Tetrapod Zoology

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Thanks to everyone who offered an opinion and submitted their thoughts on that photo – and there were no silly answers, because I feel the real answer was not necessarily easy. As some of you correctly determined, the cat was actually not an unfamiliar or obscure species – just the opposite – it’s just that it represented a body shape and/or geographical variant of this species that we’re not used to seeing…

The proportionally long tail shows that this can’t be a small cat like a golden cat; it’s difficult to be sure from the photo, but the cat also looks much larger than a golden cat [Asian golden cat Profelis/Catopuma temminckii shown below; image reoriented from here]. The forelimbs and shoulders of the ‘mystery cat’ have the robust musculature typical of big cats and not seen in small or mid-sized felids like golden cats. The proportions are totally off for a cheetah (melanistic individuals have been reported from Kruger National Park, but I don’t think they’ve been verified), and the tail looks too long for a puma (whether there have ever been melanistic pumas remains the source of debate. A Costa Rican animal shot in 1959 is often said to have been melanistic but this is hard to confirm from the only photograph. Young & Goldman (1946) wrote of a definite black puma shot in Brazil in 1843 (although no photos exist), and a few sources (e.g., Brakefield 1993) might be referring to this when they say that only one melanistic puma is on record).

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So what was it? Well, it was, after all, ‘just’ a Leopard Panthera pardus. Specifically, it’s a melanistic Malaysian leopard. Interestingly, the leopards in peninsular Malaysia appear to be mostly melanistic, with normal-type spotted leopard definitely in the minority. This isn’t a new observation by the way: Guggisberg (1975), and others before him, mentioned it. While the conventional explanation for felid melanism is that it aids concealment in dark, forested habitats, researchers are now wondering whether the melanism prevalent in some areas has evolved to combat fungal and bacterial infections, as has been proposed for melanism in humans (Mackintosh 2001). I learnt this from an article published by Fiona Sunquist in National Wildlife Magazine (see it online here); thanks to Richard Hing for bringing it to my attention. Sunquist’s article was the source of the photo I used, and you can see other photos of similarly gracile melanistic leopards (perhaps even the same individual) there too.

I suppose these Malaysian leopards are of the subspecies P. p. delacouri, the Indochinese leopard. 27 leopard subspecies have been named (Green 1991), but a recent genetic revision brought this down to nine (Uphyrkina et al. 2001). P. p. delacouri is among the survivors, but its distinctiveness was not tremendously well supported due to limited sampling. Of course, if I started talking about the diversity and phylogeography of leopards I’d be here all day, and this is meant to be a short article [map at bottom shows geographical range of the leopard].

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Personally, I thought the Malaysian leopard in the image looked odd: its hindlimbs and tail are unusually slender compared to what I’m used to, and its belly is much shallower than, again, I’m used to in a big cat. If this cat had been photographed somewhere in the world where leopards are not currently native, I think I would have a hard time identifying it. As Shiva correctly pointed out, we are generally used to seeing both (1) leopards that belong to different populations/subspecies from this (the leopards we mostly see in zoos and on TV are east African [the nominate subspecies P. pardus pardus] or Indian [P. p. fusca]), and (2) heavy-bodied or even overweight leopards that have been languishing in captivity and have not endured the hardships that their wild cousins do. Leopards are incredibly variable, not only in body size (adults range from 91-191 cm in head + body length, with the weight of adult males ranging from 37 to 90 kg), fur length and coloration, but also, clearly, in how robust they look.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the reason I find this particularly interesting is that some of the enigmatic melanistic cats that have been reported from the UK have been described as unusually gracile compared to ‘normal’ leopards. So… some of them might be Indochinese leopards. Incidentally (I don’t have time to properly tie this into the rest of the discussion but can’t not mention it), there are indications that, mostly due to their behaviour, leopards are resistant to genetic bottlenecks and that large populations may be genetically stable over long periods (Spong et al. 2000).

