Thursday, January 12, 2017

I have great interest in the "almost" part of "almost always"

So I was looking up something on feral horses and a bumped into a word I didn't recognize, which caused me to take a look.

It turned out to be a word that means "donkey" in Spanish and Portuguese but means "feral donkey" in parts of the US.

So having stumbled upon donkeys (which I like) I read the article and something jumped out at me.

Donkey-horse hybrids (mules and hinnies) are almost always sterile.  Why the fuck has no one ever told me this before?  That "almost" matters.  That almost is intriguing and worthy of great investigation.

As it turns out, a non-sterile male mule or hinny has never been confirmed.  Females are different.  In the past 500 years there have only been sixty confirmed cases of female mules reproducing (and just the one female hinny), so it's rare, but this really happens.  Horse-donkey hybrids can produce offspring.

The only known case of one producing generations was one where the donkey side of the equation seems to have been bred out and the various fertile descendants seem to be, outwardly at least, all horse.

So rare, doesn't seem to take on the second generation baring de-hybridization, but that might be just because we basically never try since we assume they're all sterile.

Having an odd number of chromosomes tends to fuck with a reproductive system like whoa.  Horses and donkeys have a different number of chromosomes, thus the the hybrids have an odd number and things don't usually pair up right.

But sometimes.  And what then?  Other than that one stallion born to a mule mother, what would happen if the "almost" hit a second generation?

A third?

Is there a point at which a stable species would emerge that was neither horse nor donkey but some combination of the two.  If we bred for that "almost" with the same obsessiveness we breed purebred dogs that look nice but have familial relationship weirder than Oedipus and massive life-living problems galore, is it possible that something new could walk upon this earth one day?  A stable horse-donkey hybrid that was its own species?

Maybe it's not.  I don't know.  But the almost leads me to wonder.  If the first generation can breed, why not the second?  And if the second, why not the third?

Admittedly we're talking about something that would be a massive endeavor because you've got to get enough "almost"s in the first generation to also get "almost"s in the second, and so forth.

But for longer than history we've been breeding horses with donkeys to produce evolutionary dead ends, and we show no signs of stopping, so if we've been fucking with them for thousands of years, and will likely continue to fuck with them for thousands more, why not latch onto the ones that aren't dead ends and try very hard to see where that road leads.

Maybe it inevitably leads to a situation where one side is bred out of the equation and all of this work chasing near impossibility just brings us back to where we started.  Or maybe something new arises.  But we'll never know if we don't try and we don't try.

This is only one of many almosts that interests me.  Almosts call out and ask us to wonder what makes them different, and where they could take us.


  1. I'm surprised you've never run across the fact that mules are (almost) always sterile. Seems like it comes up whenever pedantic jerks in fandom complain about the existence of half-human hybrids. They're often cited for why it doesn't make sense that Mr. Spock could possibly undergo Ponn Farr, or why the Doctor Who TV movie either is impossible or alternatively proves conclusively that the Doctor could never ever be romantically interested in icky girls.

  2. @Ross, Oh, I imagine that Chris has run the "mules are sterile" part before. It's probably the "almost always" that surprised her.

    I vaguely remember reading about the hinny years ago. Certainly, it's much easier to confirm reproductive success in females than males. Pregnancy is kind of an obvious clue where with males you really need the ability to test DNA, something we've been able to do for less than fifty years AFAIK, and a reason to suspect parentage.

    Considering that karyotype changes are among the factors that drive (e.g. the creation of human chromosome 2), that multi-generational study might be worth doing