Researchers off the coast of Kauai spotted something weird in mid-July: a strange hybrid creature that’s a mix between a rough-toothed dolphin and a melon-headed whale. What made the sighting even stranger was the fact that neither animals are common in the area. It’s been dubbed a “wholphin,” although its technical name is Steno bredanensis.
Although many reports have called the wholphin a brand new species, in reality, this isn’t the first time a whale/dolphin hybrid has been found. “It isn’t and shouldn’t be considered a new species,” Robin Baird, a biologist with the research group, told HuffPost. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more hybrids between the two species ― they do associate quite regularly.”
What’s interesting—aside from the fact it’s a rare sighting—is that researchers spotted a single melon-headed whale in a pod of rough-toothed dolphins. The wholphin, of course, was swimming alongside. After they spotted it, scientists noticed that the wholphin had two distinctive features. With the head and body of a melon-headed whale and the steep dorsal fin of a rough-toothed dolphin, their interest was piqued. Soon after, they were able to get DNA, which led them to the definitive conclusion that it was indeed a hybrid of the two species.
Isolated incidents like this aren’t generally considered a new species since hybrids often can’t reproduce—like the mule, for example, which is a cross between a male donkey and a female horse—it’s rare that hybrids are able to create a new species.
Still, though, it’s an interesting discovery. There have been other cases of wholphins in the past, most notably at Hawaii’s Sea Life Park aquarium in 1985, when a female bottlenose dolphin had a calf with a male false killer whale. It was named Kekaimalu, and against all odds, gave birth to a female calf in 2004. Both can still be seen at the park.