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For previous Tet Zoo felid articles, there’s my take on clouded leopards here, an article on Peter Hocking’s mysterious big cats here, thoughts on lynxes and European wildcats here, and a look at gigantism in feral domestic cats here. As for Kellas cats (which may or may not be the same thing as the cait sidhe from Celtic folklore), I’ve previously written about them at Tet Zoo here.

Ok, so this isn’t the article on the group of animals that have evolved beaks, are partially herbivorous, can spray poison, can be extremely tolerant to cold, and – in the big species – can easily bite open a human hand… but that’s coming next, I ‘promise’. In other news, a biography of Mike P. Taylor has just appeared in the online version of Science (after all, Mike does need some media exposure), today is final submission today for a long-in-the-pipeline Witton & Naish manuscript, and yesterday saw another meeting regarding what will, no doubt, be the best conference of all time. More on that later.

Refs – –

Brakefield, T. 1993. Big Cats: Kingdom of Might. Voyageur Press, Stillwater, MN

Green, R. 1991. Wild Cat Species of the World. Basset Publications, Plymouth.

Guggisberg, C. A. W. 1975. Wild Cats of the World. David & Charles, Newton Abbot & London.

Mackintosh, J. A. 2001. The antimicrobial properties of melanocytes, melanosomes and melanin and the evolution of black skin. Journal of Theoretical Biology 211, 101-113.

Spong, G., Johansson, M. & Björklund, M. 2000. High genetic variation in leopard indicates large and long-term stable effective population size. Molecular Ecology 9, 1773-1782.

Uphyrkina, O., Johnson, W. E., Quigley, H., Miquelle, D., Marker, L., Bush, M. & O’Brien, S. J. 2001. Phylogenetics, genome diversity and origin of modern leopard, Panthera pardus. Molecular Ecology 10, 2617-2633.

Young, S. P. & Goldman, E. A. 1946. The Puma: Mysterious American Cat. The American Wildlife Institute, Washington.

Comments

  1. #1 Anne-Marie
    January 11, 2008

    Very interesting, I had not previously heard about the melanistic forms being more gracile. I did an internship at a zoo a couple of summers ago and the two jaguars there were both melanistic, but they seemed to have normal proportions, I wonder what factors are influencing the body shape of melanistic leopards? Like you suggested, the founder effect is a good idea. Do you know if the same gene is involved in melanistic coloration in all Panthera?

  2. #2 Coturnix
    January 11, 2008

    “….animals that have evolved beaks, are partially herbivorous, can spray poison, can be extremely tolerant to cold, and – in the big species – can easily bite open a human hand…”

    Cephalopods?

  3. #3 Jerzy
    January 11, 2008

    You seem to capitalise on that all Felidae have almost identical shape so bad photos of all look the same.

    About “gracility” – fur and (less) body fat determine it. Get a photo of mangy housecat and you will know. Or simply compare Persian with Siamese cat. Common “cryptid animal” reported in Europe is photographed mangy fox.

    “…animals that have evolved beaks, are partially herbivorous, can spray poison, can be extremely tolerant to cold, and – in the big species – can easily bite open a human hand…”
    Perhaps caudate amphibians. No idea why beaks and biting open human hand, but this is the last group of amphibians to cover. ;)

  4. #4 Darren Naish
    January 11, 2008

    Jerzy – to be fair, that photo of the gracile Malaysian leopard is not bad, but very good (Anne-Marie: note that we’re only talking about melanistic Malaysian leopards, not all melanistic big felids).

    As for the caudate guess… stay tuned is all I will say.

  5. #5 Hai~Ren
    January 11, 2008

    Damn. Ok I eat my words. I hang my head in shame, particularly since I was pretty confident that it wasn’t a leopard, and even more so because I actually live in the same region of the world. =( And I realised that I’d actually opened up the Sunquist article while researching for my comment on the previous post, just that I’d paid more attention to the text than to the accompanying pictures!

