Rare dolphin-whale hybrid spotted near Hawaii

Kimberly A. Wood under Cascadia Research Collective NMFS permit 20605

Kimberly A. Wood under Cascadia Research Collective NMFS permit 20605

Let's face it: Unlikely couples hold a special place in our hearts, whether Romeo and Juliet, Edward and Bella - or a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin that apparently enjoyed an unlikely inter-species romance a few years ago in the waters off Hawaii.

The label "wholphin" has stuck for a hybrid born in 1985 at Hawaii's Sea Life Park of a false killer whale and an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. One melon-headed whale was also spotted chilling with a pod of rough-toothed dolphins.

The hybrid was found by researchers with the Cascadia Research Collective during a two-week project in Kauai, Hawaii, in August 2017.

The team will be returning to Kauai's waters next month, when they hope to get more photos of the new hybrid whale-dolphin as well as further research on other species in the area.

"We had the photos and suspected it was a hybrid from morphological characteristics intermediate between species", Baird told The Garden Island newspaper.

"That isn't the case, although there are examples where hybridization has resulted in a new species", he said.

The odd pair and their closeness to the other dolphins have led the researchers to speculate that the accompanying melon-headed whale is the hybrid's mother.

The hybrid was spotted spending most of its time alongside another melon-headed whale by scientists on a two-week tagging and monitoring effort.

"It increases their ability to understand not only how species are using the range, but what effects Navy sonar may have on them", Baird says.

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Scientists who found the specimen tracked numerous species during a study off the island of Kauai past year.

But, it was a biopsy that confirmed their suspicions.

"To know she has cousins out there in the ocean is an fantastic thing to know". But don't call it a "wholphin", they say.

The male hybrid presents an opportunity to look for others.

'This is the first known hybrid between these two species'.

A likely scenario for how the hybrid came to be a melon-headed whale getting separated from its group and ending up travelling with rough-toothed dolphins.

But an animal hybrid doesn't necessarily mean a new species - not even established hybrids, such as the mule. For one thing, hybrids can occur when the paternal species goes through a population drop and "individuals have difficulty finding mates".

"To know she has cousins out there in the ocean is an incredible thing to know", said Sea Life park curator Jeff Pawloski in response to the new discovery, which he said was proof of the "genetic diversity of the ocean".

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