Narluga: Study Finds Whale Skull is a Narwhal-Beluga Hybrid

Posted on June 21, 2019

A unique whale skull has confirmed the existence of a narwhal-beluga hybrid. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen completed DNA and stable isotope analysis of the strange-looking whale skull that has been gathering dust in the collections of the Natural History Museum of Denmark.

The research indicates the skull belongs to a narwhal-beluga hybrid. The illustration above shows what the hybrid might have looked like. The skull (pictured below) is the only evidence that narwhals and beluga whales can breed successfully. There has been no prior evidence of interbreeding between the species. The skull belonged to a whale shot by a Greenlandic hunter in the 1980s.

The research study was led by Eline Lorenzen, an evolutionary biologist and curator at the University of Copenhagen's Natural History Museum of Denmark. Lorenzen says, "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."

Mikkel Skovrind, a PhD student at the Natural History Museum and first author of the paper, says, "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."

A research paper on the study was published in the journal Scientific Reports. The researchers say narwhals and belugas are the only toothed whales endemic to the Arctic. The narwhal is characterized by its long, spiraled tusk and has a greyish-brown, mottled pigmentation, whereas belugas have two rows of uniform teeth, and adults are completely white.

There has been video recorded of the two species interacting. This video shows a pod of belugas that adopted a lost juvenile narwhal.

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