Oldest Known 'Bioengineered' Hybrid Animal Discovered in Syria
Hybrid animals have been with us for some time and still walk the face of the Earth: a cross between two breeds, two hybrid examples are the mule (part donkey/part horse) and the liger (the resulting offspring when a male tiger mates with a female lion). Offspring will display characteristics of both parents but are often infertile.
An international team of scientists claim to have discovered the oldest-known hybrid animal. According to the findings of their study, published this week in the journal Science Advances, they discovered 4,500-year-old remains of mysterious equids (belonging to the horse family and related animals such as donkeys, zebras, etc) in Syria.
"From the skeletons, we knew they were equids [horse-like animals], but they did not fit the measurements of donkeys nor the measurements of Syrian wild asses. So they were somehow different, but it was not clear what the difference was," said study co-author Eva-Maria Geigl, a genomicist at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris.
The researchers then assumed that the mysterious animals were hybrids. To check their hypothesis they examined samples of the bones and compared them with the remains of other species in the horse family. The results showed that the equid was an offspring of a female donkey
and a male Syrian wild ass (also known as hemippe) an extinct subspecies of the Asiatic wild ass, or onager.
The scientists believe their discovery is kunga, an animal once used by residents of Mesopotamia, which is known as Iraq now. They are mentioned in ancient texts and depicted on clay tablets. Records suggest they were highly valued and expensive beasts, which could run faster than horses
and were stronger than donkeys.
Because of these qualities they were used to pull chariots, both on roads ferrying elites, and on the battlefield, where they pulled wagons and reportedly trampled enemies. The animals were also offered as part of dowries.
Researchers say creating a kunga was quite a tricky task as Syrian wild asses ran very fast, even faster than kungas, and were impossible to tame.
"They really bio-engineered these hybrids. There were the earliest hybrids ever, as far as we know, and they had to do that each time for each kunga that was produced — so this explains why they were so valuable," said Eva-Maria Geigl.
Researchers assume that because most hybrids are infertile, kungas were supplanted by horses which weren't as fast but were easier to breed. Scientists now plan to conduct more studies, which may shed light on how kungas looked.