Scientists spot unique whale-dolphin hybrid near Hawaii

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The animal was spotted off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii in August 2017, as detailed in a new report from Cascadia Research Collective and first reported by local newspaper The Garden Island.

And while many reports have referred to the animal as a whale-dolphin hybrid, it's worth mentioning that technically, melon-headed whales are part of a scientific family of ocean dolphins called Delphinidae.

The odd pair and their closeness to the other dolphins have led the researchers to speculate that the accompanying melon-headed whale is the hybrid's mother.

"The head shape appears intermediate between the two species, with a gently-sloping rostrum rather than the rounded-head of a melon-headed whales but which is truncated compared to rough-toothed dolphins", researchers said.

It was fathered by a rough-toothed dolphin but born to a melon-headed whale, two rare species seldom seen in that part of the Pacific.

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

But an animal hybrid doesn't necessarily mean a new species - not even established hybrids, such as the mule.

"Such hybridization, where the genetic data of one species is integrated into another, has always been suspected as a source of taxonomic uncertainty in dolphins, and this case lends support to that", Baird added.

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Robin W Baird/Cascadia Research Melon-headed whales.

It also isn't the first discovery of hybridization in the family - there have also been cases of bottlenose dolphin/false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens) hybrids, known as Wolphins, and common/bottlenose dolphin hybrids.

There may be similar hybrids out there, he told HuffPost.

He said: "Calling it something like a wholphin doesn't make any sense". Rough-toothed dolphins, on the other hand, prefer to stay in ones or twos.

Still, some dolphin hybrids have successfully reproduced.

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

Baird said that discovering hybrids can have "important implications" for the species involved. Having noted a pair of melon-headed whales, they observed that one of the pair had pigementation and morphological features that suggested that it might in fact be a hybrid.

Hybrids generally occur when there is a decline in the population in one of the parental species, so scientists will be looking out for such a decline.

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