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Hello Narluga! Ontario researcher helps confirm rare hybrid whale

When a beluga romanced a narwhal, this unusual hybrid was the result.

When a beluga romanced a narwhal, this unusual hybrid was the result

With a beluga father and a narwhal mother, this hybrid whale was like nothing scientists had seen before. (Submitted by Paul Szpak )

An Ontario anthropology professor has helped a Danish team confirm the existence of a beluga-narwhal hybrid whale — now dubbed the "narluga." 

It started with a strange skull, collected from a hunter in Greenland three decades ago and passed on to academics in Denmark.

They shared what they had with Trent University's Paul Szpak, an expert in the chemical analysis of bone.   

"It's a really interesting skull," Szpak told Ontario Morning host Wei Chen, "belugas and narwhals have very different skulls from one another." 

He was especially taken by the unusual teeth, which looked like miniature tusks on the top jaw and like corkscrews on the bottom. 

The skull, handed over by a hunter, had traits from both species as well as characteristics all its own. (Submitted by Paul Szpak)

Together, Szpak and his Danish counterparts got to work, with the Danes focusing on the DNA component and Szpak comparing the chemical makeup of the skull and bone from the two possible parent species.

Last week, they published an academic paper explaining what they found. 

"It was a first generation hybrid, meaning the parents were a beluga and a narwhal. Particularly a narwhal mom and a beluga dad," said Szpak. 

The animal, scientists believe, was very large — bigger than either the narwhal or the beluga — something Szpak says is common for hybrids. 

By working on the teeth, Szpak was also able to determine its diet, which he said would have been quite different from its parents. 

The Narluga — bigger and stronger than either parent — found new sources of food deep in the ocean. (Submitted by Paul Szpak)

"The hybrid was probably eating most of its food from the ocean bottom. That might have been because it could dive more effectively because it was quite big and quite robust," he said. 

Two similar creatures spotted

So, could there be more? 

Scientists have in their possession a single skull, but the hunter told others he saw two similar creatures off the coast of Greenland all those decades ago. 

"That could have been one Beluga male who was quite the romancer of narwhal females ... those are the only instances we know," said Szpak. 

It's especially hard to tell since belugas and narwhals live mostly far away from human observation, he said. 

"There might be more, but it's going to be hard to know if there are more," he said.

With files from Ontario Morning

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