Are sharks interbreeding to survive climate change?

The Week's Editorial Staff
The WeekJanuary 4, 2012

Scientists discover 57 rare hybrid sharks swimming off the Australian coast — and suggest two species mated to give their offspring a better shot at survival

Dozens of rare hybrid sharks have been discovered lurking in the waters off Australia's eastern coast. This surprising find by a team from the University of Queensland has experts speculating that the hybridization may be the result of climate change, which theoretically forced the predators to interbreed in order to better adapt to rising water temperatures. Here's what you should know:

What kind of sharks are they?
The hybrids are the result of multiple generations of two genetically distinct species mating: the Australian black tip shark — "which favors tropical waters," says John Roach at MSNBC — and the larger common black tip, which favors more temperate waters. Covering 1,250 miles of Australian coast, researchers identified 57 hybrid sharks. 

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How do we know they're hybrids?
Physically, the sharks appeared to look like one species, but upon genetic testing, were found to be another, says Amy Coopes at Discovery News. The hybrid sharks were also found to be stronger than either of the parent species — "a literal survival of the fittest."

And they're interbreeding because of climate change?
Possibly. Researchers suggest that rising ocean temperatures may have encouraged the interbreeding. The hybrids, which can theoretically handle a broader range of water temperatures than either parent species, may be better suited to survive in our changing oceans than either parent.

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Sources: Discovery News, MSNBC, United Press International

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