Possum-cat Hybrids

A strange cross from Down Under

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EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD

     
The pilots, who risked their lives at sea, were inclined to regard cosmologists as impractical dreamers.
—Laurence Bergreen,
Over the Edge of the World
medieval scholarA medieval scholar

Scholars (specifically, biologists) say hybrids between cats and brush-tailed possums (Felis catus × Trichosurus vulpecula) are impossible. The claim is that the two are simply too distantly related to produce progeny together. And yet, there are many eyewitness reports from ordinary Australians claiming that such possum-cat hybrids do in fact exist. They have seen them with their own eyes, they say. They and their friends have owned them and lived with them for years. For example, one resident of Branxholme, Victoria wrote in to The Argus, the Melbourne paper, to say that he “had one of these animals for 14 years.” So who’s right? The scholars? Or the witnesses? Various claims of this sort are quoted below.

But before turning to those reports, it might be worthwhile to touch on a related topic. Recently, in reading a biography of Magellan, Over the Edge of the World, by Laurence Bergreen (2004), I ran across another situation in which scholars were at variance with ordinary observation. In this case, however, it was cosmologists and sailors. Cosmologists were the medieval answer to modern geographers, cartographers and astronomers. Their goal was to describe the structure of the universe, including the geography of the earth. However, cosmologists were university scholars who pondered geography from the armchair, untraveled thinkers expert in an intellectual tradition handed down from ancient times. In contrast, there were the ordinary pilots of voyaging ships, who collected geographic information firsthand as a practical matter essential to their line of work. As Bergreen (p. 11) comments,

    Although it might be expected that pilots worked closely with cosmologists, that was far from the case. Pilots were hired hands who occupied a lower social stratum. Many of them were illiterate and relied on simple charts that delineated familiar coastlines and harbors, as well as on their own instincts regarding wind and water. The cosmologists looked down on pilots as “coarse men” who possessed “little understanding.” The pilots, who risked their lives at sea, were inclined to regard cosmologists as impractical dreamers.

This situation led scholars, who long remained ignorant of the new discoveries of mariners, to make gross errors in their maps. For example, they would far undercalculate the earth’s circumference and omit the Pacific Ocean, one-third of the surface area of the world. And it seems a similar situation may exist today in which scholarly biologists, secure in their confidence that they know what’s possible with hybrids and what is not, look down on and dismiss anecdotal reports such as those quoted below. Let’s hope that the magnitude of any resulting error in biological thought falls short of the vast blunders of the cosmologists.

Trichosurus vulpecula Common Brush-tail Possum
(Trichosurus vulpecula)

In 1872, Alexander Callender Purdie (1824-1899), a member of the Royal Society of New Zealand, discussed before a meeting of the society (Purdie 1872), an alleged hybrid of this sort, which he says was “presented to the society by Mr. Jennings as a cross between a cat and an opossum, said to be bred by Mr. Jones, of Ballarat, Australia.”

It seems clear that the specific animal Purdie was referring to when he says “opossum,” was Trichosurus vulpecula, the Common Brush-tailed Possum, which was the only animal familiarly known in New Zealand as an opossum at that time. It seems that in the late nineteenth century Australia, too, opossum was commonly used in referring to T. vulpecula. The name later became shortened with an apostrophe to ’possum and still later the apostrophe was dropped to form the modern name possum. Trichosurus vulpecula is native to Australia, but introduced in New Zealand. It has the widest distribution of any Australian mammal. Nowak (1999, p. 93) comments that “Because of its fecundity and adaptability to a variety of conditions. T. vulpecula has been compared to the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginia) in North America. Both species seem able to live near people and even to expand their range in the face of human development.”

felis catus

What seems to have been a hybrid of the same type was briefly described in a Sydney newspaper five years later. The account appeared on page 555 (cols. 3 & 4) of The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser November 3, 1877. It refers to a “lusus naturae which turned up at a township on the other side of the river, in the shape of a cat. This animal has fore paws exactly resembling those of an opossum, whilst the hind feet are precisely similar to the feet of a kangaroo. In other respects this monstrosity displays no special departure from the ordinary feline type” (source).

