photo by Robert Couse-Baker
Biologists in Hungary were reportedly startled when they accidentally cross-bred a Russian sturgeon and an American paddlefish, creating a seemingly impossible creature dubbed the “sturddlefish.”
I guess those biologists haven’t spent much time on the grasslands or in the convenience stores of our Rocky Mountain states. If they had, they would have been aware of the legendary jackalope, a gigantic antler-bearing bunny famed for its ability to imitate the human voice.
You think I’m joking about that last part. So you’ll buy a story about a “warrior rabbit” with antlers, but you draw the line at the idea that it can match the vocal skills of any self-respecting parrot? Doubters note: One jackalope even managed to rhyme his way into a Pixar cartoon.
I confess that I have never met a jackalope in the fur, but you can find its picture in nearly every postcard rack between Glacier National Park and Carlsbad Caverns. I have never met a gray wolf or a grizzly bear in the wild, either, but I’m pretty sure they exist.
It’s not just that life finds a way, in the immortal words of Jeff Goldblum’s character, Dr. Ian Malcolm, in the film “Jurassic Park.” It’s that every once in a while, Mother Nature likes to get downright funky.
So it did with that Hungarian sturddlefish. Scientists were trying to help the Russian sturgeon, which is critically endangered thanks in no small part to its role as supplier of much of the world’s caviar. The idea was to promote a form of asexual reproduction by introducing the sperm of a distantly related species that – they thought – could not actually merge with the sturgeon’s DNA, but which would still trigger cell division and growth of a new sturgeon.
It turned out that these distantly related gametes were thoroughly uninhibited about merging their DNA. As a result, those European biologists are now the proud godparents of about 100 crossbreeds that – they presume – are incapable of their own reproduction. This is true of crosses such as mules (a cross between a horse and a donkey) and ligers (lion-tiger mixes). But I don’t think the biologists have much appetite to test that theory.
That’s wise. Some hybrids do manage to multiply like ... well, like jackalopes, or at least like other bunnies. Take the notorious eastern coyote, for example.
When Europeans arrived on this continent, eastern coyotes did not exist. Eastern forests had wolves, while western prairies and deserts had coyotes. They tended not to overlap, because wolves usually find coyotes annoying, so they kill them.
But settlers killed most of the wolves. The ones they didn’t kill left of their own accord when settlers cleared the forests for farmland in the 18th and 19th centuries. But then the farmers left too, for more fertile soil on the frontier. The forests eventually returned. Then the deer, whose populations previously helped sustain the wolves, returned.
But wolves require big stretches of empty territory that remained hard to find even in the reforested Eastern states. Wolves have come back to some parts of the West only with dedicated conservationists’ help. Coyotes, on the other hand, are more adaptable. Gradually, the western coyote expanded its range eastward. Along the way, it crossbred with gray wolves (who will settle for quickies with coyotes when other sexual outlets are unavailable), with the smaller Algonquin (or Eastern) wolf, and with domestic dogs.
Today’s eastern coyote emerged from the mix. Some people call it the coy-wolf or coy-dog (to the chagrin of other observers). I’ve seen one, and I’ve seen western coyotes, and all I can tell you is the first thing that crossed my mind was “What is a wolf doing crossing this road on Cape Cod?”
So the Hungarian scientists are displaying good sense by not releasing their sturddlefish into the wild, where they could potentially out-compete the remaining sturgeon into extinction. You can’t be too careful with this sort of thing.
I have seen this firsthand. When I was in college in Montana in the 1970s, I made a point of going to Glacier National Park every autumn to see a spectacular gathering of bald eagles. The eagles gathered along a small stretch of creek to feast on spawning landlocked salmon, or kokanee. The salmon, relatives of the ocean-going Pacific sockeye salmon, were planted in Montana’s Flathead Lake – the largest freshwater body west of the Continental Divide – during World War I. The fish thought of the lake as their ocean and were perfectly happy to spawn upstream in the park’s McDonald Creek. The eagles began gathering to enjoy the smorgasbord around 1939. By the 1970s, the occasional bear would get in on the action, too.
Although I did not know it – nobody did – the spectacle was dying even as I watched it. In the 1960s, wildlife managers got the idea that they could grow larger sport fish by planting freshwater shrimp in some smaller lakes that drained into Flathead. Once the shrimp made it to the big lake, they out-competed the kokanee for food. But the shrimp made excellent meals for lake trout (another introduced species), which got big on the shrimp and ate the remaining salmon. By the time I visited Glacier again in the late 1980s, after moving back East, the salmon were gone. So were the eagles.
Today those lake trout dominate Flathead Lake. They are edible but not particularly exciting, and they leave little space for the native cutthroat and bull trout. So wildlife managers are doing their best to haul the lake trout out of Flathead, too. The shrimp seem to be doing just fine.
If you want to see an American paddlefish, you are going to have to go to one of the Mississippi River basin rivers, and you’ll have to get pretty lucky; their numbers are declining. Those Russian sturgeon are hanging on in the Caspian Sea. To catch sight of a sturddlefish, you’d probably better make friends with someone with a lot of pull in the world of Hungarian science.
But if you want proof of the jackalope’s existence, it’s easy to find. Just go to any gas station within a few hours’ drive of the Continental Divide and look at the postcards.