Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Hybrid Whale 'Narluga' Confirmed by New Genetic Analysis

Animals
Skull morphology of hybrid "narluga" whale. Nature / Mikkel Høegh Post

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.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A coke storage area is seen as steam rises from the quench towers at the US Steel Clairton Works on Jan. 21, 2020, in Clairton, Pennsylvania. White plumes of smoke billow above western Pennsylvania's rolling hills as scorching ovens bake coal, which rolls in by the trainload along the Monongahela River. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP via Getty Images

President Trump's claim that the U.S. has the cleanest air and water in the world has been widely refuted by statistics showing harmful levels of pollution. Now, a new biannual ranking released by researchers at Yale and Columbia finds that the U.S. is nowhere near the top in environmental performance, according to The Guardian.

Read More Show Less
Students walk by a sign reading "Climate Change" at the Doctor Tolosa Latour public school in Madrid, Spain on Sept. 9, 2014. In the U.S., New Jersey will be the first state to make the climate crisis part of its curriculum for all K-12 students. PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP via Getty Images

New Jersey has invested in the future health of the planet by making sure the next generation of adults knows how human activity has had a deleterious effect on the planet. The state will be the first in the nation to make the climate crisis as part of its curriculum for all students, from kindergarten all the way to 12th grade, as NorthJersey.com reported.

Read More Show Less
Some reservations are reporting infection rates many times higher than those observed in the general U.S. population. grandriver / Getty Images

By Lindsey Schneider, Joshua Sbicca and Stephanie Malin

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is novel, but pandemic threats to indigenous peoples are anything but new. Diseases like measles, smallpox and the Spanish flu have decimated Native American communities ever since the arrival of the first European colonizers.

Read More Show Less
As we continue to grapple with the issues of overfishing, plastic pollution, and climate change, there exists an opportunity to address these existential threats with new innovations. Sawitree Pamee / EyeEm

By Kaya Bulbul

The ocean is our lifeline - we rely on it for the food we eat, the air we breathe, as well as for millions for jobs worldwide.

As we continue to grapple with the issues of overfishing, plastic pollution, and climate change, there exists an opportunity to address these existential threats with new innovations, many of which unidentified or insufficiently supported.

Read More Show Less
The coronavirus adds a new wrinkle to the debate over the practice of eminent domain as companies continue to work through the pandemic, vexing landowners. Patrick J. Endres / Getty Images

By Jeremy Deaton

Pipeline giant Kinder Morgan is cutting a 400-mile line across the middle of Texas, digging up vast swaths of private land for its planned Permian Highway Pipeline. The project is ceaseless, continuing through the coronavirus pandemic. Landowner Heath Frantzen said that dozens of workers have showed up to his ranch in Fredericksburg, even as public health officials urged people to stay at home.

Read More Show Less
Weeds dying in a soybean field impacted by dicamba spraying. JJ Gouin / iStock / Getty Images

A federal court overturned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) approval of dicamba Wednesday, meaning the controversial herbicide can no longer be sprayed in the U.S.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Smoke rises from a cement factory in Castleton in the High Peak district of Derbyshire, England. john finney photography / Moment / Getty Images

Human activity has pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide to higher levels today than they have been at any other point in the last 23-million-years, potentially posing unprecedented disruptions in ecosystems across the planet, new research suggests.

Read More Show Less