Periodically, we publish essays from Professor Andrew Lyon‘s Honors 389 course “The Science Blender”, which is the basis for Schmid College’s Grand Challenges Initiative. In HON 389, students are asked to reflect on different aspects of tackling a grand challenge. In this essay, student’s were asked to research and analyze an interdisciplinary breakthrough of their choosing.
Many young children’s first experience with hybridization in nature is with mules. Mules, a combination of a donkey and a horse, are known for their strength and sure-footedness but not for their fertility. In fact, conventional wisdom tells us that hybrid species can not exist without human intervention. Not only because the hybrid will not be able to reproduce, but also because the hybrid will not truly belong to either parent’s niche in nature . Due to this generalization scientists were initially surprised by the discovery of hybrid bears in the wild. Pizzly or Grolar Bears are a combination of their Polar Bear and Grizzly Bear parents . Scientists were shocked again by the discovery of second and third generation Pizzly and Grolar Bears . The discovery of these viable hybrids have left scientists not only reconsidering the fertility of ‘half-breeds’ but also asking, “Why now?”.
Scientists think that the simple explanation for these Grolar and Pizzly Bears is climate change. Evolutionary science demonstrates that Polar and Grizzly Bears are very closely related, mainly separated by color and location, though still considered separate species . According to Nature Journal, Polar Bears along with 34 other species are being affected by melting arctic ice . This new niche is sometimes referred to as the ‘Arctic Melting Pot’ . In the case of Polar Bears, lack of ice has forced increasing numbers onto dry land. On the other hand, Grizzly Bears have been pushed North by construction in the increasingly populated Southern Canada . As one German researcher writes, “It’s as if two groups had long been living separately, but in adjacent rooms, and suddenly man came along and pushed open the door between them” .
There is a reason scientists, like this German researcher, may be disgruntled by these findings. While hybrid animals may seem like an easy solution to the problem of species endangerment, scientists still have major concerns. Firstly, while Pizzly and Grolar Bears are fertile, many other hybrids are not. For animals that invest a significant amount of time and energy into rearing their young, infertile offspring pose a major threat to the population. Secondly, hybrids typically have no home in nature. For instance, it has been observed that a Pizzly and Grolar Bear’s shortened neck makes it a less proficient swimmer and its longer claws make it difficult to navigate ice . However, some see the concern of niche environment as a problem of the past. Humans have broken the rules of how the environment is supposed to work. Now the only way for animals to survive is to do the same . Some scientists are starting to wonder if hybrids are the logical next step in a new world that the Pizzly and Grolar Bear’s predecessors could not keep up with.
Only centuries of time will show if hybrids are the solution to new environmental niches. As the process begins we are not only witnessing history but, thanks to Pizzly and Grolar Bears, a changing scientific perspective. Even with the success Pizzly and Grolar Bears have shown they still face an additional threat – wildlife laws do not protect these unique animals and hunters see them as a unique trophy . It is important that people do their part to proactively protect these adaptations. After all, as Darwin said, “It’s not the strongest of species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
 Gambino, Megan. “What Would a Cross Between a Polar Bear and a Grizzly Really Look Like?” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 07 Oct. 2013. Web. 16 Feb. 2017, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-would-a-cross-between-a-polar-bear-and-a-grizzly-really-look-like-864277/
 “Grizzly Bear vs. Polar Bear.” Nat Geo TV Blogs. National Geographic Channels, 02 Apr. 2012. Web. 16 Feb. 2017, from http://tvblogs.nationalgeographic.com/2012/04/09/grizzly-bear-vs-polar-bear/
 Hoflinger, Laura. “In the Land of the Pizzly: As Arctic Melts, Polar and Grizzly Bears Mate.” SPIEGEL ONLINE. SPIEGEL ONLINE, 03 Oct. 2012. Web. 13 Feb. 2017, from http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/polar-bears-and-grizzlies-producing-hybrid-offspring-as-arctic-melts-a-859218.html
 Milman, Oliver. “Pizzly or Grolar Bear: Grizzly-polar Hybrid Is a New Result of Climate Change.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 18 May 2016. Web. 13 Feb. 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/18/pizzly-grolar-bear-grizzly-polar-hybrid-climate-change