8 Hybrid Animals With Awesome Portmanteau Names

Lucas Adams 
Lucas Adams 

The most famous hybrid animal is the liger—but there are a few crossed creatures you probably didn't know about.

1. WHOLPHINS

Although there are frequent unconfirmed reports of them in the wild, only one pure wholphin is currently confirmed to exist. Her name is Kekaimalu—which means "from the peaceful ocean"—and she's a resident of Sea Life Park, Hawaii. Her parents were quite the odd couple: When staffers placed a 2000-pound false killer whale and a 400-pound Atlantic bottlenose dolphin in the same tank, nobody expected them to mate. Kekaimalu's surprise birth on May 15, 1985 made international headlines.

Another wholphin had previously been bred at Sea World, Tokyo in 1981, but that animal lived just 200 days. Kekaimalu, however, is still going strong. At almost 11 feet in length, she’s more lightly colored than a false killer whale, but darker than a bottlenose. Though her first calf died young, a second calf lived for nine years, and in 2004, Kekaimalu had a healthy daughter by a male dolphin: Kawili ‘Kai, another star attraction at Sea Life Park. 

2. CAMAS

Lucas Adams

In 1999, Dr. Lulu Skidmore and her team at Dubai’s Camel Reproduction Center set out to create an animal that was part Old World camel and part New World llama. The goal was utilitarian: “The main aim was to see if we could get the best of both species,” she said. “We thought [that] the long coat of a llama and the strength of a camel would make for a very useful animal.”

It was soon discovered that their male llamas couldn’t impregnate female camels, and the reverse approach proved anatomically impossible. In the end, Skidmore and her team used artificial insemination to impregnate a female camel. The result was a male cama they dubbed Rama. Since Rama's birth, a few other camas been been born using the same strategy.

3. CATTALO

Lucas Adams

Over the past 200 years, various ranchers have crossed American bison and domestic cows. Among them was Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones, a Kansas resident who, in the late 19th century, saw that cattle were ill-equipped for the harsh winters of the Great Plains. Hybrids, he figured, would be more resilient.

Jones started cross-breeding the two species in 1906. He did so on a patch of land that lies near present-day Grand Canyon National Park—where so-called cattalo have become a menace. (Not to be confused with beefalo, another hybrid: Cattalo are hybrids that have a predominately bison appearance, while beefalo are those that are only three-eighths bison.) As park superintendent Dave Uberuaga told the Associated Press, “The massive animals have reduced vegetation in meadows to nubs, traveled into Mexican spotted owl habitat, knocked over walls at American Indian cliff dwellings below the North Rim, defecated in lakes, and left ruts in wetlands.” The local population grows by a whopping 50 percent every year.

4. LEOPONS 

Lucas Adams

In Africa, leopards and lions cross paths quite frequently, so a wild-born hybrid is possible—but so far, all documented leopons have been produced in captivity, and the last known leopon specimen died in 1985. The brown-spotted, reddish-yellow creatures were larger than your average leopard—in fact, they were almost as big as lionesses—and had tufted tails. Males, like their leonine ancestors, had beards and manes. Leopons are considered sterile—though, granted, nobody's had the opportunity to try and breed them since the mid-'80s.

5. COYWOLVES

Lucas Adams

If you live in eastern North America, you may have spotted one of these canines. Sometimes called woyotes, they’re a western coyote/eastern grey wolf mix. The hybrid's beginnings trace back to when European settlers first arrived on the continent. The settlers, who viewed the eastern grey wolves as a nuisance, hunted the animals to near-extinction. As the wolf population dwindled, coyotes began moving in from the west to exploit the vacancy. Eventually, they entered one of the wolves’ final strongholds: southern Ontario.

Around 50 to 70 years ago, that area became the coywolf’s probable birthplace. These new creatures have longer legs, bigger paws, stronger snouts, and bushier tails than normal coyotes do. Like wolves, they’re capable of hunting in packs. But while lupines aren’t cut out for cities or suburbs, coywolves have proven quite adaptable and embrace metropolitan lifestyles.

