Scientists: 1st sighting of dolphin hybrid is no 'wholphin'

Rare whale-dolphin hybrid discovered in Hawaii, scientists say

Robin Baird, a marine biologist who led the expedition, called it a "most unusual finding", and the first known hybrid between the species. Although it had a typical melon-headed whale's dorsal fin shape and dorsal cape, it was also blotchy in pigmentation and had a sloping forehead, more reminiscent of a rough-toothed dolphin. There was one large pod, estimated to be somewhere between 200 and 300 individuals.

Baird and associates plan to keep an eye on the two that were discovered through tracking to see what results it yields.

But there was also a perhaps greater anomaly.

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.

Project leader Robin Baird added: 'Hybrids among different species of whales and dolphins have been previously recorded, but this is the first case of a hybrid between these two species, and only the third confirmed case [with genetics] of a wild-born hybrid between two [Delphinidae] species'.

The team tracked numerous species during the study, including melon-headed whales and pantropical spotted dolphins - both of which are rarely seen off the Hawaiian islands. She still lives at the park, the only living example of her kind in captivity. There have been other cases of wholphins in the past, most notably at Hawaii's Sea Life Park aquarium in 1985, when a female bottlenose dolphin had a calf with a male false killer whale. This is because such genetic hybrids are often infertile, or reproduce only with great difficulty, meaning they can not produce viable offspring with their own kind.

And while this is a new find, it's not quite a "new species", as is being reported web-wide.

"We're hoping that just by talking to some tour operators and fishermen, especially folks heading across the channel to Niihau, we might get tips and encounter something like pilot whales", Baird said, as he outlined his plans to track the species further.

But a hybrid can also tell us something interesting about animal interactions. Even if they can produce offspring, single hybrids tend to simply get reabsorbed into the existing species when they mate with one of their parents' species. This is because naval activities, particularly those that use sonar, can disrupt their way of life - and commonly used cetacean frequencies can interfere with sonar. It's been dubbed a "wholphin", although its technical name is Steno bredanensis.

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