A team of scientists with the Cascadia Research Collective got a surprise last year. They spotted a rare – possibly one-of-a-kind – whale-dolphin hybrid off the coast of Kaua’i while studying marine species there.
They tagged a pair of the melon-headed whales that live in the region to see where they traveled, only to realize one didn’t look quite like it should.
“One of the pair of melon-headed whales seen on two occasions had pigmentation and morphological characteristics suggesting it may be a hybrid between a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin,” the researchers wrote in their new report.
They were able to take a sample for a biopsy, which confirmed their suspicions. Genetic analysis showed the whale-dolphin hybrid seemed to be a first-generation mixture of the two different species which, despite the melon-headed whale’s name, are both actually members of the Delphinidae family.
The unusual hybrid and its companion traveled more than 800 miles over 14 days as the scientists observed them.
The whale-dolphin hybrid is the first recorded example of an offspring of melon-headed whales and rough-toothed dolphins, and only the third recorded sighting of a Delphinidae hybrid in the wild.
The researchers were in the area to study the marine mammals and other creatures that live in the area around the Pacific Missile Range Facility. In addition to tagging, tracking, and taking tissue samples from some of the creatures, including the whales, whale-dolphin hybrid, and pantropical spotted dolphins, the researchers also recorded underwater vocalizations of the animals in the area.
They plan to return to Kaua’i next month to continue their research.
Cascadia Research is a Washington state-based nonprofit with the mission of conducting scientific research and educating the public about scientific topics. The organization focuses on marine mammal and bird biology, animal behavior, ecology and pollution.
Cascadia has conducted field research in the Canadian Arctic, Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Hawai’i, Mexico, and the waters off Central America.
By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer
Image credit: Cascadia Research Collective