The Asian and African elephants look similar, but are not only different species, they are different genera i.e. each belongs to a different genus, making them even more distantly related). Crossbreeds between different genera is regarded as impossible. On 11th July 1978, an Asian elephant cow called Sheba gave birth to a hybrid calf sired by a 15 year old African elephant bull, Jumbolina. (aka “Bubbles”) Though the pair had mated several times, pregnancy was believed to be impossible. The hybrid male calf, "Motty," had a mix of maternal Elephas (Asian elephant) and paternal Loxodonta (African elephant) characteristics. The Asian elephant has an arched back and the African elephant has a concave back; Motty had a central hump ad a pelvic hump. His brow sloped with a single frontal dome like Loxodonta, but he also had the smaller paired posterior skull domes characteristic of Asian elephants. His trunk was heavily wrinkled like that of an African elephant, but had a single digit at its tip like the Asian elephant, rather than two digits like the African. He had the pointed ears and longer slimmer legs of an African elephant, but his feet were Asian elephant-like: 5 toenails on each front foot and 4 on each hind foot.

When Motty was born he appeared to be premature and he did not stand or suckle immediately, but had to be bottle fed at first, though he did receive his mother’s colostrum in his feeds. On 18-July-1987 Motty developed an umbilical infection-treated with oral and topical antibiotics. At 9 am on 21st July, keepers found 11 day old Motty comatose and dying. The zoo’s vets began emergency heart massage and artificial respiration, and also injected a cardiac stimulant as well as providing him with extra warmth, but less than an hour later, Motty was dead. A full autopsy revealed he has necrotizing enterocolitis – dead, almost perforated, tissue in parts of the wall of the large intestine. He also had E. coli septicaemia where enteric bacteria had leaked from the bowel. Motty had been premature, and this, along with his hybrid genetic make-up, probably led to a weakened immune system.

Although Motty was unique, there was a resounding lack of formal zoological interest in him during his short life and upon his death. Specialist elephant journals and publications recognised his birth as a unique event, but the reference section of the International Zoo Yearbook and IZN only briefly mentioned his birth. Following a post mortem, Motty’s skin was professionally mounted by a London taxidermist and after being stored at Chester Zoo for a short while it went to the British Museum (Natural History), where the zoo hoped that Motty would be placed on permanent display to the public. Sadly, Motty remained in storage, his contribution to elephant genetics hidden from view.

END OF A JUMBO SUCCESS STORY The Guardian, 22nd July, 1978
The world’s first elephant cross-bred from Indian and African parents has died at Chester Zoo 11 days after his birth. Motty, named after the zoo’s founder Mr George Mottershead, was the product of the union of Indian Elephant Sheba and African elephant Jumbolina, and weighed 160 lbs. He was doing quite nicely, and his death came as something of a surprise to zoo officials. After a shaky start in life – Motty was at first unable to stand and had to be given cows’ milk and vitamin supplements – he finally managed to climb to his feet and began feeding from his mother.

As soon as the initial crisis passed, staff at Chester began consulting the records to see if Motty was the first elephant to be born from Indian and African parents. The London Zoo, which publishes the International Zoo Year Book was confident that he was, adding that few zoos kept male elephants because in captivity they tend to become unpredictable and at time dangerous. London Zoo said that few elephants of any kind had, therefore, been bred in captivity – and it was Chester Zoo that first produced one in this country: an Indian, born last May.

Motty’s body was yesterday taken to Liverpool University’s veterinary research unit for a post-mortem which showed that death was caused by a severe bowel disorder. How he contracted the complaint is not known, but if it can be established that it was an infection and not a genetic disorder, a further mating of Sheba and Jumbolina may be attempted.

