Belated Caturday Special: Hybrids

The Liger – Possibly the most famous of all the felid hybrids because of its enormous size and spectacle. However, is it ethical to breed creatures such as these? I say no. Most conservationists agree. Most people who make money off them disagree. (Credit: Camphora Public Domain)

A hybrid cat is not a cat that runs on both meat and electricity. I mean, if I wanted to blow your biological little minds your neurons are basically structured like batteries so your whole body is a hybrid fuelled by external nutrients that it converts by metabolic processes so you partially run on electricity.

This isn’t a neurology article but I can’t talk about this enough. The central link between the top part of the nerve cell, or neuron (usually contains the nucleus of the cell bound within a body called a ‘soma’ as well as a lot of dendrites – small projections used to pick up signals from other neurons) and the bottom part (usually terminal buttons, communicating with other cells, especially the ‘dendrites’ of other neurons) is known as the ‘axon’. It’s the long bit with the pluses and minuses. Messages pass down this axon in what is known as an ‘action potential’ and it is literally a pulse of polarity shift – usually with ions of metals crossing ‘voltage-gated ion channels’. I’ll write an article about it some day but literally your entire knowledge, understanding, view, sense and – your entire cognition of reality and your place within it is manifest by ions of metals moving across membranes in cells in your bodies. It’s NUTS! (Credit: Laurentaylorj CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Literally everything you think you think, know or understand is just a manifestation of concentrations of ions of salts of metals crossing barriers. Freaky, ain’t it!?

No, a hybrid in biology is the offspring resulting from the mating of two different, but still reproducible organisms.

Hybrids are very difficult to produce with unrelated animals. Even with closely related animals there are generally genetic incompatibilities that make the embryos unviable – they miscarry. Of those that don’t a lot of hybrid species are infertile, or mostly infertile.

However there can be benefits, too. A concept known as ‘hybrid vigour’ can often imbue a hybrid species with a larger size, greater strength, positive traits not necessarily inherited from the parents but wholly unique to this hybrid. We will get to a cat with this later but the mule is a great example.

The mule is a hybrid of a male donkey and a female horse. Due to incompatible chromosome numbers almost all mules are sterile (there have been, as far as I know unverified, reports of non-sterile mules) but they are also smaller than horses but stronger than donkeys, hence why they are bred as pack animals.

A mule. One of the world’s most famous hybrids because of their functionality. Smaller and less resource intensive than a horse, yet larger, stronger (and I believe more obedient) for doing manual pack-work and carrying labour than a donkey. (Public Domain)

Humans, themselves, are a hybrid species. Although our DNA is mostly Homo sapiens there is evidence of a few lingering bits of Homo neaderthalensis, implying at one point humans doing it with Neanderthals – to such an extent that these hybrids became part of the lineal ancestry of most modern humans. I like to talk about it because it’s one-in-the-eye for genetic purist white supremacist types. I loathe biological racism, especially because to be both biological and racist you have to get biology wrong! But also, hybridisation and natural hybrids are a thing. Mitochondrial DNA analysis of a lot of felids reveals past evidence of hybridisation in the affecting their populations.

Hybridisation can occur in the wild. For example the ‘Pizzly bear’, a hybrid of a grizzly bear and a polar bear, is a wild-occurring hybrid. There have been 8 confirmed cases in the wild and much discussion about how they occur. Whilst grizzlies and polar bears do have overlapping ranges their territories, main habitats and lifestyles do not necessarily meet up. But, in the words of the great, fictional Dr. Ian Malcom, “Life, uhh, finds a way!” and never underestimate the power of the horny.

A hybrid grizzly/polar bear in Osnabrück Zoo, they are also known to occur naturally, especially with climate change allowing grizzlies to range further northward and polar bears needing to move south. (Credit: Corradox CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Given that many of these cases come from recent times I would suggest a simple explanation that the reduction in amount and duration of sea ice, known to be bringing polar bears into more terrestrial environments, along with the expansion of the range of grizzlies into the now more hospitable north creates a perfect opportunity for the two to meet. Studies have also revealed genetic exchange between these two bears dating back to the Pleistocene (2.5 million to 11,000 years ago).

But we’re not here to talk about bears!

You see, there’s a lot of relatedness between different cats. Whether in captivity or in the wild they seem to hybridise well.

Domestic cats, particularly, have close links to wild-cat species and hybridise readily with them both in the wild (The Scottish wildcat, for example) and in captivity (We discussed that when looking at the Serval, which has been crossbred domestically to create the Savannah cat breed.)

