The Curious Case of the Mysterious Labrador Duck: Extinct species or misidentified hybrid?
Hardly anyone has ever heard of the Labrador Duck, unlike the Passenger Pigeon or the Carolina Parakeet few mourn its passage into extinction. This lost species of diving sea duck was formerly found from Nova Scotia to New Jersey. The last confirmed report of the Labrador Duck (also formerly called the Pied Duck) was in 1875. It was never very common, and was never commercially important as its meat was apparently dry and due to its diet it tasted like day-old shellfish. In fact no scientist ever even confirmed the location of their nesting grounds or even a single active nest, though some more suspect reports indicated that they may have nested in Baffin Bay, the St. Lawrence, and/or along the coast of Labrador. The sad fact is we actually have no idea why they even went extinct when other similar diving sea ducks never suffered anywhere near the same fate.
Recently, Ornithologist E. M. McCarthy, a leading expert on bird hybridization, suggested an alternative explanation of the Labrador Duck’s disappearance. Perhaps the bird was never a species at all, perhaps we never found its nesting grounds because it was actually a hybrid between two other diving sea ducks, namely Steller’s Eider (Polysticta stelleri) and the Common Eider (Somateria mollissima). The idea of hybridization being a source of unknown creatures is an interesting hypothesis, and not at all a rare occurrence in animals, especially ducks. In fact hybridization is an often overlooked but important force in the evolution of new species, it is an important source of new genes into a population which could allow a local group to diverge and ultimately become a new population to adapt to new conditions . For instance, tons of genetic proof exists that modern humans leaving Africa frequently hybridized with other species of humans they met such as the extinct Neandrathals and Denosovians. The coyotes in New England (which are unusually large and oddly colored for coyotes), have many wolf genes which are not found in western coyote populations indicating hybridization between now locally extinct wolves and the coyotes first arriving from the midwest in the 1930’s. However, hybridizations especially between more distantly related species often not only produces unusual and distinct but *sterile* hybrid offspring. Donkey’s and horses for instance produce mules, and lions and tigers produce ligers - both sterile and both with features which could easily cause them to be mistaken for a different species. If the Labrador Duck was actually a sterile hybrid that could explain both its rarity and the lack of information on its nesting grounds. Sadly 1875 was a time period when over-hunting and habitat destruction drove many species in the region to extinction. I assume genetic testing will eventually sort out the mystery of the Labrador Duck - maybe we’ll find out that its extinction is in fact one tragedy Western “progress” isn’t responsible for.
All this got me thinking about modern cryptids. Cryptids are by definition rare animals with unusual features often only sighted for some period of time in one location - just like you would expect for a sterile hybrid. Could some cryptids be explained as hybrids? Could animal-type cryptids like chupacabra, lake serpents, hellhounds, big cats, elwetritsch, the dover demon and others be explained this way? Of course it’s impossible (or at least uncomfortable) to imagine how hybridization could give rise to bigfoot, the loveland frogman, the jersey devil, mothman, or dogmen. Anyway, perhaps another tool in the toolbox for cryptozoologists.
Check out Dr. McCarthy’s article on the Labrador Duck as hybrid Eider: http://www.macroevolution.net/labrador-duck.html