WHY MOTTY THE BABY JUMBO DIED. Cheshire Observer, 28th July 1978
Public and media alike are mourning the death of Motty, the unique baby of Chester Zoo, last Friday. The only known Afro-Indian elephant to be born was christened by Stuart Hall on Wednesday, with the full regalia of champagne and a godfather, but on Friday morning at 10 am, the baby was found dead. There had been great concern about the junior jumbo's survival until last Tuesday, when he at last began feeding from his three ton mother, Sheba, the Indian part of the parentage. Then the chances for his survival were thought to have increased from 50-50 to 90 per cent. Although the Department of Veterinary Research, who conducted a post mortem on the body, were unable to comment on their findings, a spokesman for the zoo told the "Courant", "Death was due to a necrotic enterocolitis." This is apparently common in newly born animals, and Motty was particularly susceptible to the bacteria because of his premature birth. One concern of the public had been that the publicity surrounding his birth had adversely affected the baby, but a zoo official was able to dispel this fear entirely. However, Sheba, the mother, is inconsolable at her loss, and no one can dispel her misery.

Liverpool Echo, 21st July 1978: The world’s rarest baby elephant died in his sleep to-day at Chester Zoo. Heart-broken keepers found the 10-day-old African-Indian crossbred dead in his compound. Named "Motty" after Mr. George Mottershead, zoo-founder, the baby confounded scientists, who had claimed that mating between African and Indian elephants was an impossibility. Earlier this week zoo officials were jubilant when the baby began feeding from his mother, Sheba, for the first time. Previously the 150 lbs. premature surprise arrival had been given no more than a 50-50 chance of survival and had been bottle-fed with cow's milk. A zoo spokesman said: "The hardest thing of all has been trying to tell the children who turned up to see Motty this morning. It's been heart-breaking." He added: "At this stage we have absolutely no idea why the baby died. Naturally everyone is very upset. A great deal of time and care had been lavished on Motty since his birth." A post mortem will be carried out by members of Liverpool University's veterinary research department.

ZOO TAKES A STAND ON MOTTY’S FUTURE. Liverpool Echo, 30th August 1978.
Motty, the unique Indian-African cross baby elephant born at Chester Zoo and died nine days afterwards may not return to the zoo after all. A taxidermist is putting the finishing touches to the mounting of Motty's remains. But the curator of mammals at the zoo, Mr. Peter Wait, said: "I like to see live animals in the zoo and I do not think it should be here. I would like to see it in a natural history museum." The mounted elephant is due back soon and a meeting of the zoo's council will decide what will happen to Motty. There are plans to have the elephant exhibited.

Recovered DNA has shown that the extinct straight-tusked elephant, whose closest living relative is the African forest elephant, interbred with the Asian elephant.

African elephants are divided into 2 species - the Forest elephant and the Savannah elephant. Though these can hybridise successfully, their preference for different terrains reduces the opportunities to hybridise and they are genetically distinct from each other. The forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis), considered a subspecies of African elephant, has been raised to species status (Loxodonta cyclotis). Typical savannah elephants have 4 toenails on each forefoot and 3 on each hind foot. The forest elephant typically has 5 toenails on each forefoot and 4 on each hind foot. Both species have 5 toenails on all 4 feet at birth - the number of toenails at maturity is related to wear and tear on different terrain! There are differences in the shape of the jaw and ears. The forest elephant is considerably smaller and has thinner, straighter tusks.

There are unconfirmed rumours of three other hybrid elephants born in zoos or circuses; all are said to have been deformed and did not survive.

Both species of elephants have a diploid number of 56 chromosomes, but the structure of the chromosomes is important, not just the number.

A Chinese safari park has a sub-specific hybrid of Malay elephant x Indian elephant. It was born in Xiangjiang Safari Park, Guangzhou in April 2005. The mother was a Malaysian elephant. The gender of the calf was unknown as the mother was nervous and elephant calves are fragile and prone to infection in captivity, but it was suspected to be female. The mother had a long trunk and short tail, typical of the Malaysian elephant, while the father had a shorter trunk and longer tail.

Matt Salusbury has kindly given permission for me to reproduce some extracts about elephant hybridisation from his book Pygmy Elephants (CFZ Press, 2014).

