First Sighting of a Whale-Dolphin Hybrid Off the Coast of Hawaii

This Aug. 11, 2017, photo provided by Cascadia Research shows a hybrid between a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin, in the foreground, swimming next to a melon-headed dolphin near Kauai, Hawaii.  (Kimberly A. Wood/Cascadia Research)

Scientists are touting the first sighting of a hybrid between a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin in the ocean off Hawaii. But don’t call it a “wholphin,” they say.

The melon-headed whale is one of the various species that’s called a whale but is technically a dolphin.

“Calling it something like a wholphin doesn’t make any sense,” said one of the study’s authors, Robin Baird, a Hawaii research biologist with Washington state-based Cascadia Research Collective. “I think calling it a wholphin just confuses the situation more than it already is.”

In a study published last week, scientists say the animal spotted off the island of Kauai in August 2017 appears to be the first record of a hybrid involving either species. It’s also only the third confirmed instance of a wild-born hybrid between species in the Delphinidae family.

The label “wholphin” has stuck for a hybrid born in 1985 at Hawaii’s Sea Life Park of a false killer whale and an Atlantic bottle-nose dolphin. The hybrid named Kekaimalu still lives at the marine mammal park, where she helps teach children about genetics.

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While some news organization have described the melon-headed whale and rough-toothed dolphin hybrid as a new species, in order for that to happen other things need to occur, including more widespread hybridization, Baird said.

“That isn’t the case, although there are examples where hybridization has resulted in a new species,” he said. “There’s no evidence to suggest it’s leading toward anything like species formation.”

The male hybrid presents an opportunity to look for others. 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.

A likely scenario for how the hybrid came to be is a melon-headed whale getting separated from its group and ending up traveling with rough-toothed dolphins.

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Scientists don’t know how old it is, but believe it’s close to adult age.

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