Scientists are touting the first sighting of a hybrid between a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin in the ocean off Hawaii. But don't call it a "wholphin," they say.
The melon-headed whale is one of the various species that's called a whale but is technically a dolphin.
"Calling it something like a wholphin doesn't make any sense," said one of the study's authors, Robin Baird, a Hawaii research biologist with Washington state-based Cascadia Research Collective. "I think calling it a wholphin just confuses the situation more than it already is."
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In a study published last week, scientists say the animal spotted off the island of Kauai in August 2017 appears to be the first record of a hybrid involving either species. It's also only the third confirmed instance of a wild-born hybrid between species in the Delphinidae family.
"Definitely did not expect to find this!" Baird told NBC in an email.
The label "wholphin" has stuck for a hybrid born in 1985 at Hawaii's Sea Life Park of a false killer whale and an Atlantic bottle-nose dolphin. The hybrid named Kekaimalu still lives at the marine mammal park, where she helps teach children about genetics. News of the hybrid spotted in the wild during Navy-funded research to study the effects of sonar, proves the "genetic diversity of the ocean," said Sea Life Park Curator Jeff Pawloski. "I always thought they were out there in the wild existing — it only makes sense," he said. "And to know she has cousins out there in the ocean is an amazing thing to know."
Baird said there have been a few other recorded instances of whale or dolphin hybrids, such as between an Indo-Pacific bottlenose and a common bottlenose. But whale and dolphin hybrids "in general" are "quite rare."
Some news organization have described the melon-headed whale and rough-toothed dolphin hybrid as a new species. Baird explained to NBC that while hybridization can lead to the creation of a new species "in rare occasions," he would not consider the animal his team documented a new species.
Other things need to occur in order for that to happen, including more widespread hybridization, Baird said.
"There's no evidence to suggest it's leading toward anything like species formation," he said.
The male hybrid presents an opportunity to look for others. Hybrids generally occur when there's a decline in the population in one of the parental species, so scientists will be looking out for such a decline.
A likely scenario for how the hybrid came to be is a melon-headed whale, which is normally found in large groups, getting separated from its group and ending up traveling with rough-toothed dolphins.
Scientists don't know how old it is, but believe it's close to adult age.
Baird and his team are expected to return to Kauai this month and want to understand the population structure, habitat use and movements of different species.
Baird said if the team is "lucky enough to encounter the hybrid (and the accompanying melon-headed whale)," they want to take a biopsy sample of the melon-headed whale to genetically confirm it is the hybrid's mother, as suspected. they also want to snap a few underwater photos of the hybrid to study its physical characteristics.
NBC's Liz Lane contributed to this report.