While surveying whales and dolphins off the Hawaiian Islands, scientists spotted a creature they've never seen before: a peculiar hybrid between a dolphin and a small whale.
"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. With the head and body of a melon-headed whale and the steep dorsal fin of a rough-toothed dolphin, their interest was piqued.
The discovery was first made by researchers with the collective past year, though the report detailing the hybrid - the product of a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin - was released this week. However, though it's an exciting discovery, researchers point out it is not, as commonly thought, a new species. But as Quanta Magazine explains, isolated occurrences of individual hybrids aren't typically considered new species, either because the hybrids can not reproduce or because lone hybrids are apt to just get reabsorbed into existing species by mating with an animal that's the same species as one of its parents.
"That isn't the case, although there are examples where hybridisation has resulted in a new species", he said.
The cross-species hybridization may seem freakish, but is made possible by the fact that melon-headed whales aren't actually whales.
Baird told CBS News that scientists were able to get a biopsy sample from the hybrid to confirm its unusual parentage. This, the researchers believe, could be the hybrid's mother, who is now living with her new family.
But a hybrid can also tell us something interesting about animal interactions. Nor was it exactly a rough-toothed dolphin, which are common to the area.
Still, some dolphin hybrids have successfully reproduced.
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.
The hybrid was the team's "most unusual finding", said project lead Robin Baird.
It's unknown whether this new animal - which the researchers named Steno bredanensis - could produce viable offspring, but in any case, one hybrid animal does not make a new species.
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