Lost Narwhal Adopted by Pod of Beluga Whales Could Result in ‘Narluga’ Offspring

Animals
A narwhal with a pod of beluga whales
A narwhal swims with a pod of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River. GREMM / CBC YouTube screenshot

Two of the most mythical whale species — the narwhal and beluga — have been hanging out together and may produce a fairy-tale-like hybrid species, the “narluga.”

First seen in the St. Lawrence River in 2016, a lost male narwhal has been traveling with the beluga whale pod that adopted him ever since, and researchers are waiting to see if they will mate.

President and scientific director of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) Robert Michaud, who has been studying whales for more than 35 years, said that the hybridization of belugas and narwhals has happened “a few times,” CBC Radio reported.

“[Maybe] in the next few years, we’ll start to look out for not only our lost narwhal, single narwhal, but maybe for descendants,” Michaud said.

Normally found in the waters of the Arctic, narwhals can sometimes be seen farther south, but it is unusual for them to join a pod of belugas.

Most narwhals spend as many as five months under sea ice, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The distinctive narwhal tusk is actually a sensitive tooth with as many as ten million nerve endings that can grow up to ten feet. It is most commonly found in male narwhals.

GREMM has been tracking the St. Lawrence River pod and its unique member with a drone, reported CBC Radio. The distinctive markings on the adopted narwhal have shown that it’s the same whale that was first seen with the beluga pod in 2016. The male narwhal appears to be healthy and well-socialized and is estimated to be about 12 years old, according to GREMM researchers.

“There are a lot of social interactions between the narwhal and the others,” said Michaud, including usual social-sexual behaviors, as CBC Radio reported.

Male and female belugas tend to have distinct pods and during mating male belugas form “alliances” to get close to the females in order to woo them.

The adopted male narwhal will need to be intimate enough with the males of the beluga pod to become a part of a “coalition” in order to reproduce, according to Michaud, reported Newsweek. 

So far things seem to be looking pretty good.

“He is one of the crew; he is one of the buddies in there,” said Michaud, as Newsweek reported.

If reproduction between species did occur, the scientists wouldn’t be able to tell if the calf was a narluga until it had grown enough to tell it apart from beluga calves.

If a narluga calf did make it to adulthood, it is unclear if it would be able to reproduce, Michaud said, as reported by CBC Radio.

It is also unknown whether or not the narwhal is able to “learn, adapt, adjust or just accommodate the complex vocal repertoire of belugas,” Michaud said, as CBC Radio reported.

According to Michaud, narwhals can live to be 60 to 80 years old, and there’s a lot to learn about the interactions between narwhals and belugas in the meantime, such as whether the narwhal knows it’s a distinct species from the members of its adoptive pod.

“It’s fun, it’s intriguing, but it’s also very powerful and useful information for us tracking the life of this narwhal amongst the belugas,” said Michaud, as reported by CBC Radio.

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