EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD GENETICS, ΦΒΚ
If a woman gives birth to a lion, the state shall be overthrown by a foreign people.
De Divinatione, I, 53
Mothers have occasionally been reported as having given birth to progeny not of their own kind, a phenomenon known as heterogenesis. An example is a recent news story about the Zimbabwean woman, Precious Nyathi, who in 2017 was widely reported as having given birth to a frog in a hospital in her home district of Gokwe. The following is a description of the event, as excerpted from a report in the Daily Mail:
And the foregoing is not the first reported case of a woman giving birth to a bullfrog. For example, the following notice appeared on page 3, column 1, of the May 23, 1893, issue of The Progressive Farmer, a newspaper published in Winston, North Carolina (source):
Most people quickly dismiss these reports because there seems to be no rational explanation for such events, which leads to the conclusion that they are impossible and that the reports are simply faked or mistaken. Indeed, heterogenetic births serve in adages as a kind of standard of impossibility. Thus, the Bible (Job 11:12) tells us that
And in truth, the notion of a mother giving birth to an animal not of her own kind does seem utterly fantastic, so much so, that when one encounters a serious news report alleging heterogenesis, it’s almost as if a Grimm’s fairy tale has somehow come to life. And yet, as we have seen, such reports do exist.
So…Such events are impossible, aren’t they? Or, if not, and natural law does allow them on certain rare occasions to occur, the question becomes, How? Or is it possible that these reports are mistaking for heterogenesis something else that has nothing to do with heterogenesis? Any unaccountable event of any kind will always seem impossible or supernatural until a explanation in terms of natural law is obtained.
Careless examination. One fact may account for at least some of the cases of reported heterogenesis: Many reports about hybrids describe offspring that are almost, but not entirely, different from their mother. They closely resemble their father instead. So a careless examination of such a hybrid might result in a report of heterogenesis. In these cases, then, it would not be a matter a heterogenetic birth, but rather of a hybrid being reported as such a birth.
The next case explicitly shows that traits indicating an animal is a hybrid can be overlooked on first encounter, and yet be detected with careful examination. The report appeared on page 3, columns 2 and 3, the July 7, 1889, issue of Fort Worth Daily Gazette (access source), which had picked up the story from the Chicago Times. The story, titled “A Wonderful Cow” originally appeared in the Toronto Globe on May 25, 1889.
The farmers of the township of Tecumseh, in South Simcoe [County, Ontario], are greatly interested at present in a strange freak of nature which has taken place in their midst, being nothing less than a cow giving birth to two lambs and a calf.
The interesting event occurred on the farm of John Henry Carter, lot 4, eighth concession line, Sunday, April 14, and when the news spread abroad so many people wanted to see the curiosities that Mr. Carter finally decided to get rid of them, and disposed of the cow and her progeny to Isaac M. Cross, an enterprising young farmer of Bondhead.
The animals were removed to Tottenham and a few days ago the Toronto Globe was invited to send up a man to see the stock and investigate independently the correctness of the story.
At a first glance the reporter was rather disappointed in the lambs, having entertained some vague idea on the subject, and hoping to see a fully developed calf with the face of a lamb or vice versa. But they appeared to his uneducated eye to be ordinary lambs and nothing more. This was at a first glance. A subsequent careful examination and comparison with other lambs of the same age showed a marked difference. Those of the unnatural parentage are larger and coarser, the wool is darker, and in toward the pelt it is like the hair on a Maltese cat; there is a tuft of hair on the breast between the forelegs similar to that of a calf. The legs are hairy and the wool is slightly streaked with hair. The mouth is dark inside and larger and firmer looking than that of a lamb and the tail is frequently thrown over the back after the manner of a calf.
They are both ewe lambs. These indications, to an experienced breeder, are of themselves sufficient to prove the authenticity of the story regarding their strange birth. There is a strong likelihood of their growing to a large size, and on both of their heads there are dark spots, indicating a possibility of horns. They are at present as large as ordinary year-old lambs.
