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Weird & Wild: Mother Nature’s Monsters

By Christine Dell’Amore

Frankenstein may be a work of fiction, but nature also can create her own monsters–at least in the form of hybrids.

This happens when some species interbreed and produce even more powerful offspring.


possible-hybrid-species-arctic-polar-grizzly-bear_30469_600x450.jpg A stuffed “grolar bear,” or “pizzly”–grizzly-polar bear hybrid.
(See more pictures of Arctic hybrids.)

This isn’t always bad, of course–breeding rare Florida panthers with Texas cougars has created tough hybrids that are the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the species, as I reported in 2010.

That’s because, like action heroes, these vigorous offspring may well rescue the Florida subspecies from extinction.
But it’s another story when you’ve got pandemic viruses in the mix. A new study has found that the H1N1 virus (popularly known as
swine flu) and the H9N2 virus (bird flu) could meld together into a dangerous supervirus.
Bird flu, already widespread in birds worldwide, has been repeatedly infecting pigs and humans and “posing a significant threat to human
health,” the authors write in this week’s
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

And with swine flu also still roaming about–now in its “post-pandemic” phase–the two viruses could produce an offspring with a “potentially
higher threat for humans,” according to the study.


How the scientists know that? By mixing genes into 127 possible hybrids and then infecting mice, which are often used as proxies for people in
experiments.


Eight of these hybrid strains turned out to be more virulent and dangerous in the mice than their parent strains of swine flu and bird flu.

Mutant monsters obviously make a juicy story, and we’ve covered the phenomenon quite a bit at National Geographic News. Here’s a quick roundup of the weirdest hybrids (existing and would-be) from our archives:

The “grolar bear.” As the Arctic thaws as a result of global warming, polar bears will increasingly be forced to stay onshore, where they’re likely to bump into their grizzly cousins–some of which are moving north as temperatures rise.

An engineered “zombie virus.” If you combine the rabies and flu viruses with a mad scientist, you might have the makings of a zombie apocalypse. Note: This is only theoretically possible.

Self-cloning lizard. Talk about DIY– females of the newfound Leiolepis ngovantrii reptile spontaneously ovulate and clone themselves to produce offspring with the same genetic blueprint. The species is probably a hybrid from maternal and paternal lines of two related lizard species, a phenomenon that can occur in transition zones between two habitats.

California’s “superpredator” salamander. The larger progeny of the native tiger salamander and introduced barred tiger
salamander, this big-mouthed amphibian “dramatically reduced” prey populations in a 2009 study.

 

Check out more weird coverage on National Geographic News.