6. ZONKEYS

Lucas Adams

Donkey/zebra hybrids are nothing new; Charles Darwin even wrote about them in an 1859 edition of On the Origin of Species. As with mules, zonkeys are born sterile—at least for the most part. Darwin did report on a zonkey that had successfully mated with a mare, thus combining the genes of three equine species. However, nobody has since been able to breed one with anything else (including other zonkeys). Captive zonkeys can currently be found at zoos in Mexico and Italy.

7. YAKOW

Lucas Adams

Another bovine hybrid, yakows (a.k.a. dzo and dzomos) are a common sight in Nepal. Larger and stronger than both yaks and cows, the beasts of burden also release significantly more milk. At high altitudes, yakows are the ideal livestock: They combine a yak’s thin air tolerance with a cow’s relative agility. Farmers have learned that while males cannot successfully reproduce, females can.

8. GROLAR BEARS

Lucas Adams

Thanks to climate change, the native ranges of grizzly and polar bears are increasingly overlapping. The result? An influx of muscular, sand-colored grolar bears. According to Brendan Kelly, a University of Alaska marine biologist, free-roaming specimens are a fairly new phenomenon. “We’ve known for decades that, in captivity, grizzly bears and polar bears will hybridize,” he told PSMag. But there were no confirmed wild grolar sightings until a hunter gunned one down in 2006. Subsequent DNA testing revealed the abnormal heritage of his curious prize.

Grolars tend to have both a grizzly’s hump and a polar bear’s elongated neck. Zoo keepers have noted that captives usually behave more like the great white ursids. When presented with a new toy, they’ll stamp on it with both of their front paws—the very same technique that polar bears use to break open seal dens. And a 2013 study on bears living on Alaska's Admiralty, Baranof, and Chicagof Islands showed that all of the bears were natural hybrids.

All illustrations by Lucas Adams.

Wednesday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Computer Monitors, Plant-Based Protein Powder, and Blu-ray Sets

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 2. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

11 Things You Might Not Know About Reindeer

Britain's only herd of free-ranging reindeer live in Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park.
Britain's only herd of free-ranging reindeer live in Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park.
Joe Green, Unsplash

Beyond their sled-pulling capabilities and discrimination against those with red noses, what do you really know about reindeer?

1. Reindeer and caribou are the same thing.

Historically, the Eurasian reindeer and American caribou were considered to be different species, but they are actually one and the same: Rangifer tarandus. There are two major groups of reindeer, the tundra and the woodland, which are divided according to the type of habitat the animal lives in, not their global location. The animals are further divided into nine to 13 subspecies, depending on who is doing the classification. One subspecies, the Arctic reindeer of eastern Greenland, is extinct.

2. Reindeer have several names.

Reindeer comes from the Old Norse word hreinin, which means "horned animal.” Caribou comes from Canadian French and is based on the Mi'kmaq word caliboo, meaning “pawer” or "scratcher," in reference to the animal’s habit of digging through the snow for food.

3. Santa’s reindeer are most likely R. tarandus platyrhynchus, a subspecies from Svalbard.

pum_eva/iStock via Getty Images

Clement C. Moore’s poem, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” introduced the world to Santa’s reindeer and describes them as "tiny." The only reindeer that could really be considered tiny are the Svalbard subspecies, which weighs about half as much as most reindeer subspecies and are at least a foot shorter in length. That may prove useful when landing on roofs.

Strangely, you’ll almost never see these guys in depictions of Santa. Live-action films usually use full-sized reindeer and animations usually draw the creatures as a cross between a white-tailed deer and a reindeer.

4. It’s not always easy to tell the sex of a reindeer.

In most deer species, only the male grows antlers, but that’s not true for most reindeer. Although the females in certain populations do not have antlers, many do. During certain times of year, you can still tell the sex of a reindeer by checking for antlers. That’s because males lose their antlers in winter or spring, but females shed theirs in the summer.