The cow is an ordinary, common grade red cow, without any pretensions to pedigree. It is kept in the next stall to the lambs, and munches away quite contentedly.
The calf, which was born shortly after the lambs, is also in the group, but it has not the slightest claim to distinction, further than the fact that it is brother to the lambs. All four are healthy and vigorous looking.—Chicago Times.
So here we can see that probable hybrids, or at least what the reporter on careful examination pronounced to be hybrids, were initially described simply as lambs. Lambs produced by a cow would be heterogenesis, but cow-sheep hybrids produced by a cow would not.Careless description. Another explanation of reports about heterogenesis is that the person doing the reporting might know, or at least believe, that he or she is dealing with a hybrid, but nonetheless refer to it as if it were pure. So, in such cases it might seem be a case of actual heterogenesis, when in reality it was merely a matter of careless description. For example, in the report quoted below, it seems clear that the rancher De Vries thought that the so-called fawn was a deer-cow hybrid, because he refers to the fact that the mother cow had been ranging in an area where deer were plentiful, and yet he still describes it simply as a deer. And the newspaper joins him in mis-description by calling it a fawn in the headline.
Springdale, Wash., April 27.—Giving birth to a fawn, a Jersey cow on the ranch of G. R. De Vries, five miles from Springdale, a few weeks ago provided a freak of nature never before heard of, according to De Vries. “It is a deer in every particular,” he said.
“It is a deer in every particular,” he said. “The head is a trifle broader than that of a purebred fawn, but in every other particular it is perfect. It weighed only about ten pounds at birth, and is full of life, vigorous, and possesses all the characteristics of a fawn in its native forests. The mother is a purebred Jersey, 18 months old.”
“The hair is a mixture of white and red, and the ears lie well back on the head. I am sure it is a fawn. Its mother and grandmother have been running on the range some twelve to eighteen miles west of Springdale, on the eastern slope of the Huckleberry mountains, where deer are plentiful the year round.”
So this animal, was carelessly described as a “fawn” or “deer” when even the owner and the reporter were clearly of the opinion that it was a hybrid that closely resembled its deer sire. The quoted report appeared in the May 25, 1918, issue of Healdsburg Enterprise, a newspaper published in Healdsburg, California (access source).
We have a report on record about a bear being cut out of the womb of a cow in front of multiple witnesses. It appeared on page 7 (columns 2 and 3) of the May 16, 1877 issue of the Viennese newspaper Welt Blatt:
On the 6th of this month, a veterinarian residing at Košice [the largest city in eastern Slovakia, which in 1877 was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire], Herr Kaiser, was called to the nearby village of Buza where the pregnant cow of a farmer, named Glück, had been unable to calve despite all efforts to assist her. When even the vet couldn’t help, she had to be slaughtered. And what was inside! Instead of a calf, the assembled farm workers were amazed to find a fully formed bear cub weighing 60 Viennese pounds (i.e., 74 lbs or 33.5 kg). It had a long-haired, shaggy coat and resembled a calf only in the upper portion of its face. The nasal bones were absent and it was a cyclops with a single eye in the center of its forehead. At the urging of the veterinarian, this remarkable monstrosity was taken to Košice. [Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original German.]
Thus, this creature, though facially deformed in a way that indicated a relationship its bovine mother, in the article was described simply as a bear cub. So what might have been interpreted as a case of heterogenesis, should probably be interpreted as a case of a rather strange hybrid that mostly resembled its father, but which also displayed a token of cattle ancestry.
Adoption. Another explanation that might account for certain reports of this type is adoption. A wide variety of cases are on record in which an animal chooses to adopt and mother a young not of her own kind. On another page of this website, a wide variety of such adoptions are documented, ranging from a ordinary hen adopting ostriches to a cat adopting ducks. One of the cases documented on that page is that of a cat adopting a squirrel. So perhaps a cat adopting a squirrel is the explanation of the case about to be described.