The popular Bengal breed of domestic cat (Felis catus) is a hybrid with the Asian leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis).

The Bengal – a cross between the domestic cat and the Asian leopard cat. (Credit: gailhampshire CC-BY-2.0)

The caracat – a hybrid domestic and caracal (Caracal caracal) exists.

A caracat, caracal-domestic hybrid, with the characteristic caracal ear-tufts (Credit: Icontentwriter CC-BY-SA 4.0)

A Chausie – is a hybrid of a domestic cat and the jungle cat (Felis chaus)

The chausie, a domestic-jungle cat hybrid. (Credit: Wilczakrew CC-BY-SA 3.0)

What I want to talk about specifically with domestic hybrids is the Kellas Cat because it is a wonderful little thing that combines my loves of mythology, history and animals.

The Kellas cat is a specific hybridisation of a domestic cat and a Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia – No I am not just using Felis silvestris silvestris, I love you IUCN Cat Specialist Group but they’ll always be grampia to me!) that manifests, usually, as a large black cat with a white spot on its chest.

The famous stuffed Kellas cat from the University of Aberdeen’s Zoology Museum. These rare and unusual hybrids of wild and domestic cats in Scotland likely gave rise to the Celtic myth of the cat-sìth.

“Big Cat Spotted in X” had been a joke news story across Britain for years, from the Beast of Bodmin to that time someone called the police because of a stuffed tiger in a tree. So in modern times these tales of oversized black kittos stalking the Scottish countryside were considered folk nonsense or hoaxes.

When a large, black cat with a white-spot on its chest was caught and killed by a gamekeeper in 1984, however, the game changed.

It is named after the village of Kellas in Morayshire, near where this cat was first discovered.

The King of the Cats, from a fairy tale warning to children not to…I don’t know…throw peas at their sister or they’ll get eaten by a demon cat. That’s basically fairy tales, right? Either way the motif is clear, a large, mysterious black cat with a white patch on its chest? Looks like a Kellas cat! (Credit: public domain)

The Kellas cat itself bears a huge relation to the Gaelic cat-sìth, or Fairy Cat, a spooky little boopster said to haunt the Scottish highlands. They are associated with bad omens, evil, stealing of souls and must be appeased with saucers of milk or else they will destroy you.

So basically a cat, then?

What’s remarkable about the Kellas cat is how unlike either the domestic cat or Scottish wildcat it is. Observations have suggested they may hunt in pairs, and their long legs make them much more adept at being running, pounce hunters than the slinky arboreal tree-hunters like the Scottish cat.

Occasional engager with ‘We Lack Discipline’ (it’s definitely presumptuous to call him a ‘friend’) and one of the world’s foremost experts on cryptid cats Dr. Karl Shuker was possibly one of the first to theorise that the Kellas cat resulted from a hybridisation of a Scottish wildcat with domestic breeds, and not a new species as people were excitedly talking about at the time of its discovery in the ’80s.

DNA analysis would later prove Dr. Shuker correct.

KITTEN TAX! A young Scottish wildcat boops its mother at the British Wildlife Centre. As you can see they are not big, black or in any way like the Kellas cat. Yet DNA analysis reveals breeding between these and domestic cats produces them. (Credit: Peter Trimming CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Another interesting thing to occur out of this gathering of specimens is potentially the only documented melanistic European wildcat. Of all the specimens gathered, one seemed to show little evidence for hybridisation besides being black and was designated a melanistic Scottish wildcat! I know this was disputed and I don’t know if any future DNA analyses disprove this melanism.

Either way the Kellas cat remains a remarkable hybrid for that fact it is almost certain to have inspired these Celtic myths and legends! Given how much I spoke about the creation of myths around our wildlife so much in my hated (but misunderstood) animals list, it has developed a real love of finding out these tales for me.

The historian Charles Thomas suggested that the figure in the middle-right, on this pictish stone could be a Kellas Cat. This is due to eat being above a fish that looks salmon like and relates to their reputation for hunting fish from rivers. The stone dates likely from somewhere between the 6th and 9th centuries CE. The front side is a Christian cross, however the reverse shows this remarkable scene of a person interacting with nature. (Credit: Unknown, used without permission.)

