The Current

A pod of beluga whales adopted a stray narwhal. Could mating produce a baby 'narluga'?

Researchers are watching to see if a pod of beluga whales that took in a stray narwhal could one day produce a baby “narluga” — a cross between the two species.

Researchers estimate narwhal is about 12 years old, reaching sexual maturity

An artist's impression of a narluga, a cross between a narwhal and a beluga whale. (Submitted by Paul Szpak)

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The St. Lawrence River has welcomed an unusual group of visitors in recent years: a pod of beluga whales that appears to have adopted a lost young narwhal.

Now, with the male narwhal reaching sexual maturity, researchers are watching to see whether he might mate with a beluga to produce an even more unusual sight: a baby "narluga."

"We know that hybridization is possible … it did happen a few times," said researcher Robert Michaud, pointing to a 2019 Danish analysis that confirmed a successful cross breeding.

Michaud has been studying whales for more than 35 years, and is president and scientific director of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM). 

He explained that the word narluga is more of a popular portmanteau than a scientific term, and while scientists can't say for sure if it will happen in this case, a successful mating is feasible. 

"[Maybe] in the next few years, we'll start to look out for not only our lost narwhal, single narwhal, but maybe for descendants," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

WATCH | Drone footage of the narwhal hanging with his beluga friends

Narwhals are usually found in Arctic waters, and are known for the distinctive twisted tusk that juts out from their heads. The tusk is actually a canine tooth, usually indicating a male, but present in a small percentage of females.

While it's not unusual for one to stray south, it is remarkable to see one become a part of a beluga pod. 

The narwhal in question was first spotted in the St. Lawrence River in 2016, and has reappeared with its beluga brothers every year since — giving Michaud and GREMM the chance to study the unusual group.

They estimate the narwhal is about 12 years old, and is reaching sexual maturity. He is always in a social group with juvenile beluga males, and seems to be well integrated.

"There are a lot of social interactions between the narwhal and the others," he said, including normal, expected social-sexual behaviours in both directions.

"He is one of the crew; he is one of the buddies in there," he said.

The narwhal was first spotted among the belugas of the St. Lawrence in 2016. (GREMM)

The team initially did not name the narwhal, as they weren't sure he would stick around. But six years in, GREMM is running a fundraiser to support research and conservation efforts — and contributors suggest a name for the annual visitor.

Some suggestions from the public so far include D'Artagnan, Excalibur, Pinocchio, and Megalodon, which means big tooth. 

Skull found in Greenland

Michaud said there have been stories of narlugas over the years, but formal confirmation came from DNA analysis of a skull, conducted by the University of Copenhagen in 2019.

The skull was found by a hunter in Greenland in 1990. It had unusual teeth — miniature tusks on the upper jaw, and corkscrew-like lower teeth — and looked different from the skulls of both belugas and narwhals.

The study, which included a chemical analysis conducted at Ontario's Trent University, concluded that it belonged to a first-generation hybrid, which had grown far larger than its narwhal mother and beluga father. 

Skulls of (a) a narwhal (b) the hybrid analyzed in the study, and (c) a beluga, show how different the teeth of narwhals and belugas are, and the unusual nature of the hybrid's teeth. (Mikkel Høegh Post/Natural History Museum of Denmark)

Michaud said it wasn't possible to tell whether the narluga could also have reproduced. 

"One of the things with hybrids in different species is they might survive, but they might not reproduce themselves," he said.

When belugas mate, the males form groups and alliances to approach and court the females, who tend to travel in separate pods, caring for the young. 

Michaud said it remains to be seen "will this young narwhal get intimate enough with other males to join in an alliance, a coalition to work out its way to reproduction."

If he does, researchers would have to wait for the young to grow before a narluga could be distinguished from beluga calves. 

An artist's impression of the hybrid's skull, seen within its grown body. Researchers believe it had a beluga father and a narwhal mother. (Submitted by Paul Szpak )

Does the narwhal think it's a beluga?

In the St. Lawrence River, GREMM secured a scientific licence to use a drone to track the narwhal-beluga pod. 

That's allowed them to track its growth, which has been healthy and suggest the narwhal is well fed. The organization has also recorded distinct markings that prove it's the same narwhal, year after year.

But Michaud said there's still plenty we don't know about the animals, or this unique social structure. 

For example, it's not known whether the two species can communicate, or if the narwhal can "learn, adapt, adjust or just accommodate the complex vocal repertoire of belugas," he said.

It's also not clear whether the narwhal can distinguish the difference in species, Michaud said.

"What does a narwhal know about narwhals, and would he now know about belugas? Well, these are fascinating questions," he said.

Narwhals are known for the distinctive twisted tusk that juts out from their heads, which is actually a canine tooth. (Paul Nicklen/WWF)

That's why Michaud can't wait to get back out on the water again this spring, in the hopes of catching another glimpse of the pod, which could return as early as late March.

"It's fun, it's intriguing, but it's also very powerful and useful information for us tracking the life of this narwhal amongst the belugas," he said.

"If he's doing well, he might be here for the next 40 years — they live up to 60, 80 years old."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Susan McKenzie.

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