They were doing field work in the waters near Kauai when they spotted a pod of melon-headed whales and rough-toothed dolphins swimming alongside each other.
Scientists are touting the first sighting of a hybrid between a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin in the ocean off Hawaii.
Scientists have spotted a hybrid whale-dolphin off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii.
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While some news organizations have described the hybrid as a new species, research biologist Robin Baird says in order for that to happen other things need to occur, including more widespread hybridization. "Based on the genetics, the father was a rough-toothed dolphin and the mother a melon-headed whale". Later they were able to obtain a biopsy sample that proved them correct.
And while this is a new find, it's not quite a "new species", as is being reported web-wide. They belong to the Delphinidae family, otherwise known as oceanic dolphins, which also includes orcas and two species of pilot whales.
Baird said this is unlikely to be the start of a whole new species of dolphin, however, because male hybrids are often sterile, and because only one of its kind has been spotted so far. That's because two animal species are unlikely to have the same number of chromosomes, and hybrids won't be able to reproduce if their parents are too genetically dissimilar. 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. Rough-toothed dolphins, on the other hand, prefer to stay in ones or twos.
"To know she has cousins out there in the ocean is an unbelievable thing to know".
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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.
Many animal hybrids are possible, but few survive past the first generation.
The deceptive label was widely-used for a false killer whale - the third largest species of dolphin - and an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin born in 1985 at Hawaii's Sea Life Park.
They collected some tissue from the animal, and after returning to shore and performing genetic testing, discovered it wasn't either species, but both.
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