Two of the most mythical species of whales – the narwhal and the beluga – hang out together and could produce a hybrid species worthy of a fairy tale, the “narluga”.
First seen in the St. Lawrence River in 2016, a lost male narwhal is traveling with the group of beluga whales that have since adopted him, and researchers are waiting to see if they will mate.
President and scientific director of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) Robert Michaudwho has studied whales for more than 35 years, said hybridization of belugas and narwhals has happened “a few times,” CBC Radio reported.
“[Maybe] in the next few years we will start looking for not just our lost narwhal, a single narwhal, but possibly descendants,” Michaud said.
Normally found in arctic waters, narwhals can occasionally be spotted further south, but rarely join a pod of beluga whales.
Most narwhals spend up to five months under sea ice, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. The narwhal’s distinctive tusk is actually a sensitive tooth with up to ten million nerve endings that can reach up to ten feet. It is most commonly found in male narwhals.
The GREMM tracked the St. Lawrence River pod and its sole member with a drone, CBC Radio reported. Distinguishing markings on the adopted narwhal showed it to be the same whale that was first seen with the beluga whale pod in 2016. The male narwhal appears to be healthy and well socialized and is estimated to be about 12 years, according to GREMM researchers. .
“There are a lot of social interactions between the narwhal and others,” Michaud said, including the usual social-sexual behaviors, as reported by CBC Radio.
Male and female belugas tend to have separate pods and during mating, male belugas form “alliances” to get close to females in order to court them.
The adopted male narwhal will have to be sufficiently intimate with the beluga males pod be part of a “coalition” in order to reproduce, according to Michaud, Newsweek reports.
So far, things seem to be going pretty well.
“He’s part of the crew; he’s one of the buddies in there,” Michaud said, as reported by Newsweek.
If interspecies breeding occurred, scientists would not be able to tell if the calf was a narluga until it grew large enough to distinguish it from beluga whales.
If a narluga calf reached adulthood, it’s unclear if it would be able to reproduce, Michaud said, as reported by CBC Radio.
It’s also unclear whether or not the narwhal is able to “learn, adapt, adapt, or just adapt to the complex beluga whale vocal repertoire,” Michaud said, as reported CBC Radio.
According to Michaud, narwhals can live to be 60 to 80 years old, and there’s a lot to learn about narwhal-beluga interactions in the meantime, such as whether the narwhal knows it’s a distinct species from the members of its adoptive group.
“It’s fun, it’s intriguing, but it’s also very powerful and useful information for us to follow the life of this narwhal among belugas,” Michaud said, as reported by CBC Radio.