5. Santa’s reindeer may or may not be female.

Since reindeer shed their antlers at different points of the year based on their sex and age, we know that Santa’s reindeer probably aren't older males, because older male reindeer lose their antlers in December and Christmas reindeer are always depicted with their antlers. Female Svalbard deer begin growing their antlers in summer and keep them all year. That means Santa’s sled either has to be pulled by young reindeer, constantly replaced as they start to age, or Santa’s reindeer are female.

6. Reindeer were originally connected to Santa through poetry.

Before Moore wrote “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (a.k.a. “The Night Before Christmas”) in 1823, no one thought about reindeer in conjunction with Santa Claus. Moore introduced the world to Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (the last two of which were later changed from Dutch to German, becoming Donner and Blitzen). While the first six names all make sense in English, the last two in German mean “thunder” and “flash,” respectively.

As for little Rudolph, he wasn’t introduced until catalog writer Robert L. May wrote a children’s book in verse for his employer, Montgomery Ward, in 1939 titled “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

7. Reindeer are the only mammals that can see ultraviolet light.

Humans can see light in a range of wavelengths, from about 700 nanometers (in the red spectrum) to 400 nanometers (in the violet spectrum). Reindeer can see light to 320 nanometers, in the ultraviolet (UV) range. This ability lets reindeer see things in the icy white of the Arctic that they would otherwise miss—kind of like viewing the glow of a white object under a blacklight. Things like white fur and urine are difficult, even impossible, for humans to see in the snow, but for reindeer, they show up in high contrast.

8. Reindeer evolved for life in cold, harsh environments.

Geoffrey Reynaud/iStock via Getty Images

Life in the tundra is hard, but reindeer have it easy-ish thanks to their amazing evolutionary enhancements. Their noses are specially adapted to warm the air they breathe before it enters their lungs and to condense water in the air, which keeps their mucous membranes moist. Their fur traps air, which not only helps provide them with excellent insulation, but also keeps them buoyant in water, which is important for traveling across massive rivers and lakes during migration.

Even their hooves are special. In the summer, when the ground is wet, their foot pads are softened, providing them with extra grip. In the winter, though, the pads tighten, revealing the rim of their hooves, which is used to provide traction in the slippery snow and ice.

9. some reindeer migrate longer distances than any other land mammal.

A few populations of North American reindeer travel up to 3100 miles per year, covering around 23 miles per day. At their top speed, these reindeer can run 50 mph and swim at 6.2 mph. During spring, herd size can range from 50,000 to 500,000 individuals, but during the winter the groups are much smaller, when reindeer enter mating season and competition between the bucks begins to split up the crowds. Like many herd animals, the calves learn to walk fast—within only 90 minutes of being born, a baby reindeer can already run.

10. Reindeer play an important role in Indigenous cultures.

In Scandinavia and Canada, reindeer hunting helped keep Indigenous peoples alive, from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods all the way through modern times. In Norway, it is still common to find reindeer trapping pits, guiding fences, and bow rests dating from the Stone Age. And in Scandinavia, reindeer is still a popular meat, sold in grocery stores in fresh, canned, and dried forms. Almost all of the animal’s organs are edible and many are crucial ingredients of traditional dishes in the area. In North America, Inuit rely on caribou for traditional food, clothing, shelter, and tools.

11. Reindeer used to live farther south.

Reindeer now live exclusively in the northern points of the globe, but when Earth was cooler and humans were less of a threat, their territory was larger. In fact, reindeer used to range as far south as Nevada, Tennessee, and Spain during the Pleistocene area. Its habitat has shrunk considerably in the last few centuries. The last caribou in the contiguous United States was removed to a Canadian conservation breeding program in 2019.

As for how Santa's nine reindeer manage to fly while pulling a sled carrying presents for every child in the whole world, science still hasn’t worked that out.