A spate of correspondence to the Melbourne-based newspaper The Australasian began in the spring of that same year with the following letter, which appeared on page 24 of the June 2, 1877, issue (source):

CROSS BETWEEN CATS AND OPOSSUMS

TO THE EDITOR OF THE AUSTRALASIAN.
    Sir,—Did you ever hear of a cross between the domestic cat and the opossum? A cat here has produced six kittens at her second litter. And four out of the six are covered with opossum fur. At the first litter she had two kittens only. They are both here alive and well, and do not differ from other cats in any way. Of the mother herself, she was born on the ground; and both her father and mother, sisters and brothers, are all ordinary cats. Whence come the furry young ones? They are at my feet as write, soft-woolled, large frilled, short-legged, and broad between the eyes, with short ears. There are no Angora cats in the neighborhood; besides, I never saw a woolly cat. What do you think? An old boundary rider spotted the kittens at once as being opossum cats. He had seen similar cases upon the Murray [River].
STOCKING.
Burtundy, N.S.W., May 19.

A letter about a fertile cat-possum hybrid appeared later that month on page 25 of the June 23, 1877, issue of The Australasian (source):

OPOSSUM AND CAT CROSS

    Sir,—Allow me to contribute my little story. About nine years ago, on a station in the Wimmera district, I saw a tomcat with a decided opossum look about him—a long bushy tail, pointed nose, large round eyes, without the contraction of the pupils, sleepy in the daytime lively at dusk, furry coat mixed with hair, colour white with a brown shade. While stroking the animal another wild puss darted across the floor, having all the characteristics of Tommy [i.e., of a cat], supposed to be his progeny.                                                            NATURALIST.
Stawell, June 18.

Earlier that same month, another, longer report, describing another fertile hybrid, appeared on page 24 of the June 16, 1877, issue of the The Australasian (source). It reads as follows:

CROSS BETWEEN OPOSSUM AND CAT

    Sir,—In reference to the above subject, I would wish to remark that some years since I saw a specimen of what appeared to be a cross between these two animals. It was dead, and was left by the owner at a Mr. St. John's, then a taxidermist of this town, with instructions to have it stuffed. The owner stated that, when living, it caught and ate mice like a cat; also, that at other times, it would make a good meal off a cabbage in her garden. I took particular notice of it at the time. The forepaws were those of the opossum, while the hind ones were like the cat’s. The fur of the opossum was distinctly observable on the surface, whilst underneath the fur or hair of the cat could be seen. The general colour was that of the opossum, but faint lines could be seen like those of a tabby cat. The most remarkable thing about this creature, however, was that, according to the statement of its owner, it had on several occasions had kittens, which would tend to show that it was not a mule, unless the law affecting mules is upset for, I believe, the first time in this instance. I think Mr. St. John is still in Victoria, and if so, would doubtless remember the specimen above described. Would not a natural history column add interest to your valuable paper?
PLATYPUS,
Ballarat.

(There is, of course, a widespread belief that hybrids are always sterile, an old wives’ tale extensively debunked on this website.)

Such hybrids have been alleged for a very long time. An earlier report appeared on page 18 of the November 7, 1853, issue of the Adelaide Times, a newspaper published in Adelaide, South Australia (source). It reads as follows:

    CURIOUS PHENOMENON—At the Anderson’s Arms Inn, situated on the Mount Barker Road, where it emerges from Glen Osmnod, and on the ground of which the Bachelor’s Picnic Party was held, may be seen a litter of Kittens, half Cat and half Opossum. They have the tail, the fur and fore claws of the latter animal.