Whatever the chance occurrence, whatever freaks of genetics that create a specific, large, black, wild×domestic hybrid, the notion of this big, black cat played upon the imaginations of people. Despite the fact that it is not massive, not much larger than a wildcat or a large domestic, there were still rumours Kellas cats could kill adult sheep! It’s easy to blame the rare, dark, mysterious figure! It is incredible how these tales are formed.

But we’re not here for tiddles the tiddler, are we. If we’re talking hybrid cats you wanna go big or go home! So let’s talk ligers and tigons.

A tigon at Canberra Zoo – Seen from quite a distance by the looks of it! (Credit: The bellman, Public Domain)

Firstly, what’s the difference? A ‘liger’ is the resultant offspring of a male lion (Panthera leo) and a female tiger (Panthera tigris) whilst a tigon is the offspring of the reverse, a male tiger and female lion.

Whilst it could be possible for a wild hybrid to exist, I believe all known ligers and tigons have occurred in captivity. The territories of the Asian lion and the Bengal tiger are not known to overlap. Again, never underestimate the power of horny, but especially in the modern era the species are so rare and disperse, and the relative inviability of hybrids, and their potentially difficult births just make it unlikely to be a wild occurrence.

Before we talk about how beautiful and impressive these creatures are, though, I’m going to feed you a shit-sandwich.

Hercules the Liger at Jungle Island, Miami. An absolutely stunning boy but, please, do not breed any more deliberately. (Credit: Maxitup16 CC-BY-SA 3.0)

They have no right to exist. These are unnatural animals being specifically bred for personal pride or to make money from entertainment. There is no benefit to conservation of lions or tigers involved, there is little to be learned from the breeding of these hybrids, it is done to create a spectacle, to make a freak for people to drop their jaws to floor at and throw money at.

I don’t often agree with PETA but on this we are explicitly in agreement that the deliberate captive interbreeding of species should be banned and punishable by law.

Unlike PETA I recognise, to an extent, the necessity to keep captive animals. Our recent discussion about vultures shows that, without taking their remainder of their wild population into captivity the California condor would likely have gone extinct. Not because it couldn’t compete naturally but because humans were unnaturally influencing their environment. In taking them into protection we were afforded an opportunity to learn how best to protect them, to breed them, to get their numbers up and – fingers crossed – it seems like it’s working.

One day we may have to do the same with tigers, with cheetahs, with lions – having a genetically diverse, but wild-separate population gives us a head-start on any inbreeding depression effects that might otherwise occur if we have to take a few individuals out of the wild to fully push a captive breeding program, as happened with the condor.

If you read my article on cheetahs you will know they suffer from a lack of genetic diversity. Captive breeding programs are able to monitor their genetics and shift individuals around so that more diverse individuals are breeding with each other. This can reduce inbreeding depression effects and make stronger, longer-lived individuals as seen when we discussed the cougar, with the Florida Panther, that also suffered inbreeding depression. Potential breeding, or release of captive cheetah in the future could save the genetic diversity of the species. (Credit: Martin Heigan CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Never mind the ambassadorial role many of these animals play. It’s hard to make people care about something they can’t see. There is value in showing people these animals, showing them jaguars playing, lions roaring, tigers scent-marking the crowd etc. etc. in order that they can truly understand the beauty and majesty up close. Dare I say it, so they can feel like a twinge of guilt in their hearts and maybe do a little bit more to protect their wild populations.

Captive animals are a wicked problem. The easy solution is kill all humans and let nature run wild but good luck getting consensus on that! So, like any true conservationist, I never want to see an animal in a cage, behind bars, out of its natural habitat. But one day – and those days can sneak up on you – that might be the only population we have to work with to try and get their wild numbers back up.

An amazing image of ‘Maude’ the tigon from Belle Vue Zoological Gardens in Manchester. It was the first privately funded zoological park, on an estate with a Speedway racing track (still there) and amusement arcades etc. (Credit: Chetham’s Library CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

So, we’ll start with tigons as they tend to be smaller, indeed not getting larger than their parent species (although they are not a smaller, or dwarf species either, as they are often touted as). They can exhibit both spots (from lions, immature individuals have spots, sometimes only very faint in adults) and stripes (from tigers) and males can have a mane but it is noticeably shorter than that of a lion. They were once believed to be infertile but successful matings have occurred.

Ligers, on the other hand, are massive. The largest cat on planet earth.

