Scientists spot unique whale-dolphin hybrid near Hawaii

Hugh Fox
August 2, 2018

Scientists found a hybrid between a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin in the ocean off the Hawaiian island of Kauai previous year. The delay was caused, in particular, long-term studies of genetic samples, which confirmed that the animal is a hybrid of a whale and a Dolphin. Nor was it exactly a rough-toothed dolphin, which are common to the area.

"What could have happened is that the mother, a melon-headed whale may, have become separated from her pod, begun to stay with single rough-toothed dolphins, and become used to swimming with the other species", Baird said. And this is the first in the history of such a hybrid.

It proved to be an eventful project for the team, as they were also able to spot and tag two other species that are seldom seen in the location: melon-headed whales and pantropical spotted dolphins.

"It increases their ability to understand not only how species are using the range, but what effects Navy sonar may have on them", Baird says.

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According to the Garden Island, the researchers from the Cascadia Research Collective marked the first ever documentation of the unique creature in August 2017.

Cascadia has conducted field research in the Canadian Arctic, Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Hawai'i, Mexico, and the waters off Central America. The creature they now call Steno bredanensis is actually made even more unusual by the fact that the species that makes up half of its genes, the melon-headed whales, do not often swim in those waters. Science known cases where genetic hybrids are either completely sterile, or are reproduced with great difficulty, as is the case with the mule - a hybrid of a donkey and a Mare. "And to know she has cousins out there in the ocean is an wonderful thing to know".

The male hybrid presents an opportunity to look for others.

"We had the photos and suspected it was a hybrid from morphological characteristics intermediate between species", says marine biologist Robin Baird, lead author of a report in which the discovery is described.

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Hybrids generally occur when there is a decline in the population in one of the parental species, so scientists will be looking out for such a decline.

Melon-headed whales, he explains, usually travel together in groups of around 250.

Scientists don't know how old it is but believe it's close to adult age.

Some hybrid animals, such as the mule - a hybrid of a male donkey and female horse - are mostly sterile and therefore can not propagate easily.

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The hybrid, named Kekaimalu, still lives at the marine mammal park, where she helps teach children about genetics.

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