Moving forward in time, a ten-year-old writes in to the author of a children’s column, “Mr. Flamingo.” The letter appeared on page 2 of the March 25, 1899, issue of the Launceston Examiner, a newspaper published in Launceston, Tasmania (source):

    My Dear Mr. Flamingo,—I am greatly interested in your children’s column, and read the stories every week. I think you would like to hear about an opossum cat which I have. She is a curious little creature, and knows me so well that she follows me about everywhere. At night, when I am in bed, she finds her way to my room, and coils up on my pillow; but the poor little thing is never allowed to stay all night with me. She does not love my brothers at all, because they torment her so. We also have an opossum, which is very amusing. Sometimes we put it up the pear tree, and it pulls the pears off, and throws them down at us. If we run away he is not long coming down the tree after us.—Your constant reader, Frances Ruth Pitt (aged 10 years). Campbell Town, March 22.

And then we have the following from page 2 of the January 14, 1907, issue of The Bendigo Independent, a newspaper published in Bendigo, Victoria (source). It reads as follows:

    ’Possum-Cat Hybrids.— “T.S.” (Gisborne) writes in the Argus’ natural history notes : “I notice in The Argus of last Friday a letter from one of your correspondents, “T.T.,” from Hamilton, about a hybrid cat and ’possum, and also your note to the effect that there is a scientific assurance that cats and ’possums will not interbreed. With all due respect for science, it seems strange that there should be so much evidence to the contrary. I can bear out the evidence of your Hamilton correspondent, for some years ago, while on a visit to Axedale, the constable in charge of the local police station had a peculiar-looking cat. The animal, which was of a dingy black, had fur like a ’possum, and heavy hindquarters. This animal was one of a litter found in the hollow of a tree. The mother, a domestic cat that had gone wild, was shot. The owner, who would not part with the animal on any account, was satisfied it was a hybrid between a ’possum and a cat. I saw a similar specimen at Macedon about three years ago.” Two correspondents [other than T.S., the guy of Gisborne] write stating that hybrids between a cat and a ’possum are now in the possession of Mrs. Hansom, of Blyth Street. Geelong, and Mr. Duff, at the Queenscliff end of the Nepean road.

A report of a similar nature appeared on page 18 of the January 24, 1920, issue of Smith’s Weekly, a newspaper published in Sydney, New South Wales (source). It reads as follows:

A ’Possum Cat

    Down at Sussex Inlet (Jervis Bay) lives a quaint old Irishman. He earns a well-buttered crust netting the breakfast relish, and centres his affection on “Sinn Fein,” a weird hybrid, half-’possum, half-cat. This curious creature possesses the characteristics of both parents mixed. He has one cat’s-eye, the other a ’possum’s, and his fur is nondescript grey. He loves the rain, climbs a tree with the ease of his ’possum ancestors, walks on four legs cat fashion, lives on fish, and has never been known to caterwaul or purr under the gravest provocation. He is friendly and intelligent, and his boon companion is “Home Rule,” the Irishman’s black cattle dog.

Proceeding in chronological order, the next possum-cat hybrid made its way onto page 2 of the September 1, 1934, issue of the Recorder, a newspaper published in Port Pirie, South Australia (source):

HALF AND HALF

     WHEN Alex Swensson, jnr., began talking about, a freak cat he had at home, his friends put it down to a rough Saturday night and let it go at that. But the owner was insistent that he had something unusual, and called on the writer to back him up.
    Yesterday afternoon I had a look at the animal, which is half cat and half opossum. The head and tail are all cat. The body and legs ’possum, particularly the claws, which are built for fast and high climbing.
    Tempted with a piece of meat the freak will sit up and cry for it in approved ’possum style, and seldom is heard the homely “meow.” Its run resembles a pacing horse, as much as anything, with front portion moving rhythmically and the hindquarters rolling.
    Mrs. Swensson, although she has received one or two hefty scratches from the freak, would not part with him for worlds.
Article continues below Video: A closer look at a brush-tailed possum.

