You know where you stand with most animals – a dog is a dog and a cat is a cat. There’s not much room for confusion. If you’re a tortoise, you’re 100% tortoise. If you’re a chimp, you’re 100% chimp. I’m 100% human, despite what some (rather unkind) people may have said.
Around the world, however, there are some animals where the boundaries between the species have become blurred. Some of these creatures have simply borrowed one characteristic from a different species, while others seem to have taken a pick ‘n’ mix approach to their bodily form, with no thought given to either their appearance or the laws of biology.
Here we’ll be looking at five animals that seem to be half one thing and half another. Species that can interbreed (sheep and goats, for example) aren’t included here – this is a list for Frankenstein animals where the two species involved can’t reproduce (and probably shouldn’t even try)…
Platypus | Australia’s duck/otter
Probably the most famous of all these animal mash-ups, the platypus is so odd that when scientists first heard about it they assumed someone was playing a trick on them (specifically, a trick involving sewing a duck’s bill onto an otter’s face).
When platypuses (platypi? platypodes?) were eventually found to be real, researchers discovered that having a bird’s mouth was the least of the animals’ weirdness. Despite technically being mammals, platypuses lay eggs (like a duck), are venomous enough to kill a dog (like a snake), and can hunt underwater using electroreception (like a shark). They’re a real mess.
Studies of platypus DNA have found that, as their appearance and skill-set suggests, they’ve got a little bit of everything going on. Their genome sequence contains elements of both mammal and reptile, as well as sprinkling of genes that are usually exclusive to birds, fish and amphibians. Platypuses may share 80% of their genes with other mammals, but given that humans share 55% of their genes with a banana tree, this probably isn’t saying very much.
Okapi | Africa’s giraffe/zebra
Stories of the okapi were heard long before any western explorers were able to see one – the animal seemed so elusive that it became known as “the African unicorn”, despite not having a horn, or being white, or being a horse. When an okapi was eventually spotted (captured and killed), people realised that they weren’t that rare after all – there are ancient Egyptian carvings of the animal, but somehow everyone had just forgotten about it.
Okapi are members of the giraffe family and, like giraffes, they have a very, very, very long tongue. Their necks are normal length, though.
If you’d like to see an okapi for yourself, it’s possible to do so at Copenhagen Zoo (for now it is, anyway – who knows when the next giraffe-like creature will become surplus to their requirements). If you can’t be bothered to visit the okapi, or are worried one might lick you, why not try using your imagination instead – just think of a giraffe, but with a short neck and a stripy legs and bum.
Jerboa | Asia’s kangaroo/mouse
Jerboas are really very silly – it’s like some of their features have grown huge without bothering to wait for the rest of the animal to catch up. They have the head and body of a normal mouse, but giant ears and massive kangaroo feet.
All the animals here look a bit strange (that’s kind of the point) but the jerboa is the only one that looks even stranger in skeletal form. The first 20% or so of a jerboa skeleton appears normal, but after that it seems to have been stretched to a ridiculous length. It just looks so disproportionate – I mean, I thought a T-rex skeleton had useless little arms until I saw these things.
They may look like a bit of a joke, but the jerboas’ kangaroo legs do have their advantages – when threatened, the little mouse can bounce away at up to 24km per hour. That’s pretty quick, especially relative to their size – it’s the equivalent of a human running really, really fast (faster than a car, probably).
Thylacine | Australia’s tiger/wallaby
It looks like a dog, but it’s not a dog – the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, was a stripy marsupial that died out in the mid-twentieth century. The animal was a formidable predator and could open its massive jaws 120 degrees, but the fact that it carried baby tigers around in its pouch actually makes it seem quite sweet.
Interestingly, the thylacines’ canine appearance developed despite them having no contact at all with dogs or wolves. Basically, four million years ago, Australia had a vacancy for a dog-shaped predator and thylacines evolved to fill it.
The good thing about the Tasmanian tiger becoming extinct so recently is that there’s film of the animal, and it’s a strange experience to be able to see moving pictures of a creature that no longer exists on the planet. The bad thing about the Tasmanian tiger becoming extinct so recently, of course, is that they’re all dead – it was less than a hundred years ago, guys; couldn’t we have tried a bit harder to save them? In 1936, the Tasmanian government did grant thylacines official protection, but given that it was less than two months before the last one died (in a zoo), it seems like this might’ve been a little bit too late.
Aardvark | Africa’s pig/bear
Other than being known as “the animal that comes first alphabetically”, aardvarks don’t really get the attention they deserve. They’re very weird looking, but in quite a nice way.
It really shouldn’t work – a shaved bear with a pig’s nose stuck on its head – but somehow it just does. To add to the oddness, they also have a tail a bit like a kangaroo. And ears from someone else entirely. A rabbit, maybe; I’m not sure.
Aardvarks taste of pork, which is strange because all they eat is ants and cucumbers. The cucumbers they eat are called aardvark cucumbers (because only aardvarks eat them) and they grow in an unusual way – the fruit forms above ground, but the plant then bends over and pushes it underground. I only mention this because I thought it might belong on the list – Africa’s cucumber/ostrich
Heading off to see any of these chimeras in the wild sounds like fun, just don’t forget your travel insurance.