    I guess I really am more familiar with the appearance of the African and Indian leopards; I knew there was a very high proportion of melanistic leopards in the Malay Peninsula, but I didn’t expect them to be so gracile either. Could this be due to lower abundance and diversity of ungulate prey in the tropical rainforests? Compared to an African woodland or even Indian monsoon forest habitat, the Malaysian rainforests are home to only 2 species of deer (sambar and muntjac), 2 mousedeer (greater and lesser), 2 suids (wild boar and bearded pig) and 2 bovines (gaur and banteng). Add in competition with dhole, tiger and clouded leopard, and I could see the Malaysian leopards becoming more slender than their Indian or African counterparts, perhaps even specialising in small but common prey such as porcupines, mousedeer, and monkeys. If my memory serves me correctly, even the tigers of tropical Southeast Asia are already more slender than those of India and Indochina.

    Now of course, it would be useful to see if Javan leopards, which also face competition from dholes (and tigers in the past), and which also live in a habitat with low ungulate diversity and abundance, are also more gracile.

    P.S. I’m suddenly wondering if leopards from African forest habitats also happen to be more lightly built than their woodland and savanna counterparts, considering that unlike in Asia, leopards are the dominant large predator in African rainforest habitats.

    P.P.S. Isn’t the Asian golden cat supposed to be Catopuma? I was under the impression that Profelis was now restricted solely to the African golden cat.

  6. #6 Jerzy
    January 11, 2008

    BTW. As non-British, I get bored with big cats. Did you try to plant some imaginative urban legend yourself?

    Try spreading word of mouth that leopard seal is hunting in Wales. Not a bad critter for a blog, eh?

  7. #7 Darren Naish
    January 11, 2008

    Hai-Ren: you’re right that some workers use Catopuma temminckii. But it seems that the golden cats and Bay cat form a clade (e.g., Bininda-Emonds et al. 1999) and should be considered congeneric. If so, both Profelis Severtsov, 1858 and Catopuma Severtsov, 1858 are equally old but the former is more widely used (and was published one page earlier). There’s also Chrysailurus Severtsov, 1858, and of course the Bay cat was originally Badiofelis Pocock, 1932. There are several more recent papers on felid phylogeny that I haven’t seen, however, so do correct if other arguments have been made.

    Ref – –

    Bininda-Emonds, O. R. P., Gittleman, J. L. & Purvis, A. 1999. Building large trees by combining phylogenetic information: a complete phylogeny of the extant Carnivora (Mammalia). Biological Reviews 74, 143-175.

  8. #8 Hai~Ren
    January 11, 2008

    Darren: I see; I based my opinion on Johnson et al. (2006), who determined that the Asian golden cat, bay cat and marbled cat form a separate clade, while the caracal, serval and African golden cat form another distinct clade of their own.

    Oh well, cat taxonomy is quite a mess. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen all the small cats (and even pantherines) belonging to Felis, and the Asian golden cat itself has variously been referred to Catopuma, Profelis and Pardofelis.

    Ref – –

    Johnson, W.E., Eizirik, E., Pecon-Slattery, J., Murphy, W.J., Antunes, A., Teeling, E. & O’Brien, S.J. (6 January 2006). “The Late Miocene radiation of modern Felidae: A genetic assessment”. Science 311 (5757): 73–77.

  9. #9 Darren Naish
    January 11, 2008

    Ok, thanks. I haven’t seen the Johnson et al. paper yet. Can anyone bung me a pdf please?

  10. #10 Nentuaby
    January 11, 2008

    You keep dropping those beaks blah blah hints… I can’t help but thinking of a candidate. Are you cheating on the tetrapods? :P

  11. #11 Luna_the_cat
    January 11, 2008

    .pdf of the Johnson paper done been bunged in your direction, to the eotyrannus (at) gmail account.

  12. #12 Luna_the_cat
    January 11, 2008

    Oh, and, although I’m disappointed I’m wrong, I’m not that surprised it turned out to be a leopard after all.

    –Incidentally, I think that the assumption that the Kellas cat and the cait sidhe of mythology are the same beastie could just be a local assumption. It didn’t originate with me, I had simply been told this, but yes, there probably is an open question there. And now that I have gone to visit your March piece on ABCs (which I had somehow missed or forgotten) I note that, having encountered Di Francis, you will have seen better photos of Kellas cats than I could provide.

