A rare whale skull discovered by an Inuit hunter 30 years ago in Greenland has been confirmed by a Canadian scientist to be the hybrid calf of a beluga father and a narwhal mother — otherwise known as a narluga.
A study published today in Scientific Reports reveals the results of DNA and chemical analyses performed by Trent University’s Paul Szpak and identifies the first-ever confirmed hybrid of the Arctic marine mammals.
At Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., Szpak and his team performed a chemical analysis using a technique called “isotope ratio mass spectrometry” on the hybrid remains and on other narwhals and belugas.
Using this technology, he was able to identify that the “narluga” had a very different diet than either of its parent species. This may have been the result of the whale’s unusual teeth — some long and peg-like like the beluga, others spiraled and resembling corkscrews, like the narwhal tusk.
“To get the chance to analyze material from an animal that nobody has ever worked with before has been extremely cool,” Szpak, Canada Research Chair in environmental archeology, said.
“The findings also teach the world about the biology of belugas and narwhals and how the two species interact.”
The whale is just one of a spate of recent discoveries of hybrid species. Grolar bears — grizzly-polar bear hybrids — have turned up at least eight times since 2006. Formerly separate eastern and western populations of bowhead whales have traversed the increasingly ice-free Arctic to meet, though not mate; a suspected bowhead-northern right whale hybrid, meanwhile, has been photographed.
Scientists have identified 22 Arctic or near-Arctic species that could potentially hybridize, and yes, the list includes the narwhal and beluga. Most of these opportunities are being enhanced by climate change as it removes the barriers between species.
And that hybridization may not be a good thing for biodiversity.
“As the genomes of species become mixed, adaptive gene combinations will be lost,” the researchers of the hybridization paper wrote in 2010. Those adaptive gene combinations include things like the hollow, “white” fur of polar bears, which gives them an advantage in hunting.
— With files from Jimmy Thomson
And since you’re here, we have a favour to ask. Our independent, ad-free journalism is made possible because the people who value our work also support it (did we mention our stories are free for all to read, not just those who can afford to pay?).
As a non-profit, reader-funded news organization, our goal isn’t to sell advertising or to please corporate bigwigs — it’s to bring evidence-based news and analysis to the surface for all Canadians. And at a time when most news organizations have been laying off reporters, we’ve hired eight journalists in less than a year.
Not only are we filling a void in environment coverage, but we’re also telling stories differently — by centring Indigenous voices, by building community and by doing it all as a people-powered, non-profit outlet supported by more than 2,200 members.
The truth is we wouldn’t be here without you. Every single one of you who reads and shares our articles is a crucial part of building a new model for Canadian journalism that puts people before profit.
We know that these days the world’s problems can feel a *touch* overwhelming. It’s easy to feel like what we do doesn’t make any difference, but becoming a member of The Narwhal is one small way you truly can make a difference.
We’ve drafted a plan to make this year our biggest yet, but we need your support to make it all happen.
If you believe news organizations should report to their readers, not advertisers or shareholders, please become a monthly member of The Narwhal today for any amount you can afford.