Scientists Discover Melon-Headed Whale and Rough-Toothed Dolphin Hybrid
Researchers have spotted the first ever hybrid between a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii, CNN reported Tuesday.
Despite its name, the melon-headed whale actually belongs to the Delphinidae family, along with killer whales, false killer whales, two species of pilot whales and oceanic dolphins.
It is only the third confirmed hybrid within the Delphinidae family born in the wild, The Associated Press reported.
Another Delphinidae hybrid, a cross between a false killer whale and an Atlantic bottle-nose dolphin named Kekaimalu, was born at Hawaii's Sea Life Park in 1985.
"To know she has cousins out there in the ocean is an amazing thing to know," Sea Life Park curator Jeff Pawloski told The Associated Press.
Pawloski said the discovery was a testament to the "genetic diversity of the ocean."
Kekaimalu's birth popularized the portmanteau "wholphin," but researchers say that is not an accurate description for these dolphin hybrids.
"I think calling it a wholphin just confuses the situation more than it already is," researcher Robin Baird, who helped write the study announcing the discovery, told The Associated Press.
The study, published last week, details the discovery of the hybrid in August 2017 as part of the marine mammal monitoring program funded by the U.S. Navy.
The research was conducted by the Washington State non-profit Cascadia Research Collective off of the Pacific Missile Range Facility near Kauai.
Researchers tagged a pair of melon-headed whales, only the second time ever that the mammals had been satellite tagged near Kauai, and noticed that one of them had the blotchy pigmentation and sloping forehead of a rough-toothed dolphin, CNN reported.
Genetic testing confirmed it was a hybrid.
Researchers speculate that the melon-headed whale travelling with the hybrid might be its mother.
Melon-headed whales normally travel in groups of 200 to 300, but these two traveled alone and socialized with rough-toothed dolphins.
Researchers hope to confirm their hypothesis when they return to the site this summer.
"If we were lucky enough to find the pair again, we would try to get a biopsy sample of the accompanying melon-headed whale, to see whether it might be the mother of the hybrid, as well as get underwater images of the hybrid to better assess morphological differences from the parent species," Baird told CNN.
As exciting as the new discovery is, researchers were quick to point out that, even though hybrid animals can lead to the emergence of a new species, a single hybrid does not a new species make.
"There's no evidence to suggest it's leading toward anything like species formation," Baird told The Associated Press.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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