It’s unusual to find a narwhal as far south as Canada’s St. Lawrence river, but it does occasionally happen. But this particular narwhal returns every year to team up with a pod of beluga whales and inter-breeding has happened before.
Marine biologists in Quebec have been studying this fascinating phenomenon: a narwhal traveling, eating, and living with a pod of young male beluga whales as they cruise down the St. Lawrence river. Drone footage indicates this unique black sheep is a male, and well-fed, indicating that he’s been adopted into the pod.
“There are a lot of social interactions between the narwhal and the others,” said Robert Michaud, president and scientific director of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals. “He is one of the crew; he is one of the buddies in there.”
GREMM has been studying this pod of belugas, who have returned every year since 2016, and believe that they are now reaching sexual maturity, when they will venture out to find a pod of females to court. Michaud is fascinated to see if the adopted narwhal has integrated enough to breed, and produce a hybrid known colloquially as a narluga, though OGN reckons it could just as easily be called a narwhale.
In 2019, an Ontario/Denmark team of researchers confirmed the existence of narlugas through analysis of a skull discovered by a hunter-gatherer in Greenland. Lacking the long horn of the narwhal (which is actually a canine tooth) yet possessing characteristics of both animals, it gave some forensic evidence to known first-hand accounts of hybrids between the species.
“It was a first generation hybrid, meaning the parents were a beluga and a narwhal. Particularly a narwhal mom and a beluga dad,” Paul Szpak from Trent University Ontario, told CBC in 2019. The narluga was bigger than both animals, similar to the way a “liger,” the result of a tiger and a lion breeding, is also bigger than both.
The St. Lawrence narwhal has a lot to learn if it’s to secure itself a beluga-lover, since the whales communicate with a vast array of vocalizations unknown to their horned cousins. However it’s not clear to Michaud whether or not the narwhal knows itself to be a narwhal, or knows itself to be a beluga. Time will tell!