  13. #13 Jerzy
    January 11, 2008

    BTW, do you know “Bengal cat”? This is hybrid breed from crossing domestic cat and asian leopard cats. Result is house cat with exotic-looking pattern of spots and lines.

    Since Felis and Prionailurus hybridise so readily, perhaps it is better to lump most cat species into Felis again?

    P.S. Even better – leopard and puma hybridised (infertile?) in a zoo. Courtesy of Scientific American, divergence time of Panthera pardus and Puma concolor is 10.8 m.y.a. Remember divergence time of gorillas, chimps and humans?

  14. #14 Luna_the_cat
    January 11, 2008

    jerzy — There was a Russian geneticist named Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov who worked (in a rather crude fashion) to create human-chimp hybrids. The tale is well-told by Kirill Rossiianov of the Institute for the History of Science and Technology of the Academy of Sciences (Moscow), “Beyond Species: Ilya Ivanov and His Experiments on Cross-Breeding Humans with Anthropoid Apes,” Science in Context, 2002, p. 277-316.

    Since then, I’ve heard rumors of hybrid fertilised eggs being created, once in the US (can’t remember which university it was attributed to) and once in Italy. Those attempts were (understandably) kept very, very quiet, but I believe the blastula was deliberately destroyed early, so no clue if it would have matured.

    Mad science. Think how upset THAT would have made the fundamentalists.

  15. #15 Darren Naish
    January 11, 2008

    Many thanks to awesome readership for comments (and pdfs!).

    1. Nentuaby: no, not cheating. Only tetrapods here. Honest.
    2. Luna_the_cat: I’m also sceptical about fairy cats being kellas cats. Maybe, maybe not. I’ve done better than look at good photos of Kellas cats – I’ve fondled stuffed ones.
    3. Jerzy: yes, ‘bengals’ (as they’re popularly known) are famous in the cat world. More notable are the ‘chaussie’ (Jungle cat x domestic cat hybrid) and ‘Safari cat’ (Geoffroy’s cat x domestic cat hybrid), both remarkable for their large size. Hybridisation is rampant among felids (when ‘forced’ in capvitity of course) – but this seems to be the case among lots of groups and is not limited only to very close/recently diverged relatives as often assumed. In fact this was recently discussed here on Ask A Biologist. We even know of taxa that have been evolutionarily distinct for 40 million years or so, yet can still interbreed. As for humans, gorillas and chimps… primatologists have documented captive animals that look like gorilla x chimp hybrids (I often mention these to friends and one day will blog about them), yet humans are closer to chimps than gorillas are… you’ve heard of the ‘humanzee’ debate?

  16. #16 shiva (goldstein)
    January 11, 2008

    Oliver was proved to be all chimp, though, wasn’t he?

    And the Soviets never got a fertilisation.

    There may be factors other than the difference in genomes preventing some species from hybridising, even when inseminated artificially – stuff to do with the environment in the womb – hormones, pH, stuff like that?

    I’ve seen the stuffed “leopard x puma” at the Rothschild Museum (tring, England). I’m… kind of suspicious of it, myself. Some of it may be due to it being badly stuffed, but it really doesn’t look like either of its parents was in the genus Panthera – it’s a lot smaller than any adult leopard or puma, probably in the bobcat/ocelot size range (15-20kg when alive?), has a very short face looking much more like a Felis cat than either Panthera or Puma, and a coat pattern (IIRC) a bit like an ocelot’s or a clouded leopard’s. I would have probably thought it was an ocelot x something hybrid from its looks…

    I suppose we now need to look for evidence that Malaysian leopards were the subspecies particularly imported into Britain by the “exotic pet” trade…

  17. #17 Alan Kellogg
    January 12, 2008

    Shiva,

    Oliver was shown to belong to a subspecies of chimpanzee. Which is now under consideration for species status. Last I heard on the subject, we may soon have a fourth subspecies of chimp, two of the current subspecies are being considered for species status, and one population of one subspecies may wind up a subspecies of the new species, and then a species in its own right.