I was very interested to read in "Messybeast" your comments on hybrid elephants . I came across some information (some of it more speculation) while researching my book Pygmy Elephants (CFZ Press, 2014, see Pygmy elephants and on Twitter, @Pyg_Eleph). Below are extracts from the book, which I hereby licence you to reproduce on Messybeast. Here's what I discovered:

Queen Elizabeth National Park is on the border between Uganda and what's now DRC, which would put it just outside the current known distribution range of forest elephants. The Uganda-based Kitomi Forest Conservation Project noted on its website that as of 2008, elephants in Queen Elizabeth were "under poaching pressure", adding that "Without knowing whether the elephants using these areas are the Bush elephant (Loxodonta africana africana), the Forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis, as it was then known) or a hybrid of the two, the improvement to their safety is paramount in order for… their future secured." The Kitomi project estimated elephant numbers within Queen Elizabeth to be between 1500 – 2000 depending on the number of elephant movements between adjoining protected areas and countries. "There are few elephants over the age of 40, however, there are young everywhere!"

I corresponded with Dr Clive Spinage, who was a warden in Queen Elizabeth back in the 1950s. He told me,"In the 50s and 60s there was a number of herds of intermediate forest/bush elephant types, as the forest and bush elephants have been found to be genetically distinct I assume they would be hybrids rather than gradations from a forest to a bush elephant. They tend to come in all shapes and sizes but I think none with the really rounded ears of the forest elephant… It is more likely that the bush elephants ranged into the forest than vice versa." This suggests that 50 years ago, if not still now, there were hybrid elephants around in western Uganda.

Another former game warden, D. Western, described his discussions with indigenous forest folk and hunters and local naturalists in the Central African Republic (CAR), Gabon, and Zaire (now DRC), especially the Babinga region. Western said that there, most tribes mentioned two types of elephant, "one big and one small." In Gabon and CAR there is "le gros" ("the big one" in French) and "assala" (the pygmy). The Babinga forest people pointed out both varieties le gros and assala to Western at Bayanga watering hole, possibly confused by savannah elephants who had only recently started turning up there. (The sudden arrival of savannah elephants there may have been as a result of poaching on the savannah 200km to the north.) Both le gros and assala were examples of known forest and savannah elephants, some with what Western felt were "hybrid features".

Other reports of hybrid elephants were coming in at around the time that Spinage was at Queen Elizabeth. In 1958, German zoologist D. Backhaus in a visit to Garamba elephant training station Gangala na Bodio – now in Congo DR but at the time in the Belgian Congo - observed elephants with variations in tusk form and ear shape which "bridge the gap" between forest and savannah elephants. Some of these in his opinion had the rounded ears of Loxodonta cyclotis, the forest elephant, but the curved tusks of the savannah elephant.

Dr Colin Groves of the Australian National University and his colleague Peter Grubb looked at the skulls of elephants from the Rutshuru Plains and forested mountains of the Virunga National Park (formerly Parc National Albert), also in DRC, and came to the conclusion that three of these skulls were from "definite hybrids", and that these hybrids lived alongside apparently "pure" species of both savannah and forest elephants. Grubb and Grove also quote French zoologist and elephant expert the late Pierre Pfeffer, who worked with the Natural History Museum in Paris. Pfeffer wrote about the various elephants he'd seen in different parts of Africa. In the Ivory Coast in the region between Sinfa and Gagnoa he saw "bush" elephants (savannah elephants) he described as "melanges" (intermingled) with forest elephants. In southern Burkino Faso near the Ghana border, he saw plump, short-legged elephants with rounded ears, interbreeding and living among much larger, slender elephants with big triangular ears. He also described an "intermediate" elephant (intermediate between forest elephants and savannah elephants) photographed at Fosse Aux Lions in Togo. It's unclear whether Pfeffer regarded southern Burkino short-legged, tubby elephants as dwarfs or just hybrids. And Dr Groves told Australian broadcaster ABC in 2005 that some herds of forest elephants "often don’t have bulls." Could the fathers of this herd be from a different herd of occasionally encountered savannah elephants?

More recently, DNA analysis seems to support observations and reports of elephantine hybrids. A Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) mitochondrial DNA survey led by Dr Al Roca of forest elephants in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo DR) showed that half the specimens surveyed had the mitochondrial DNA of a forest elephant mother and a the nuclear DNA of a savannah elephant on their father’s side.

