A team of researchers has compiled the first and only evidence that narwhals and beluga whales can breed successfully. DNA and stable isotope analysis of an anomalous skull from the Natural History Museum of Denmark has allowed researchers to confirm the existence of a narwhal-beluga hybrid.
The hybrid’s skull was found on the roof of a hunter’s toolshed in Greenland.
“As far as we know, this is the first and only evidence in the world that these two Arctic whale species can interbreed. Based on the intermediate shape of the skull and teeth, it was suggested that the specimen might be a narwhal-beluga hybrid, but this could not be confirmed. Now we provide the data that confirm that yes — it is indeed a hybrid,” says Eline Lorenzen, evolutionary biologist and curator at the University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum of Denmark. Lorenzen led the study, which was published today in Scientific Reports.
Using DNA and stable isotope analysis, the scientists determined that the skull belonged to a male, first-generation hybrid between a female narwhal and male beluga.
The hybrid’s skull was considerably larger than that of a typical narwhal or beluga. But the teeth were markedly different. Whereas narwhals have only one or rarely two long spiraling tusks, belugas have a set of uniform conical teeth that are aligned in straight rows. The hybrid skull has a set of long, spiraling and pointed teeth, that are angled horizontally.
“This whale has a bizarre set of teeth. The isotope analysis allowed us to determine that the animal’s diet was entirely different than that of a narwhal or beluga — and it is possible that its teeth influenced its foraging strategy. Whereas the other two species fed in the water column, the hybrid was a bottom dweller,” according to Mikkel Skovrind, a PhD student at the Natural History Museum and first author of the paper.
Paper. (open access) – Mikkel Skovrind, Jose Alfredo Samaniego Castruita, James Haile, Eve C. Treadaway, Shyam Gopalakrishnan, Michael V. Westbury, Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen, Paul Szpak, Eline D. Lorenzen. Hybridization between two high Arctic cetaceans confirmed by genomic analysis. Scientific Reports, 2019; 9 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-44038-0 More.
For all we know, this could be common. If it’s a bottom dweller, who was looking? Maybe hybridization plays a bigger role in evolution than we supposed. And then schoolbook Darwinism plays a smaller one.
See also: Bird, Tested And Released, Turned Out To Be A Hybrid Of Three Species
Is The Recently Cited Hybrid Dolphin-Whale A “New Species”? No.
A physicist looks at biology’s problem of “speciation” in humans
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