    And then you have apparent subspecies of bonobo (news to me) who might be species in their own right. In a few years the genus Pan may expand from two species to as many as six or more.

    Now consider the possibility animals such as the malaysian leopard might be a separate species. As well as all the species of asian elephant that might be roaming around out there. Advances in genetics and phylogenetic studies are playing hob with all that taxonomic consolidation going on at present. :)

  18. #18 Nathan Myers
    January 12, 2008

    I will remark only that a platypus’s bill does not count as a beak, and I doubt Darren would so construe it.

  19. #19 Tengu
    January 12, 2008

    I put that, but now Im not sure.

    Cat Sidhe? What are they supposed to look like? Many fairy animals are supposed to be white, possibly with red ears (think of the chillingham cattle)

    According to one of katherine briggs books (cant recall which one) there seems to be a differenciation in fairy lore between `native` domestic animals and things introduced by the Romans (Cats, chickens, etc) Also native trades and the more technological stuff (The Fair folk DO work iron, the idea that they cant abide it is a myth…but a blacksmith in their society would be either a powerful magician or an outcast…possibly both.)

    There is a cave in County Durham in which remains of a smithing community were found. These guys were rich, but they lives in a dark damp cave miles from anywhere and were often buried there.

    (Ill find the exact reference if you like; but Ive just got up)

    Its interesting to compare fairy lore to Saami society (or, to a lesser extent, the Basques, another race `who have always been here` )or even the Picts. We have a lot of the neolithic stock in this country, so presumably in times past they had their own language and culture.

    So I imagine the Cat sidhe to have been a common (to us, housecats were prized commodities in communities where they were new or scarce, remember `Dick Whittington`?) moggy.

    Has anyone tested the kellas cats DNA?

    My, I have derailed the posting today?

  20. #20 Luna_the_cat
    January 12, 2008

    Tengu — “in this country”? Where are you? I’m in Scotland, myself!

    The cait sidhe was always (around Grampian region, anyway) considered a big black cat — the feline equivalent to the Black Dogs, of which we also apparently had a population (I pass by the Blackdog industrial estate regularly, which was apparently named so because there used to be a Black Dog in that area, according to local folklore). The legend I’m familiar with was that the cait sidhe were to be respected and you should never attempt to look in their eyes (another similarity with the Black Dogs), but if you could demonstrate your respect to them they would tell you a prophecy. I think there are more stories about them from further inland, but I’ve never tried to track them all down.

    As for DNA testing — yes, I think Di Francis has done so, and I think (would have to go check to make sure) that this is the basis for her belief that the Kellas cat is the result of a complex set of matings between the domestic cat and the Scottish wildcat. I will say that the stuffed Kellas cat we have here is bigger than either a standard Scottish wildcat or the vast majority of domestic cats. (I have seen domestic cats that big once, in Ohio, but failed to get information on their ancestry, to my later regret. I know that things like Maine Coons and Norwegian Forest Cats can grow reasonably huge –can reach 22 lbs. and more than 2 feet long not including the tail– but these were larger even than that.)

  21. #21 Darren Naish
    January 12, 2008

    Shiva – I didn’t have Oliver in mind when mentioning humanzees, but rather the hypothetical hybrids that geneticists and others have had in mind when discussing the possible viability of human x chimp hybrids. Google the term if you want to know more – the wikipedia article is pretty good.

    Oliver has been demonstrated to be a Pan troglodytes (sensu lato): his unusual features due to conditioning, training and deformity. As for the Russian attempts at humanzee production, Ilya Ivanov only ever got round to experimenting with – I think – between 5 and 10 subjects. He tried for more but never got permisson. This sample is not sufficient to say that the project was doomed to failure: in attempts to produce crosses between
    Sambar Cervus unicolor with Red deer C. elephus on New Zealand (via artificial insemination), only one insemination of 400 was successful (I mentioned this on ver 1 here), yet sambar and red deer are definitely more closely related, and probably far more similar in physiology, behaviour and anatomy, than chimps and humans. Hmm. By the way, in case anyone wonders, I’m not endorsing the production of a humanzee: it’s not exactly ethical.

