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Scientists Just Found An Animal Who’s Half Dolphin, Half ‘Whale’

Last year, a group of scientists made an incredible discovery — they spotted an animal who wasn’t quite a dolphin and who wasn’t quite whale, but looked like both animals mixed together. It turned out to be a rare hybrid.

The scientists, who are part of Cascadia Research Collective, had been tagging rough-toothed dolphins and melon-headed whales off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii, when they encountered the strange-looking animal, who was swimming alongside a melon-headed whale.


Credit:
Kimberly A. Wood/Cascadia Research

“Melon-headed whales have a very rounded head, and rough-toothed dolphins have a very long, gently sloping rostrum, or beak,” Robin Baird, a researcher for Cascadia Research Collective, told The Dodo. “Instead of having a rounded head like a melon-headed whale or the long, sloping rostrum of a rough-toothed dolphin, it had something in between. So it had a sloping rostrum, but a relatively short one.”

Eager to figure out what this animal was, they used a humane method to obtain a skin biopsy sample, and then got it tested in the lab.


Credit:
Kimberly A. Wood/Cascadia Research

“It [the skin sample] was basically the size of a pencil eraser,” Baird said. “ We sent that to the Southwest Fisheries Science Center of La Jolla, and they were able to confirm, based on the genetics, that it was a hybrid.”

Despite their name, melon-headed whales belong to the dolphin family, but they are colloquially referred to as whales. However, melon-headed whales are still a very different kind of animal from rough-tooth dolphins, and this is the first time scientists have ever encountered a hybrid between a rough-toothed dolphin and a melon-headed whale. However, other hybrids have been discovered before — for instance, fin whales and blue whales have bred together to create rare hybrids.


Credit:
Robin W. Baird/Cascadia Research

“Hybrids between dolphins have been documented in dolphins in captivity quite often,” Baird said. “If you put two species into a pool together, and if their only opportunity is to mate together, that’s something that they often do. In the wild, it’s much less frequently documented. It has been only confirmed genetically in a couple other cases.”

From the genetic testing, the scientists also figured out that the hybrid’s father was a rough-toothed dolphin and the mom was a melon-headed whale — and they suspected that the melon-headed whale swimming alongside the hybrid was the mother herself.

While this discovery doesn’t mean that a new species is forming, Baird and the other scientists are excited that this animal exists.


Credit:
Robin W. Baird/Cascadia Research

“It’s certainly of interest from the perspective of understanding the frequency of how the hybridization can occur among species, including two species that are not closely related,” Baird said.

Right now, the scientists only have a couple of photos of the hybrid whale-dolphin, but they’re hoping to obtain more in the future.

“We rely a lot on citizen science,” Baird said. “So we’re hoping that people who are on the water and have an opportunity to encounter either of these species will contribute photos, and we may be able to get a resighting of a hybrid that way. It was definitely a distinctive individual.”