The Fact and Fiction of Fantastic Hybrids

Crabfish - Sandra Yagi

Crabfish - Sandra Yagi
Crabfish - Sandra Yagi

Have you heard of the Poisonous Fiddlerfrog, whose tadpoles grow up into crabs? Or the Hummingshrew, who eats flies as well as nectar?

These animals aren't real, so you'd only know about them if you've seen Voyage Through a Hidden World. This collaboration between artist Sandra Yagi and writer Julie Benbow is currently on display at The Bone Room Presents in Berkeley. Yagi's hybrid creatures are paired with Benbow's journal entries, written from the perspective of fictional 18th century explorer Lady Lavinia.

Rhinobeetle - Sandra Yagi
Rhinobeetle - Sandra Yagi

Many members of the beautiful bestiary are puns incarnate. Real rhino beetles are large and oddly shaped, but Yagi's Rhinobeetle has the head of a literal rhinoceros. Leafy seadragons in our world are marine fish; the ones on Yagi's canvas crawl on reptilian limbs.

Yagi has always been fascinated by science. "I'd go to Body Worlds and take my sketchbook," she says. "I collect anatomy books." The artist is also lucky to have a personal fact-checker: "My partner works in medicine, so she'll tell me if I get anything wrong."

But aren't all hybrids "getting it wrong" in a spectacular way? In "Zonkeys are Pretty Much My Favorite Animal" (July 31, 2007 Outside), Jon Cohen points out that hybrids "strain credulity--even when they're staring you in the face." They flout the organized structure we've set up to understand nature. And yet real hybrids are more common, and possibly more important to evolution, than most of us realize. Have you ever heard of blynxes? Pizzlies? Humanzees?


But real-world hybrids are always produced by crosses between similar species. Remember the classification scheme you probably had to memorize in high school biology, with humans as an example:

Hummingshrew - Sandra Yagi
Hummingshrew - Sandra Yagi

Kingdom (Animalia)
Phylum (Chordata)
Class (Mammalia)
Order (Primate)
Family (Hominidae)
Genus (Homo)
Species (sapiens)

A bobcat (Lynx rufus) and a lynx (Lynx lynx) belong to the same genus, and they can make a baby blynx. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) and grizzlies (Ursus arctos) are also congeners, and can join forces to create a pizzly.

Hummingbirds and shrews, by contrast, belong to entirely separate classes, and frogs and crabs to separate phyla. Anatomical and chemical differences between these pairs are too extreme to allow hybridization.

So fiddlerfrogs and hummingshrews remain confined to our imaginations. Disappointment, or relief? Your choice!