Hybrid Whale 'Narluga' Confirmed by New Genetic Analysis
In the 1980s, a Greenlandic subsistence hunter shot and killed a whale with bizarre features unlike any he had ever seen before. He knew something was unique about it, so he left its abnormally large skull on top of his toolshed where it rested until a visiting professor happened upon it a few years later.
With a massive snout and long, spiraling, horizontal teeth, it had to be something the world had never seen. Nearly 30 years later, DNA analysis of tissue found inside the skull is cluing the science world into how this mysterious skull came to be.
Cue the "narluga," a narwhal-beluga hybrid now described in the journal Nature. A team of researchers scraped tissue samples from the skull and conducted DNA and stable isotope analysis to compare against other narwhal and beluga DNA. Most of the mysterious skull's DNA was a fifty-fifty mix of the two, The Atlantic reports. They determined that the skull belonged to a male, first-generation hybrid from a female narwhal and a male beluga. Typically only male narwhals have tusks likely for attracting females but this narwhal mom-to-be was keen on her tuskless beluga suitor, notes The New York Times.
"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," said evolutionary biologist Eline Lorenzen.
The skull was first described in a 1993 issue of Marine Mammal Science when researchers characterized the "anomalous whale's skull" as being "much larger than those of normal narwhals and belugas," particularly its "relatively long and massive" mandibles. Its teeth were unlike those of any known cetacean and yet resembled both those of a narwhal and a beluga. Narwhals often have just one spiraling tusk whereas belugas have uniform conical teeth in straight rows. The "Narluga" had a mix of the two.
"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," said first study author Mikkel Skovrind.
Beluga and narwhals are the only toothed whales endemic to the Arctic and belong together in the family Monodontidae. They are similar in size, measuring between 3.5 and 5.5 meters (approximately 11.5 and 18 feet) long, and are known for their social intellect but have stark differences in their morphology and behavior.
So why did the two decide to mate when there are plenty of other — er, whales — in the sea? The science is still out on that one, but the study authors note that studying such mating practices could lead to a better understanding of modern evolutionary histories — and potentially help describe an entirely new phenomenon.
"We have analyzed the nuclear genomes of a narwhal and a beluga, but see no evidence of interbreeding for at least the past 1.25 million years of their evolutionary histories. So, interbreeding between the species appears to be either a very rare or a new occurrence. To my knowledge, it has not been observed or recorded before," says Eline Lorenzen.
The two species have been known to intermingle, however. Last fall, the non-profit Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) captured aerial footage of a band of Canadian belugas frolicking through the frigid waters alongside a seemingly adopted young narwhal.
Scientists Discover Melon-Headed Whale and Rough-Toothed Dolphin Hybrid— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch) August 1, 2018
By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
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