Don’t call dolphin hybrid spotted off Hawaii a ’wholphin’

What the researchers discovered was a hybrid of a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin. That's because a melon-headed whale is one of the various species that's called a whale but is technically a dolphin.

The discovery, made a year ago, was confirmed this week in a report released by researchers with the Cascadia Research Collective, a nonprofit which in August 2017 conducted a two-week project to photograph, tag and record audio of marine mammals.

It is also only the third confirmed instance of a wild-born hybrid between species in the Delphinidae family. This, too was unusual, given that melon-headed whales typically travel in groups of 200-300.

Kimberly A Wood/Cascadia Research The hybrid is in the front, with the melon-headed whale that researchers suspect is the mother. Aww!

Scientists are reluctant to use the term, however, and Dr Baird said the animals can not be considered their own species without more widespread hybridisation.

The hybrid was spotted spending most of its time alongside another melon-headed whale by scientists on a two-week tagging and monitoring effort. This provided additional information on the effects which Navy sonar has on local marine life. "And to know she has cousins out there in the ocean is an incredible thing to know".

They were able to take a sample for a biopsy, which confirmed their suspicions.

Some hybrid animals, such as the mule - a hybrid of a male donkey and female horse - are mostly sterile and therefore can not propagate easily.

After all, individual hybrid cases are not usually officially recognized as new species since many hybrids are unable to reproduce.

"If we were lucky enough to find the pair again, we would try to get a biopsy sample of the accompanying melon-headed whale, to see whether it might be the mother of the hybrid, as well as get underwater images of the hybrid to better assess morphological differences from the parent species", he said.

This latest hybrid animal is not the first to be branded with the "wholfin" name.

And, although rare, other dolphin hybrids are known, such as the offspring of a bottlenose dolphin and false killer whale (also delphinidae), called a wholphin, and the offspring of a beluga whale and a narwhal, called a narluga.

The hybrid named Keikaimalu still lives at the marine mammal park, where she helps teach children about genetics.

Hybrids generally occur when there's a decline in the population in one of the parental species, so scientists will be looking out for such a decline.

(Copyright © 2015. All Rights Reserved.)

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