Scientists Confirm Discovery of a Narwhal-Beluga Whale Hybrid

DNA analysis has confirmed that a strange skull found in Greenland is a beluga whale-narwhal hybrid.
Christopher McFadden
narwhal-beluga hybridNOAA/Wikimedia Commons

A new study has been published that details the discovery of a strange new hybrid animal.

The specimen has been confirmed through morphological comparison and DNA analysis to be a bona fide Narwhal-Beluga whale hybrid. 


What was found?

According to the study, about 30 years ago an Inuit hunter in west Greenland, shot and killed three strange cetaceans.

According to him, they appeared to have the front fins of a beluga, but their tails were more narwhal-like. One specimen sank, but the other two were recovered.

But researchers didn't just have his word for it; he kept one of their skulls as a trophy.

Several years later, a scientist visiting the area spotted the skull and got the Inuit's permission to take it to the Natural History Museum of Denmark to study it.

Sadly, the second skull had previously been lost by the hunter.

The skull was bizarre, indeed. It was larger than either a narwhal or beluga whale's and had teeth that were somewhere in between the two species.

beluga narwhal hybrid skull
The skull. Source: FunkMonk/Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the two species share a common ancestry. They diverged about 5 million years ago.

The hunter, during an interview using a translator, also described how the strange creatures were uniform grey in color and their odd teeth were easily visible from his boat. 

Researchers were immediately struck by the possibility that these creatures might well be the offspring of narwhal and beluga parents. Using the skull, they decided to find out for sure.

Is it really a Belagu-Narwhal hybrid?

In their paper, published on the 20th of June 2019, in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers confirmed their hunch. It does indeed appear the skull is from some hybrid between a narwhal and a beluga whale. 

Cetacean hybrids are not that uncommon. Earlier this month, it was reported that scientists had discovered a whale-dolphin hybrid near Hawaii. 

They found that the skull lacked the characteristic "tusks" of a male narwhal (actually an elongated tooth) and had teeth in its lower jaw like all narwhals.

These teeth were also very similar to those of beluga whales with the exception that they pointed forward. 

Beluga whales typically have near-vertical teeth.

So far so good, but this was not enough to prove conclusively that it was a hybrid between the two species.

That's where DNA analysis came in. By drilling into the creature's teeth, researchers were able to extract some DNA, albeit a little degraded. 

After analysis, the results were crystal clear. The animal was male and had a 50-50 genetic mix between the two species. At this ratio, it must be a first generation hybrid. 

beluga narwhal hybrid skeleton
Complete Narwhal skeleton. Source: Andrew Butko/Wikimedia Commons

They were also able to determine that it was the offspring of a mother beluga (from mitochondrial DNA) and male narwhal. It is not clear whether the specimen would have been able to breed.

Are there more hybrids out there?

If the accounts by the Inuit are correct, then there were at least three of the hybrids in existence 30 years ago. While the hunter killed these hybrids, scientists now know it is possible for these two species to breed and produce viable offspring.

They were quick to point out that hybridization between the two is probably very rare. But it would be unexpected if the specimen in hand is the only one out there.

beluga narwhal comparison
Source: NOAA/Wikimedia Commons

"Maybe someone will hear about the study later in the week, and we'll hear about more hybrids that we have no idea of," said study's lead researcher, Eline Lorenzen.

The original paper was published on the 20th of June 2019 in the journal Scientific Reports.

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