A pod of beluga whales adopted a lost juvenile narwhal in the St. Lawrence River several years ago. Researchers are now wondering if female belugas in the pod might mate with the narwhal, creating a hybrid “narluga.”
The narwhal had strayed from its Arctic habitat and was welcomed by a pod of beluga whales in 2016. He’s been traveling alongside them ever since.
The event is highly unusual, considering narwhals don’t generally leave the Arctic. Scientists are still somewhat baffled by the occurrence, but it’s clear from observations of the pod’s interactions that the narwhal is well-integrated into the group.
Apparently, the idea of a hybrid isn’t that far fetched; a “narluga” was documented once before. A 2019 study out of the University of Copenhagen examined the DNA of a unique skull found in Greenland, and found that it was in fact a first-generation hybrid between a female narwhal and a male beluga whale.
Belugas and narwhales are medium-sized toothed whales, and are the only living members of the Monodontidae family. The two species are estimated to have diverged approximately 5 million years ago. They’re very similar in size and share many characteristics, including a small head, a pronounced melon (sensory organs on their heads,) the lack of a dorsal fin, and unfused cervical vertebrae. They differ in color, with mature narwhals being mottled dark gray and belugas being white.
Their biggest difference, however, is their teeth; Narwhals have only two teeth in the upper jaw, and males have a long spiraled tusk (which is actually a canine tooth) that can reach 10 feet in length. Belugas, on the other hand ,have simple teeth in both the upper and lower jaw.
Only time will tell if a narluga will join the pod.