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First-ever beluga-narwhal hybrid in the Arctic

The artist Markus Bühler can see the potential for a hybrid based on the information provided by the hunter who killed the animal.
(Markus Bühler)

Thirty years ago, an Inuit man in west Greenland and living in the hunt for whales shot with a trio of alien species, with the front of the fins, such as belugas, and tails, as the narwhals (the so-called “unicorns of the sea”). He was so taken aback by the strange creatures that he was forced by the skulls hanging on the outside of his barn.

A few years later, a scientist, a visit to the area spotted the skull, and end up taking it to the natural history Museum of Denmark. It was a strange monster, bigger than the skull of a beluga or a narwhal whale, but it is with teeth on the one way or the other, between the two of them. The hunter gave an interview through a translator, together with a description of the animal is uniform grey-bodies, and the odd-numbered teeth, and is visible even from the boat. The researchers thought that the whale might have been the offspring of a beluga and a narwhal, but they were not able to prove it to you.

Now, they can. In a new paper published today (20 June) in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists confirmed that the skull did indeed belong to the one and only known specimen of a hybrid, and the beluga-narwhal. [Real or Fake? 8 Bizarre Hybrid Animals]

“We have to have this one,” said study leader Elina George, the curator of mammals at the museum. “No one’s heard about it before or after.”

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A whale

The top of the beluwhal (or should that be narluga?) it is remarkable. In the absence of the tusk (actually a tooth) of a typical male narwhal, in addition to the narwhal, the teeth of the lower jaw. That is the teeth’s appearance is reminiscent of the beluga’s teeth, except that they protrude to the outside, such as spades. The Beluga’s teeth are growing in a nice vertical pattern.

Only with the anatomy to move, it was not possible for the researchers to prove that the skull was really that of a hybrid, Lorenzen said. She is an expert in the retrieval of ancient DNA from the bone, so that she and her colleagues decided to try a genetic approach to the issue. They have holes drilled in the substance of the tooth, and gave an example of a poor quality, degraded samples, George, told Live Science, but it’s still enough to get the sequence. [The 12 Weirdest Animal Discoveries]

The results were clear: The animal was a male, and in the neighborhood of 50-50 genetic mix of the beluga and the narwhal. This is an indication that the first-generation hybrid. In order to find out what kinds of were a little older, the researchers watched the dogs’ mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is present in the motor of an animal cell, and is passed down only through the maternal line. The hybrid’s mitochondrial DNA was narwhal, which suggests that this whale was the offspring of a narwhal’s mother, and beluga’s father.

In addition, the researchers extracted the carbon and / or nitrogen out of the skull of collagen. The scientists looked at the molecular variations are called isotopes of carbon and nitrogen, which are contained in the body of the animal’s diet. The segment showed a very different pattern than those in belugas, who are hunting down to about 1,640 feet (500 meters) deep, or a narwhal, which dives deeper than 2,625 feet (800 meters).

“All We can say is that the carbon signature is quite like that of a walrus, and bearded seals, both of which are feeding on the bottom of the sea,” George said.

The hybrid is the odd-numbered teeth, and would have led to a different hunting strategies than the parents’, George said. It is impossible to tell, however, whether the hybrid would be able to sire offspring of his own. It was an adult when it died, but there is not much known about the other two hybrids that accompanied it, as the huntsmen shot them.

One fell after being shot, according to the Inuit hunter. The other one was, but a skull has been left in the vicinity of the coast and eventually washed away.

Hidden in a hybrid?

It is not possible to say whether or not the trio is shot in the middle of the 1980’s, they are the only hybrids that are out there, George said. Hybridization is not likely to be so very, very much for that, ” she said. No other whale researchers, and they put out had ever seen such a hybrid. And, the genetic information on narwhals and belugas, suggesting that the two species diverged 5 million years ago, and had not yet crossed into an appreciable numbers for at least 1.25 million years ago.

Still, as George said, it would be a strange stroke of luck, as the Danish museum, is in the possession of the one and only hybrid monster out of there.

“I think it will be someone on the study later in the week, and we’ll be hearing about more of a hybrid that we don’t have any idea about that,” she said.

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Originally published on Live Science.

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