Half whale-half dophin spotted for first time off coast of Hawaii


Scientists are touting the first sighting of a hybrid between a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin off Hawaii.

Fast forward to a year ago, when a team of scientists with the Cascadia Research Collective on an expedition near the island of Kauai spotted a odd creature - not quite a melon-headed whale, not fully a rough-toothed dolphin.

The good news is, what we do have is still really, really cool. "We had the photos and suspected it was a hybrid from morphological characteristics intermediate between species", Robin Baird said.

The definition of what constitutes a "species" is complicated, and even scientists don't all agree entirely.

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

"Such hybridization, where the genetic data of one species is integrated into another, has always been suspected as a source of taxonomic uncertainty in dolphins, and this case lends support to that", Baird added.

'The reason is that they're just not in the area very often and someone has to be on the water to say 'yeah, that's a melon-headed whale'.

It was observed swimming with a melon-headed whale, and together, the pair covered a lot of territory.

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The hybrid was spotted spending most of its time alongside another melon-headed whale by scientists on a two-week tagging and monitoring effort. The marine scientists tagged the hybrid with satellite tracking Global Positioning System, along with a companion, to see where they might go. Below the leading edge of the dorsal fin, the patterns on it were like those of melon-headed whales, but at the base of and immediately below the dorsal fin, it had darker-colored blotches, similar to those found on rough-toothed dolphins.

But a hybrid can also tell us something interesting about animal interactions.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there are more hybrids between the two species ― they do associate quite regularly", Baird said.

The researchers also determined that the hybrid is a male and that he stayed particularly close to its melon-headed whale companion for the duration of the observation period. Both were spotted in a pod of rough-toothed dolphins.

Still, some dolphin hybrids have successfully reproduced.

Some news organisations have described the melon-headed whale and rough-toothed dolphin hybrid as a new species, but other things would still need to occur for this to be the case, including more widespread hybridisation, Mr Baird said.

Robin Baird from the Cascadia Research Collective told KHON2 News journo Marisa Yamane it was a first.