The seventeenth-century German physician, Gabriel Clauder (1633-1691), published a brief article (Clauderi 1686) in the medical journal Ephemeridum Medico-Physicarum Germanicarum Academiae Naturae Curiosorum, an account cited by a variety of later authors (e.g., Blumenbach 1781, p. 10; Broca 1859). This report is almost as fairy-tale-like as the bullfrog report quoted above. It gives a description of what seemed to be a pure squirrel birthed by a cat. The report was cited by later scholars for at least two centuries. It reads as follows: “On a Cat giving Birth to a Squirrel—It is certain that both the highest miracles and daily novelties, as well as numerous sports and alterations, arise
However, obviously, adoption is not the explanation embraced by Clauder. He clearly thought the squirrel was a hybrid.
Clauder’s cat giving birth to a squirrel, parallels various more recent cases, such as that described in the following notice, which appeared on page 3, column 6, of the April 13, 1876 issue of The Tiffin Tribune, a newspaper published in Tiffin, Ohio (source):
The following report appears at the bottom of column 4 of the front page of the May 20, 1886, issue of the Democratic Northwest, a newspaper published in Napoleon, Ohio (source):
Here again, adoption is the most likely explanation. It’s well known that cats will sometimes adopt rats. Mother cats have a brief period right after giving birth during which they are willing to adopt almost any animal, even birds, such as ducklings or chicks. Probably that’s what happened in this case, too.
Human mothers There are various cases, beyond the bullfrog case already quoted, in which women reportedly have given birth to animals. For example, in Welser’s chronicle of the city of Augsburg (Chronica Der Weitberuempten Keyserlichen Freyen vnd deß H. Reichs Statt Augsburg, 1595, p. 41), it is stated that a woman in that city, the wife of a certain Peter Ackermann, gave birth to a beaver in the year 1540.
There seems to be no reason why a woman would choose to surreptitiously adopt a beaver. But it might well be that she had a deformed child that was described as such, or simply that the whole case was made up, which would make this a case of careless description. It may be, too, that Welser merely heard about this beaver birth from some unreliable source and then recorded it as a factual event. Conceivably, there may have been intentional deception.
Thus, in 1909, South Carolina newspapers reported a woman giving birth to a creature that looked like a naked opossum with a stub tail. Given the locale of the reported event, a Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginianus) would be in question. The following is a transcript of one of the reports as it appeared on page 2, column 3 of the December 1, 1909, issue of The Lexington Dispatch, a newspaper published in Lexington, South Carolina (source):
That a woman might actually give birth to an opossum is almost beyond imagination. The alternative possibility, that she produced a human-opossum hybrid, also seems beyond the pale. But in that case, the only possibility is a hoax on the part of Dr. Folk. But then it seems likely that he would be caught, given that the story says that he was making the specimen available to expert scrutiny. So in this case, explanation in terms of heterogenesis, hybridization or hoax all seem equally unsatisfactory. It's not easy to see how a doctor would expect to gain by making up such a story.
Another South Carolina case, also certified by a doctor, involves a woman living in the country near Orangeburg, who supposedly gave birth to a headless bird. The report appeared in a journal for physicians, Medical Brief (1888, vol. 16, p. 215). Supposedly, this weird offspring was headless because during her pregnancy the mother had seen the dead body of a pig whose head had been gnawed off by a buzzard. This report originally appeared in the Proceedings of the State Medical Association of South Carolina (p. 137, Charleston, 1888).
Here science seems to collide head-on with fairy tale. Why would doctors collude to make up such a thing? And yet, on the other hand, how could it be true?
Women birthing puppies. Various old reports refer, too, to women giving birth to puppies. Whether hoax or hybrids, at least three cases are on record.
A Dutch case. In his Observations, a compilation of rare medical cases, Dutch physician Stalpart vander Wiel says that in 1677 at The Hague, a midwife, Elisabeth Tomboy, assisted a woman in giving birth to a living puppy (Observation LXXII), a female. His report includes a picture (shown above). As in the case of the opossum, vander Wiel says this weird canine offspring was hairless (“pilis carentem”).