  22. #22 David Marjanovi?
    January 12, 2008

    yet sambar and red deer are definitely more closely related, and probably far more similar in physiology, behaviour and anatomy, than chimps and humans. Hmm.

    What’s the difference in their number of chromosomes?

  23. #23 Tengu
    January 12, 2008

    Im from wiltshire where we have many black dog legends (also place names)

    And some ABCs…

  24. #24 Luna_the_cat
    January 13, 2008

    Ah! It’s been a while since I’ve been to Wiltshire, but my husband and I used to drive down through there on our way to holidays in Somerset, stopping off places like Salisbury. Yup, you have plenty ABCs down there, I bet.

    I don’t think Aberdeenshire has very many big cats, just wildcat/domestic cat hybrids. The Black Dogs, they got everywhere, didn’t they.

  25. #25 Jerzy
    January 13, 2008

    Darren, you may refer to “giant lion-killing chimps” reported few years ago. They were DNA tested and firmly established as normal chimpanzees from local subspecies (don’t remember which).

    About puma x pantherine hybrids – I think there were several experiments in zoos where parentage was well established. If my memory doesn’t fail, there was even two-time cross of big cats, perhaps (lion x leopard) x puma.

  26. #26 Mark Lees
    January 13, 2008

    There was a hybrid (leopard x jaguar) x lion – could that be the 3 way cross you are referring to?

    The difficulty with hybrids is that unless they are well documented very often a wild caught animal that appears to be a hybrid between 2 species may actually just be a distinctive individual of one species showing some characteristics of the other.

    I do a fair bit of bird watching and have not infrequently seen birds that could be hybrids – finches especially seem prone to it, when you look for them.

    Several yeas ago I saw a grebe that was an almost perfect intermediate between a little grebe and black-necked grebe, I watched it through my scope for the best part of half an hour, with field guides out trying to decide which it was. Some other birders came to the conclusion that it was an odd black-necked grebe, while another thought it was an unusual little grebe. I suspect it was a hybrid, but it could have been an abberant individual of either species.
    The point is, hybrids are hard to confirm in wild caught or encountered animals.

    I have seen photos of alleged gorilla x chimp hybrids (some from a zoo in the Dem Rep Congo)and found them very convincing, but we can’t be sure.

    I did read though (though I cant recall the book) that a gorilla x chimp hybrid did occur in American private zoo during the 1940s-50s (the book was more precise, I just cant recall the detail). Allegedly the hybrid died young. Unfortunately it was in the late 80s i read the book and I don’t recall the title, author or whether it stated the hybrid account was confirmed of not.

  27. #27 Darren Naish
    January 13, 2008

    Jerzy: the giant ‘lion-killer’ chimps from Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – generally known as Bili apes – still seem to be the subject of controversy. Despite all those new species claims (New Scientist etc.), Karl Amman and colleagues have presented DNA evidence showing that the population is part of Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii (go here for all the relevant documents). So I was a bit surprised last year to see Colin Groves saying that Bili apes “should prompt a radical rethink of the family tree of chimp sub-species… primatologists should now recognise five different sub-divisions instead of the current four” (go here). We’re all waiting for the technical papers to appear…

    Mark: we probably have the same alleged gorilla x chimp hybrid in mind, as I do recall it being in a DRC zoo.

  28. #28 Alan Kellogg
    January 14, 2008

    Darren; whereto Oliver and Bili Apes

    Oliver was a normal chimpanzee, for his sub-species. Note that standard chimps (P. T. troglodytes) he encountered wouldn’t tolerate him, and he had to be kept isolated from them for his safety.

    Bili apes are currently a P. T. schweinfurthi population. But remember there is a push on to promote Schweinfurth’s Chimpanzee to species status, which means that the Bili ape would most likely be promoted to sub-species status. And considering the morphological, phenotypical, and behavioral differences, to full species. And people say science is oh so staid and boring.

  29. #29 Stevo Darkly
    January 14, 2008

    Shorter version of the second paragraph of Darren’s post:

    “Oh, and we might as well get this out of the way early: All the guesses made by Stevo Darkly in all of his comments were just wrong, wrong, wrong! Could not possibly be more wrong!”

