What would you call a cross between a whale and a dolphin … and “impossible” is no longer an option? Would it help if you knew that it was a cross between a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin? Melooth? Roughelon? Whatever you call it, it’s a real creature found in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii that proves even lonely melon-heads can find love. Or was it the rough-tooth?
“We had the photos and suspected it was a hybrid from morphological characteristics intermediate between species. We were able to get a biopsy sample of the animal.”
Robin Baird, a researcher for the Cascadia Research Collective, has been studying marine animals, particularly killer whales, but told The Garden Newspaper that he’s never seen anything like what a team found off the coast of Kauai during a two-week research project in August 2017. They were there at the request of the U.S. Navy to study marine life is a submarine training area known ominously as the Pacific Missile Range Facility. While there, Baird says they spotted an unusual pod of melon-headed whales – unusual because melon-heads prefer colder deep waters and are rarely seen along Hawaii’s warmer shallow coasts.
The researchers captured and tagged two of the melon-headed whales for tracking. (Photos here.) As luck would have it. one of them looked a little different, so the DNA sample they obtained was checked and showed they accidentally discovered the first known rough-toothed dolphin and melon-headed whale hybrid. The DNA tests determined that the hybrid’s father was a rough-toothed dolphin and its mother was melon-headed whale – and quite likely was the large female it was swimming with when captured. As discovers, the team won the naming rights and called the hybrid Steno bredanensis. (This is a little strange since that’s also the name of rough-toothed dolphins).
How strange and rare is Steno bredanensis? Melon-headed whales (Peponocephala electra) travel in large pods of up to 1,000 but are rarely seen around Hawaii. Rough-toothed whales (Steno bredanensis) are common in Hawaii’s warm waters and travel in small pods of 10 to 20. Both species belong to the Delphinidae family (a group of thirty oceanic dolphin species that include killer whales, pilot whales, right whale dolphins and bottlenose dolphins) but the report on the find says that cross-species breeding is highly unusual – this is only the third Delphinidae hybrid found and the first from rough-toothed dolphin and melon-headed whale parents.
Another rare and unusual characteristic of this hybrid is that it was accepted by the large pod of melon-headed whales it was discovered in rather than being kicked out to fend for itself. In fact, Baird says the Cascadia Research Collective team will be returning to the waters of Kauai in August 2018 and will attempt to find the hybrid and its traveling companion. This time, they’ll try to capture the companion to see if it’s really the mother and to get some videos of the group.
Let’s hope they also do more of what the Navy has asked them to do – determine what effects Navy sonar has on the many species in and around the Pacific Missile Range Facility – and then help protect the marine animals from harm.
Especially the Melooth. Roughhead? Dolphale?