You may have heard of a liger—the lion-tiger hybrid is, after all, Napoleon Dynamite's favorite animal—but now a Russian zoo has released photos of a so-called "liliger" named Kiara, the offspring of a liger mother and a lion father. (See liger pictures.)
The cub, born last week at Novosibirsk Zoo, may be the only liliger in existence. But charming as the cuddly cub appears, ligers, liligers, and other mix-and-match felines raise serious concerns for advocates of big-cat conservation.
Ligers are the result of a male lion mating with a female tiger. Craig Packer, director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota, said he hasn't heard of a liliger before but is "not surprised" that it exists.
All ligers are born in captivity, Packer said, because this animal simply does not exist in the natural world. Not only are wild lion and tiger populations separated by geography, there are certain behavior mechanisms in place that would prevent the two species from mating.
"If a tiger tried to mate with a female lion it would be chased away by the other lions pretty fast, and vice versa," said Packer, who is also a National Geographic Society/Waitt Foundation grantee.
(Also see "Grizzly-Polar Bear Hybrid Found—But What Does It Mean?")
Liligers "Irrevelant" for Conserving Big Cats
That can change in captivity. Given no other options, lions and tigers may breed. "Lions and tigers are separated by about seven million years of evolution," Packer said, "but they are still closely enough related that they can hybridize."
In the wild, an animal like Kiara would "probably be very mixed up," Packer speculated. "Lions are genetically predisposed to be very sociable and cooperative. Tigers are genetically predisposed to be very ornery and solitary." (See big-cat pictures.)
While zoos in some countries do cross-breed cats (probably for the publicity value), U.S. zoos typically do not. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the accrediting body for zoos in North America, does not approve of ligers, said spokesperson Steve Feldman, and no AZA zoos breed them. Modern zoological institutions, he said, instead focus on wildlife-conservation programs.
Packer, who has devoted his career to studying lions, can't imagine why zoos would breed liligers and other such hybrids.
"In terms of conservation," he said, "it's so far away from anything, it's kind of pointless to even say it's irrelevant."