A German case. Another such case, in which a woman was allegedly delivered of three puppies that died soon after birth, is listed by the German chronicler Niels Heldvad (1564-1634). Supposedly it happened in the Duchy of Schleswig at the outset of the seventeenth century (see his Sylva Chronologica Circuli Baltici, 1625, Hamburg, p. 265). Among the events that took place in the year 1600, he includes the following:
An Italian case. In his Supplementum chronicorum (Paris, 1535, p. 382), the Italian chronicler Jacopo Filippo Foresti (1434-1520) records that at Brescia in Lombardy a woman gave birth to a dog in the year 1471, a case that parallels those reported by Stalpart vander Wiel and by Niels Heldvad at left.
Another supposedly nonfictional case was described by the Jesuit Martin Delrio (1551-1608). If true, it would be a case of a cow-human hybrid closely resembling a human. However, with more than four centuries intervening between this supposed event and the present, the facts can never be investigated. Such is the case for nearly all such reports. At any rate, Delrio’s account (Delrio 1755, p. 149) reads as follows:
And rejecting some cases as hoaxes seems entirely justified. One famous case, in which a woman purportedly gave birth to multiple nonhuman offspring, was eventually exposed as a hoax. It was that of the peasant girl Mary Toft, who in 1726 became famous throughout England for, it was said, giving birth to numerous rabbits. Medical professionals staked and lost their reputations on the veracity of Mary’s claims.
The Toft case was very thoroughly investigated. However, it seems that no other such cases, for example the various cases quoted above, have been evaluated with equal assiduity. And yet, proof of trickery in one such case tells us nothing about these other, as yet uninvestigated cases. It does seem that such births could in many cases be interpreted as cases of adoption, though any offspring that exhibit slightly mixed traits imbued with the mother’s nature, cannot be satisfactorily explained in this way.
However, if there are any that are neither hoaxes or adoptions, then it would seem that they can most reasonably be interpreted as being due to hybridization. How else could a woman give birth to something a bullfrog, as reported in the quoted notice at the top of this page? For the DNA of human parents to be altered, without hybridization, so that their offspring might take on the exact characteristics of a bullfrog would seem to require some kind of magic. Mutations of this sort are unknown. Even more implausibly, spontaneous generation, would require not only the DNA but the whole organism to be produced out of thin air. That truly would be magic. These two options, mutation and spontaneous generation, seem to be impossible.
But, as Sherlock Holmes pointed out, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” And in this case, an option that does seem highly improbable, but not impossible, does remain. One can explain this phenomenon and still remain—barely—within the bounds of natural law, if one supposes that the bullfrog offspring produced by that North Carolina mother was a hybrid. For example, what if she went for a swim at the local swimming hole at what happened to be the time of year when bullfrog sperm swarm in pond water in their billions. (Most kinds of frogs and fish engage in external fertilization, that is, males release their sperm into open water). Under such circumstances one frog spermatozoan might have found its way into her reproductive tract and fertilized a human egg, thus initiating the development of her froggy offspring. The next step would be deactivation of the human half of her offspring’s genome, resulting in the eventual birth of a hybrid that looked just like a frog. Another point in favor of this hypothesis is the fact that quite a few reports about frog-human hybrids do exist. Some of the reported individuals were even viable and supposedly lived for years.
But such cases of ostensible heterogenesis resulting from hybridization would differ from ordinary cases of hybridization because the progeny in such cases would closely resemble the sire, and have few or no traits attributable to the mother. In some reported cases the resemblance to the father was apparently so perfect that no discrepancy could easily be discerned, or at least none was recorded by the reporter. In others, as in the case quoted above, of the two sheep reportedly birthed by a cow, there may be one or a few traits shared with the mother, but perhaps, so few that at a glance the hybrid would seem to be a pure member of the father’s kind.
