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UT researcher sheds new light on hybrid animals
Date:9/22/2007

KNOXVILLE -- What began more than 50 years ago as a way to improve fishing bait in California has led a University of Tennessee researcher to a significant finding about how animal species interact and that raises important questions about conservation.

In the middle of the 20th century, local fishermen who relied on baby salamanders as bait introduced a new species of salamander to California water bodies. These Barred Tiger salamanders came into contact with the native California Tiger salamanders, and over time the two species began to mate.

"To give you a sense of the difference between these two species, they are about as closely related as humans and chimpanzees," said UT assistant professor Ben Fitzpatrick, a faculty member in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Mating between two different species creates a hybrid offspring. According to Fitzpatrick, while such hybrids have been found to be successful in plant species, research has generally shown that animal hybrids are not able to sustain themselves -- in scientific terms, they lack "fitness."

This understanding made Fitzpatrick's findings especially surprising when he looked at the offspring of the two salamander species in California. He and colleague Bradley Shaffer of the University of California, Davis, found that the new hybrid salamanders were not only surviving, but in some cases, thriving.

"I thought I was studying hybrid dysfunction going into this study -- looking at how hybrids go wrong," said Fitzpatrick. "The level of vigor in these hybrids was completely unexpected."

Their research, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency, will appear in the upcoming issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It is among the first to show hybrid vigor among animal species, and Fitzpatrick noted that the work raises a number of questions for conservationists.

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Contact: Jay Mayfield
jay.mayfield@tennessee.edu
865-974-9409
University of Tennessee at Knoxville
Source:Eurekalert

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