You don’t have 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 Rod & Reel article “Frankenfish”: “For a large element of the public, fish don’t count as wildlife. Their value is seen more as benders of rods than pillars of native ecosystems. That’s why mongrels and mutants concocted in hatcheries are so popular.”
Sometimes these hatchery products do serve another purpose (as Williams acknowledges in his story). Many lakes in the western United States historically did not contain fish. Some have become overrun with non-natives, sometimes through intentional stockings (like brook trout) and sometimes when anglers dump a bucket of bait minnows.
To control fish populations, agency staff sometimes turn to the sterile hybrid of a muskellunge and northern pike, called a tiger musky. Since they’re sterile, they can’t become invasive themselves. But they’re voracious predators, so they can gobble up the stunted, overpopulated brook trout.
Cities displace wildlife habitat, of course. But for some adaptable species, urban environments become habitat. Even the most adaptable species sometimes have to adopt radically new ways of surviving. Research has found that urban ants become adept at foraging spilled junk food. City raccoons have become fatter and also smarter – capable of navigating dumpsters and pet doors to pillage new food sources.
And then there’s the San Joaquin kit fox. Critically endangered in much of its California range, it’s actually thriving in the city of Bakersfield. In 1993, researchers found that Bakersfield kit foxes still ate mostly ground squirrels with the occasional meal of human refuse. Fifteen years later, that had changed dramatically: the foxes ate a predominantly human diet. Genetic tests found that much of the fox’s food was high in corn syrup.
The Bakersfield kit foxes had, perhaps not surprisingly higher cholesterol than their kin in wilder environs. But that is not the threat it appears. San Joaquin kit foxes living on diets of discarded burritos and kitchen scraps actually live longer and breed more successfully, despite the seemingly unhealthy diet.
Mallards are ubiquitous, as any visitor to an urban pond knows. But they may be even more common than you think: the bulk of domesticated duck varieties are actually mallards too. Add to this the fact that many hunting clubs have bred and released mallards (including outside their native range), and it’s easy to see to proclaim this species an Anthropocene winner.
Male mallards are extremely aggressive during breeding season, to put it mildly. So aggressive that they’ll readily breed with other species, resulting in some really wild-looking hybrids. Mallard hybrids have been noted for a long time; John James Audubon painted the “Brewer’s duck”, which actually is a mallard-gadwall hybrid.
With mallards spreading so widely, though, mallards can now hybridize with rare native species outside their native range. This has occurred with New Zealand’s native grey duck, with hybridization so rampant that few genetically pure grey ducks may exist.
In many cities and country ponds, domestic varieties of mallards have escaped or been released by irresponsible pet owners. They mix it up with wild mallards, resulting in some truly psychedelic looking ducks. This creates great confusion among new birders: Is that mallard-pintail hybrid, a domestic mallard, a domestic-wild mallard hybrid, or something else entirely? Chances are, you have some of these weird ducks at a park near you.
Another common urban species in North America (and, now, many other worldwide cities) is the gray squirrel. Some now wonder whether the gray coloration of these squirrels is another effect of the Anthropocene.
These researchers look at historical records and find that, at the time of early European colonization, more squirrels were reported as black than gray. This, they suggest, is due to the old-growth eastern forests and dense canopy. Darker squirrels blended in better. As forests were cut and more open environments prevailed, they argue, lighter-colored squirrels survived better. Now, black squirrels are rare and gray squirrels predominate.
Other researchers, though, claim that squirrels have not considerably changed, and records of black squirrels are more folklore than fact. They say black squirrels were always a rarity, with some areas being more predisposed to black color phases. There’s a citizen science project looking at changes in squirrel morphs (as color variations are called). Squirrel Mapper seeks your observations to “track evolution in action in urban and rural landscapes.”
By recording the squirrels in your neighborhood, you can help scientists track changes that are occurring in one of our most common city mammals.
Six years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the headlines resemble science fiction: “Thousands of radioactive boars are overrunning farmland,” and “Radioactive boars attack people in deserted towns” among the more sensational.
Hogzilla, anyone? Many have rightly criticized this over-the-top news coverage. While the wild boars may indeed be have elevated levels of radioactivity, they aren’t mutant zombies or freaks. Really, it’s pretty simple: when humans leave an area, wildlife thrives. Even in nuclear disasters.
Nowhere is this more evident than Chernobyl. I remember the predictions that this disaster would render the area “lifeless.” But life, truly, goes on. And in Chernobyl, large mammals – wolves, bears, deer, bison – roam in large numbers. Will there by long-term effects of radioactivity? Undoubtedly. Are there mutants? Probably, but maybe not to the extent first predicted. In reality, wildlife does better following human-caused disaster than humans do.
As for those boars at Fukushima? When humans returned to resettle their homes, there were large numbers of them roving around, but hunters were dispatched to remove them from communities.
Sticklebacks are cool-looking little fishes that live in a variety of habitats, and are notable for defensive spikes on their backs. Canada’s Enos Lake had two species that diverged from a common ancestor. One lived near the surface and one far below. They rarely if ever encountered each other; they simply had adapted to different habitats.
This is evolution right out of your science textbook. As reported by Smithsonian, what happened next is not: The two species suddenly returned to one species again, what some call “reverse evolution.” This happened in just three years, almost inconceivable by evolutionary standards. The driver? An invasive crayfish was introduced to the lake, causing a disruption that brought the two species together. In just a short period, they became something new – or perhaps something old.
Evolution never stops, and certainly not in the Anthropocene. With species transported to new environments, with new habitats in the forms of cities and farms, new conditions from climate change and more, expect to see more reverse evolution, perhaps rapid speciation and other weirdness. Stay tuned.
Of course, no story on wildlife in the Anthropocene would be complete without a look at cloned species. Much of the recent attention has been on bringing back long-lost species, or de-extinction: the thylacine or the mammoth or the passenger pigeon. But often overlooked is that scientists have already cloned wildlife species.
This includes one extinct animal, the Pyrenean ibex, cloned in 2009. It survived seven minutes, a short return to existence. More common wild animals, including white-tailed deer and coyotes, have also been cloned successfully. Surprisingly, media outlets largely overlooked one of the wildest cloning projects: Arctic wolves.
Yes, wolf clones. Two wolves were cloned by South Korean researchers, named Snuwolf and Snuwolffy. They lived in a Korean zoo, where they could be viewed by the public. The existing media coverage claimed a conservation value, as wolves are critically endangered in Korea. But wolves exist elsewhere, and certainly other conservation measures could better restore wolf populations. I suspect the real reason for wolf cloning is the one driving many cloning projects: they were cloned because they could be cloned.