HEALTHY PETS: The Unlikely Bond Between Two Whale Species
- Currently, a narwhal whale is living happily with a pod of belugas in Canada's St. Lawrence River — a rather remarkable development
- The narwhal has been with the pod for at least six years and is thought to be about 12 years old and entering sexual maturity
- Scientists from the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) are monitoring the pod via drone footage; it's possible the narwhal may mate with a beluga female
- If the mating is successful, it will result in a hybrid "narluga," about which very little is known
- Many questions remain about the beluga+1 odd pod, and particularly regarding the narwhal: Does he know he's a different species? Is he "beluga enough" to mate with a beluga female? Will his narluga offspring survive and reproduce?
A few years ago in 2016, a lone male whale called a narwhal was spotted for the first time in Canada's St. Lawrence River, traveling with a pod of beluga whales who appeared to have adopted him. Today, the narwhal is estimated to be about 12 years old and reaching sexual maturity.
When sighted, he's always with a group of juvenile beluga males, and seems to be "well integrated," according to Canada's Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM).1
Narwhals and belugas are "two of the most mythical whale species," per EcoWatch,2 and since they're still hanging out together, researchers are waiting to see if perhaps magic will happen between Mr. Narwhal and a Miss Beluga. Should this occur, it just might produce a "fairy-tale-like hybrid species, the 'narluga'."
According to whale expert Robert Michaud, president and scientific director of GREMM, who has been studying the pod+1, belugas and narwhals do occasionally mate.
"[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 told CBC Radio.
Narwhals are known for a distinctive long, twisted tusk that grows out from their heads. The tusk is actually a sensitive canine tooth with as many as 10 million nerve endings, can grow up to 10 feet, and is seen primarily in males (and the occasional female).
Narwhals call the waters of the Arctic home, and often spend up to five months under sea ice. While it's not unheard of for one to stray south, it's nothing short of remarkable to see one join a pod of belugas.
"There are a lot of social interactions between the narwhal and the others," said Michaud, including normal, expected social-sexual behaviors in both directions. "He is one of the crew; he is one of the buddies in there."
The adopted narwhal has remained nameless, but since he's still with the belugas at six years and counting, contributors to a GREMM research and conservation fundraiser have been suggesting names, including "D'Artagnan," "Excalibur," "Pinocchio," and "Megalodon" (which means big tooth).
Scientific Proof of the Existence of a Narluga
GREMM has been using a drone to track the beluga/narwhal pod in the St. Lawrence River. The adopted narwhal has some distinctive markings that show researchers it's the same whale that was first seen with the pod back in 2016.
A Narwhal in the St. Lawrence River
Baleines En Direct on YouTube
Published Aug 8, 2018
1:13 viewing length
Male and female belugas tend to travel in separate pods, but during mating, the males form "alliances" that allow them to get close enough to the females to court them. According to Michaud, the narwhal will need to be friendly enough with the beluga males to join their courting and mating alliances. So far, he seems to be up to the task!
Official confirmation of the existence of narlugas came in 2019 from DNA analysis of a skull found by a hunter in Greenland in 1990.3 It had unusual teeth, including miniature tusks in the upper jaw and corkscrew-like lower teeth. The skull was noticeably different from the skulls of both narwhals and belugas. Click here to see the image of a narwhal skull (a), the hybrid skull analyzed for the study (b), and a beluga skull (c).
The study, which included a chemical analysis conducted at Ontario's Trent University, concluded that the skull belonged to a first-generation hybrid that had grown far larger than its narwhal mother and beluga father.
If the St. Lawrence River narwhal does successfully mate with a beluga female, scientists won't be able to tell if the calf is a narluga until it has grown enough to be clearly distinct from beluga calves. If a narluga calf makes it to adulthood, it's unknown whether it will be able to adapt to the complex vocal repertoire of belugas or reproduce.
"One of the things with hybrids in different species is they might survive, but they might not reproduce themselves," said Michaud.
Narwhals can live to be 60 to 80 years old. Michaud believes there's still a lot to learn about the interactions of narwhals and belugas, including whether the adopted narwhal is aware he's a different species than his brothers from another mother.
"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.
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