Mother Nature has revealed yet another delightful surprise in the form of a rare hybrid between a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin. The adorable animal was first spotted off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii by scientists from the Cascadia Research Collective, a marine mammal monitoring program.
The group of researchers was observing a pod of rough-toothed dolphins when they noticed, what appeared to be, two specimens of melon-headed whales. They soon realized that one of the two “whales” looked a little different. The animal had a melon-headed whale’s dorsal fin and cape but a rough-toothed dolphin’s blotchy pigmentation and sloping forehead. Close-up pictures appeared to indicate that the researchers had stumbled upon a hybrid of the two species.
A genetic sample was delicately retrieved with a crossbow and subsequently tested, further substantiating the scientists' suspicions. In a report published in July 2018, the team officially confirmed that the odd-looking male was indeed the offspring of a melon-headed whale mother and a rough-toothed dolphin father. According to the researchers, the whale seen swimming alongside the hybrid is most likely the mother. She had most probably been separated from her pod and had ended up with the rough-toothed dolphins.
Robin Baird, co-author of the report and a research biologist at the nonprofit Washington State corporation, explained that, despite being a new hybrid, this animal is definitely not a new species. Baird also told Live Science that early scientists named a number of species 'whales' before research on the actual taxonomic relationship among species, and with increased understanding of the relatedness among species, they were considered as one family — the oceanic dolphins, or Delphinidae.
Tempted as we might be to call this new animal a wholphin, Baird says the moniker is misleading. That's because the melon-headed whale is not a true whale but rather a species in the oceanic dolphin family. As for the name wholphin, it was first given to a hybrid born to a false killer whale (a species that also has the term "whale" in its common name but is, in fact, a dolphin) and an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin.
In any case, this is exciting news indeed, as it is the first known hybrid between a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin, and the third known hybrid among oceanic dolphins!