There are also Ti-Ligers that are super rare because hybrids are usually infertile, but apparently not always.

    I’ve been following hybrids quite closely as they’re both awesome (because they’re awesome), and terrible (because they’re only bred in captivity).

    Here’s a story about the Taiwan Ligers

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