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New Species Alert? Rare Dolphin-Whale Hybrid Spotted In Hawaii

Jul 30, 2018 08:37 PM EDT
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Steno bredanensis
Scientists documented the first known rough-toothed dolphin and melon-headed whale hybrid, which they named Steno bredanensis.
(Photo : Kimberly A. Wood | Cascadia Research Collective)

Hawaii waters are getting interesting as scientists spot the first-ever known hybrid of a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin.

Two of the ocean's most beloved sea creatures morph into one amazing animal, as a team of researchers discovered in the past year.

Dolphin-Whale Hybrid Found In Hawaii

According to the Garden Island, the researchers from the Cascadia Research Collective marked the first ever documentation of the unique creature in August 2017. The team dubbed the hybrid Steno bredanensis, which they reveal in a comprehensive report published online.

"We had the photos and suspected it was a hybrid from morphological characteristics intermediate between species," project leader Robin Baird, a biologist, explains to Garden Island. "We were able to get a biopsy sample of the animal."

In an email to Huffington Post, Baird adds that the genetics revealed the creature's father was a rough-toothed dolphin, while the mother was a melon-headed whale. It's not a pairing that's totally out of nowhere, as he explains these animals associate with each other regularly.

However, this specific case is strange since only one melon-headed whale was seen mingling with a group of rough-toothed dolphins. The team suspects this single whale to be the mother of the hybrid.

Not A New Species — Yet

While the discovery of this hybrid's existence is certainly a great accomplishment, Huffington Post cautions that calling it an entirely new species — which many reports have been doing — may be jumping the gun.

Apparently, even the team members agree.

"It isn't and shouldn't be considered a new species," Baird states.

After all, individual hybrid cases are not usually officially recognized as new species since many hybrids are unable to reproduce. Even if they can produce offspring, single hybrids tend to simply get reabsorbed into the existing species when they mate with one of their parents' species.

For an entirely new and separate species to form, two hybrid individuals would have to mate and reproduce. However, Baird says there's no evidence that the recently spotted Steno bredanensis is doing this.

Hybrids can be the effect of a population drop in one species and an individual experiences difficulty in finding a mate. There's still limited information on the Hawaiian populations of the two species involved, so further studies are necessary to determine whether this played a role in the hybrid's birth.

More Accomplishments In The Report

It proved to be an eventful project for the team, as they were also able to spot and tag two other species that are seldom seen in the location: melon-headed whales and pantropical spotted dolphins.

With the satellite tagging of the animals, the researchers were able to monitor the movement of the creatures. The whales swam south of Kauai and then back to the channel between Maui and Oahu, while the dolphins lingered just off the coast of Hawaii before diving into deeper waters.

 Audio recordings of the two species vocalizing were also achieved for the very first time. This is a significant milestone, particularly for the Navy.

"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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