Other, bigger studies involving samples from multiple elephant populations, however, suggest there’s an "extremely limited hybridization of gene flow between forest and savannah elephants". It seems forest elephants periodically move into open savannah, where they meet savannah elephants and even breed with them.

Dr Victoria Herridge, studying elephants and the locomotion of fossil pygmy elephants in particular at Natural History Museum, London, told me she'd talked to Dr Regis Debruyne, now of Museum of Natural History, Paris, who'd looked at a lot of dead museum specimens of elephants at one time labelled "pygmy elephants." According to Herridge, Debruyne had told her in conversation that some of these specimens that he'd examined had signs of being "morphologically intermediate" between forest elephants and savannah elephants – he suggested that these might be some sort of hybrid.

Debruyne's 2005 genetic study of forest and savannah elephant populations concluded that the two types of elephant weren't separate species, and that their evolution seemed to be a story of "incomplete isolation between forest and savannah African elephant populations, followed by recurrent interbreeding between the two forms."

The African Elephant Status Report of 2002 deliberately made no distinction between savannah elephants and forest elephants when it estimates how many elephants there were, and the report’s Position Paper makes it clear that as far as possible elephant hybrids are concerned, it doesn’t even want to go there.

The Position Paper states, "The (African Elephant Specialist) Group believes that the premature allocation of African elephants into separate specific taxa (species) would leave hybrids in an uncertain taxonomic and conservation status … and that more research is needed before such an allocation can be made."

There is also evidence of hybridisation in fossil proboscideans (elephants and their close relatives). Professor Adrian Lister of the Natural History Museum told me he felt that "hybridisation between wo species of mammoth, Mammuthus meridionalis and Mammuthus trogontherii" would "explain some 'mosaic' features of some Middle Pleistocene fossils." He also told me that shortly before I talked to him in 2011, a paper had just appeared that provided "ancient DNA evidence for hybridisation between woolly and Columbian mammoths in North America."

Matt Salusbury References:


Recent advances in DNA science have allowed the analysis of some preserved prehistoric elephants.
Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) x Woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) had a hybrid zone across North America between a colder northern region preferred by the Woolly Mammoth and the grasslands occupied by the Columbian Mammoth. The remains of numerous intermediate mammoths have been found in the hybrid zone. Columbian Mammoths were much larger than Woolly Mammoths and may have contributed to the decline of the latter by out-competing Woolly mammoth bulls. DNA evidence of male Woolly Mammoth x female Columbian Mammoth has also been found. It seems likely that this was a backcross of female hybrid to male Woolly Mammoth as the smaller Woolly Mammoth mave had problems copulating with a larger purebred female Columbian Mammoth.

Southern Mammoth (Mammuthus meridionalis) x Sgteppe Mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) hybridised extensively in contact zones according to the fossil record. Woolly Mammoth x Steppe Mammoth appeared to have hybridised as many intermediate forms have been found in the fossil record. It is hard to be certain about hybridisation in extinct animals known only from fossils. Were these hybrids, or landraces or were they still in the process of forming distinct species?


In 2004 there was confirmation of a hybrid between a black rhino and white rhino. White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum) x Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis) do not hybridise in the wild, but a female hybrid was produced in captivity at South Africa’s National Zoological Gardens Game Breeding Centre. The sire was a black rhino and the dam was a white rhino. It had ears shaped like those of the Black Rhino and a wide upper lip likethe White Rhino. The upper lip protruded slightly, but less than prehensile upper lip of the Black Rhino. Because it was a hybrid, it was destroyed before reaching maturity and its fertility is unknown. This sort of hybrid has no value for conservation and conservation zoos have no space for them.

A subspecific hybrid white rhino (Ceratotherium s. simum x C s cottoni) was bred at the Dvurkralv Zoo (Zoological Garden Dvur Kralove nad Labem) in the Czech Republic in 1977.


Hybrid tapirs from Baird's Tapir (T bairdii) and the Lowland Tapir (T terrestris) were bred at the San Francisco Zoo around 1968 and a female hybrid was back-crossed to a Baird's Tapir resulting in a 2nd generation hybrid around 1970.


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