But if these are in fact cases of hybridization, what is happening at the genetic level? What causes the fathers’ traits to preponderate so markedly in the offspring? One explanation is that it might have been a rare instance of a phenomenon in which a cat ovum, penetrated by a squirrel spermatozoon, rescued itself by doubling the squirrel genome and somehow eliminating the haploid cat genome so that the fertilized zygote became diploid squirrel and developed as such. (Presumably the remaining individuals in the litter, which were all ordinary cats, would then be the separate products of an ordinary insemination with cat semen.)
Alternatively, and this theory seems more likely, the event may be explicable in terms of differential activation of the two parental genomes. In any F1 cross, each parent contributes one haploid genome to the F1 hybrid. So the case presently in question could be explained if the haploid cat genome in a cat-squirrel hybrid had been entirely shut down and the squirrel haploid genome was the one that solely governed the entire course of development. This second hypothesis is more plausible because it is consistent with an phenomenon, that is, it has been repeatedly observed that in many cases a hybrid will be identical to one of its parents in certain parts of its body, but to the other, in other parts. For example, donkey-zebra hybrids often look like donkeys with zebra legs attached, which shows that the donkey haploid genome is dominating development in all parts of the hybrid other than the legs. Such observations are inconsistent with the first hypothesis, in which one parental genome is eliminated in the zygote, because there would then be no mechanism for differentially expressing parental traits in different parts of the hybrid’s body. However, if there is a switching mechanism that can turn off haploid genomes differentially in different cells, then it would be possible to produce in a hybrid with zebra legs and a donkey body. The extent to which the characteristics of one parent would dominate those of the other would depend on the cross and the individual hybrid in question. But in general, some percentage of hybrid’s traits will be attributable to Parent A, and a percentage to B, and a percentage show a mixture of A and B. Cases of ostensible heterogenesis would then be hybrids in which most maternal traits have been suppresed.
An interesting thing to consider is that if such births do occur, there may be those walking among us who seem to be wholly human, but who are in fact half non-human genetically. From the standpoint of reproduction, such people would be like carriers of a genetic defect, not affecting them, but potentially affecting their offspring. For example, the boy described by Delrio as having been birthed by a cow, might have been a cryptic hybrid and therefore the carrier of a suppressed haploid cow genome. In that case, when he grew up and married, cattle traits could have shown up in his offspring. And of course, the same would be true for any other cryptic hybrid, say a sheep produced by a cow, or a frog born of a woman.
Another weird spin-off of these notions is that there may be “people” who look normal when dressed, but who bear concealed indicators of non-human parentage—fleecy legs, bristly backs, hooved toes, and so forth. Such potentialities bridge the gap between myth and everyday life.
One further point to consider is that, presumably, if mothers can give birth to hybrid offspring having traits only of their father, then it should be possible for the reverse to occur, that is, for mothers to give birth to offspring that are genetically hybrid, but who exhibit only maternal traits. This latter phenomenon would, of course, go unrecognized, because such hybrid offspring would be phenotypically indistinguishable from other offspring produced by those mothers.
Such births, in which one kind of animal is birthed by another, are mentioned in various classical and pre-classical, sources. For example, the first-century Roman writer Valerius Maximus (1.6) mentions a supposed case of a horse giving birth to a hare, and Titus Livius (23.31) says a cow birthed a foal at Sinuessa in 215 B.C. Likewise, Herodotus (1.84.3) refers to a woman giving birth to a lion. And Pliny the Elder (The Natural History, 7.3) comments that, “Alcippe was delivered of an elephant—but then that must be looked upon as a prodigy; as in the case, too, where, at the commencement of the Marsian war, a female slave was delivered of a serpent.”
Weird events of this kind were regarded as omens. Attempts to predict the future through the interpretation of births dates to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia. The following are just a few of the prophecies that appear in their surviving lists (source: Babylonian birth omens):
Human Origins: Are we hybrids?
On the Origins of New Forms of Life
Cat-rabbit Hybrids: Fact or fiction?
Georges Cuvier: A Biography
Prothero: A Rebuttal
Branches of Biology