    :)

  30. #30 Graham King
    February 25, 2008

    Catopuma… what a wonderful name! regally awesome and playfully affectionable both.
    Sounds apt for a Marvel superhero or feline cartoon character…

    Re human/chimp hybrids (putative)…

    “Think how upset THAT would have made the fundamentalists”Posted by: Luna_the_cat

    Not wanting to put words in people’s mouths or claim to speak on their behalf, but… I imagine it would disconcert some if it proved possible; would dismay most by even being attempted; and might arouse in not a few a wondering compassion for the subject creature; also a few extremist weirdos would probably say ‘kill it’ (but that kind of talk is denounced by many other fundamentalists). I don’t see that the event would rigorously prove or disprove any conflicting theological beliefs specified in scriptures versus evolutionary beliefs.

    “I’m not endorsing the production of a humanzee: it’s not exactly ethical.”Posted by: Darren Naish

    WHY unethical though? I’m not disagreeing; I’m certainly in strong agreement! But I find it interesting, when people make ethical assessments, especially in an evolutionary context, to probe their basis. How do we get from what IS (which can be objectively/empirically/experimentally determined, at least in principle, in this matter of hybrids) to what OUGHT (or OUGHT NOT) to be? What are the moral axioms, the foundational principles, here – do we share the same ones – and whence come we by them?

    Personally I find the concept of viable inter-species hybridisation as so often popularly portrayed in ‘Star Trek’ BOTH wildly implausible AND ethically inappropriate -(and liable to further confuse and mislead any scientifically-less-knowledgeable viewers or readers?)
    OK I KNOW it’s not reality… but if it WERE…
    In fact these are surely matings not merely across species but across genera and often across entirely separate (putative)evolutionary KINGDOMS!! (I except Vulcan/Romulan pairings, since these share a common ancestry only millenia past.)

    Oh, I do like a good debate!

  31. #31 David Marjanovi?
    February 26, 2008

    “Kingdoms”? In the case of Mr Spock, we’re talking about separate origins of life. (AFAIK one episode explicitely says “his ancestors spawned in a different ocean”.) Who says they even have DNA on Vulcan? There’s no a priori reason for why they should. And if they do, why should they happen to have exactly the same four bases, when so many other possibilities exist? Why should they have the same 20 amino acids, when there’s no good reason for either the choice or the amount? And so on and so forth. As Carl Sagan wrote, a human-artichoke hybrid would be orders of magnitude more plausible than Mr Spock.

  32. #32 Graham King
    March 3, 2008

    Yeah, exactly! But…
    One Star Trek: The Next Generation story had Picard and co discovering the ancient ‘founders’ who had, WAY back, it turns out, seeded the Universe with genetic information in order to prompt the development (ultimately) of similar humanoid lifeforms on planets throughout the galaxy (BTW are we off-topic yet? ;-D)

    Recent novels and Star Trek: Enterprise have revisited the theme, portraying Vulcan-Human hybrids (such as Spock) now as achieved only by genetic engineering intervention… not simple inter-species/Kingdom/whatever-fraternisation.

    I still say it’s implausible and not right somehow!

    Roddenberry of course wasn’t solely or even mainly in it for the science but he and the writers have used ST to make philosophical points. Or to propagandise, depending on your point of view. The different alien races (sic) in ST can illustrate harmonious relations or otherwise between different HUMAN races (sic); or different political convictions, personalities, or neurological types (Mr Spock/Data as misleading caricatures of High-Functioning Autistic Spectrum individuals?)

    Not wishing to sound too negative though! There are some good ideas in there and some useful lessons, along with some cod psychology/philosophy, technobabble and soap-opera humanism. IMHO…

  33. #33 ambulocetus
    March 15, 2008

    “… partially herbivorous, can spray poison, can be extremely tolerant to cold, and … can easily bite open a human hand”

    My ex-wife?

    “Think how upset THAT would have made the fundamentalists.”

    Not if Dubya told them it was needed to fight the “terr-ists”.

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