The Argus (May 14, 1936, p. 4), a newspaper published in Melbourne, carried the following piece of reader’s correspondence (source):

Mixed Relations

    From Robert Downing of Carisbrook [Victoria]
    “When we were walking home from church on a recent night we heard a series of growls, hisses and barks, and my father’s torch, flashing along a fence, revealed our cat and a possum-cat with backs up hissing at each other while our dog, a four-months-old staghound, was barking at both and apparently thinking it all great fun.”
    “My sister grabbed our cat. I picked up the possum-cat (being scratched while doing so), and dad called the dog off. Since then I have seen the dog and the possum-cat making friends while our white cat turns up her noise at them. Now the possum-cat is scared of the white cat and is thoroughly chummy with the dog.”

Another report about a possum-cat hybrid, which produced offspring, appeared on page 3 of the August 31, 1939, issue of Queensland Country Life, an Australian newspaper published in Ormiston, Queensland (source):

Head Of A Cat

But The Body…

(By A. Elliot.)

    It is generally admitted by bushmen that cats and opossums will occasionally cross, although there is some disagreement whether the progeny is sterile.
    The accompanying photograph [which is not shown here due to the poor quality of the digital image accompanying the archive version this article] is an animal claimed to be the grandchild of a hybrid.
    The first cross, the owner, Mr. Wason, of Kumbia, said, showed many signs of its opossum father, having the inside of its tail clean, and the fur and shape of its body being opossum-like.
    Amongst the many cats at Mr. Wason’s place this animal was always an outcast. She, however, had one kitten which was the mother of the present two. One of these shows little of the opossum blood, but the subject of the photo, has many traces. The feet and head are those of a normal cat, but in the shape and coloring of the body the opossum can be plainly seen. The tail, though well furred, is ringed and has a tendency to curl at the tip.
    When handed food this animal will take it in its paws and carry it to its mouth. Sometimes it will even pick food up off the floor with its paws.

It’s of interest that this last report (1) gives the direction of the cross, male possum × female cat; (2) says that a female F1 hybrid was produced; (3) that this hybrid successfully backcrossed to a male cat and produced a female B1 hybrid; (4) and that this B1 female backcrossed again to a male cat and produced two progeny.

So then, it has not only been alleged that possum-cat hybrids exist, but also that the female hybrids are sometimes fertile in backcrosses (which is consistent with Haldane’s Rule). Another news report, which appeared in The Argus (Nov. 10, 1933, p. 7) stated that a possum-cat owned by a local resident also produced “kittens” in a backcross to cat (source). But, of course, claims that possum-cat hybrids exist and that they are sometimes fertile require experimental confirmation. The present collection of reports is intended to elicit such experimentation.

Clearly, any such cross would be quite distant. T. vulpecula is a marsupial and Felis catus, a eutherian mammal, so this hybrid would be between animals belonging to what are usually rated as distinct superorders or subclasses (Marsupialia and Eutheria) of Order Mammalia. However, the very disparity of this cross—and the allegations that the resulting hybrids are sometimes fertile—makes it all the more interesting.

See also the related article “Opossum-cat Hybrids.”

Report about a cat adopting a possum (1) >>.”

Report about a cat adopting a possum (2) >>.”

A piece of possum-cat hearsay >>.”

deer-cow hybrid Deer-cow hybrids?

A list of cat crosses

The following is a list of reported cat crosses. Some of these crosses are much better documented than others (as indicated by the reliability arrow). Indeed, some might seem completely impossible. But all have been reported at least once. The links below are to separate articles. Additional crosses, not listed here, are covered on the cat hybrids page.

dog-cow hybrid A dog-cow hybrid?
reliability arrow

Cat × Wildcat >>

Lion × Tiger >>

Jaguar × Lion >>

Leopard × Lion >>

Jaguar × Leopard >>

Cat × Pallas’s Cat >>

Cat × Rabbit (Cabbits) >>

Cat × Marten >>

Leopard × Tiger >>

Cat × Dog >>

Cat × Raccoon >>

Cat × Possum >>

Cat × Opossum >>

Cat × Human >>

Cat × Rat >>

Cat × Squirrel >>

Cat × Duck >>

Cat × Chicken >>

Cat × Horse >>


By the same author: Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, Oxford University Press (2006).


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