The colour-plate of Saint-Hilaire showing the offspring of a lion and tiger, believed to be the first documented image of a ‘liger’. (Credit: Saint-Hilaire, Public Domain)

They have a much longer history, too. A 1798 engraving by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire is believed to show the offspring of a female lion and a male tiger, and the 19th century is littered with discussion about them.

Their marking are not dissimilar to those of tigons, showing a mixture of stripes and spots characteristic of both their parent species, but let’s be honest it’s the size that’s the real draw. We like things big!

They can reach lengths of around 3.5m, rivalling the largest of the males of their respective parents.

The largest measured, non-obese, liger is ‘Hercules’. He was measured at 418.2kg. This one is owned and trained by Doc Antle, if you’ve seen Tiger King you’ll know he’s that weird man who uses big cats as a surrogate for masculine potency to perpetuate a cat-related sex cult, wrapped in a thin, plasticky veneer of pseudo-mysticism all masking acts of illegal wildlife trafficking and animal cruelty. Bigger examples have been known. Of both ligers and insecure men using wildness and mysticism to have sex they don’t deserve.

Mahamayavi Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle, real name Kevin Antle, with Hercules. Antle was convicted in 2020 of a variety of animal offenses including one felony count – wildlife trafficking, one felony count – conspiracy to traffic wildlife, four misdemeanours – violation of the endangered species act and nine misdemeanours – animal cruelty. This is the business of breeding cats for entertainment. Fuck him! (Credit: Andy Carvin CC-BY-SA 2.5)

Again, yes these animals are beautiful and impressive. But they have shorter average lifespans, are susceptible to higher rates of injury and neurological disorders than non-hybrid species and higher rates of organ disease or failure issues, as well as cancers and arthritis.

It ain’t a good life, and when their parent species are dwindling in the wild, their populations suffering significant declines, the idea of toying with genetics to create a more attractive freak-species that draws away attention from the innate natural beauty of their parent cats is not only a shame, but a distraction.

Without a doubt a beautiful cat, but so are white tigers and they are beset with problems, too. This is another liger from a private zoo in Toledo. They mainly exist in private collections because actual sanctuaries or conservation-led zoological parks would never promote or encourage the breeding of these. This is done for spectacle, to make money, for the zoo owners. (Credit: Becker1999 CC-BY-2.0)

Finally let’s really hit this one home. In most cases ligers have to be born by caesarean because they are too gigantic to safely be given birth to. An attempt to breed tigers and leopards results in multiple stillborns due to their inviability. A leopard-lion hybrid born in Italy in the 1980s was sold as a breeder to create more future hybrids. The Pumapard, a hybrid of a puma and leopard, regardless of which species its mother and father are, always exhibits dwarfism.

The fact is many felids are capable of cross-breeding. The question is should they be cross-bred and the answer is always “No!”.

Where cross-breeds happen in the wild we can have no control, and it may very well be that nature, natural selection, determines these hybrids to be better competitors than their parent species, they become dominant and the future is hybrid. But that’s not what is happening in zoos and private collections.

Sometimes accidents happen. At a wildlife sanctuary in Ontario two inseparable cats, a black jaguar and a lioness, who were hand-reared together ended up, despite the best efforts of staff to separate them during oestrus, having Jaglion cubs.

The diminuitive Pumapard – a cross of a Puma and a Leopard. They inevitably are born with dwarfism. Whether this affects their quality of life or not is unknown but it is also unwise to toy with genetics in this capacity for novelty or entertainment alone. (Credit: Messybeast at English Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0)

But these freak circumstances should remain that. It shouldn’t be an advert for shoving two cats in a box trying to get them to fuck and make you a novel exhibit. People deliberately cross-breed a cat for money, for attention and for entertainment and this is wrong and should be illegal. The deliberate cross-breeding of wildcats should be illegal. The potential for disability, for complications, for stillbirths, birth complications, and, as mentioned, for just creating a freak cross that just distracts attention away from genuine investment in ecological work, with money being funnelled to ego-fuelled pricks rather than genuine, in-the-field, cat conservation efforts.

Hybrids are cool, but they should be rare accidents. Not attempted side-shows.

If you’re begging for more cats, and not begging “Get meowt of here!” Why not read more of our cat articles?

Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.

Caturday Special: The Origin Story – Proailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.
Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.
Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.
Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more!
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Lynx – One of my continent’s most handsome predators and one that certain groups are looking to get reintroduced to the UK after a 1,000 year absence in the hope it will control rabbit and roe deer numbers. I’m all for it!

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Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

10 thoughts on “Belated Caturday Special: Hybrids

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