Narwhal mom and beluga dad: Scientists are learning more about the unusual Narluga

A strange-looking whale skull in a Denmark museum is under a new spotlight after technology confirmed that it belonged to a creature that was half-narwhal and half-beluga, a study from the University of Copenhagen reported Thursday.  

Using DNA and stable isotope analysis, scientists at the university were able to surmise that the skull belonged to a male hybrid that had a narwhal mom and a beluga whale dad. The hybrid has been popularly dubbed a “Narluga” in media reports. 

The study focused largely around the animal’s teeth. Narwhals have one or two long, spiraled tusks. In males, one of the two tusks grows more prominently through the upper lip giving the narwhal unicorn-like look, according to National Geographic. 

Female narwhals also have two teeth, and sometimes can grow a tusk of their own, but not as prominently as males.

Beluga whales, on the other hand, have a set of cone-shaped teeth aligned in a straight row.

Narwhal skull (Photo: Mikkel Høegh Post)

Beluga skull (Photo: Mikkel Høegh Post)

Scientists found that the narwhal-beluga whale hybrid inherited characteristics from both parents and sported a set of long, spiraling teeth that were angled horizontally.

According to Mikkel Skovrind, author and Ph.D. student at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, this unique set of teeth indicates the hybrid didn’t have the same diet as the other two species. Instead, Skovrind said in a release on the museum’s website, the whale was most likely a bottom dweller.

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Narluga Reconstruction (Photo: Markus Bühler)

Its skull was bigger than those of both the narwhal and beluga whale, which means that as an adult, it was able to survive off this foraging strategy.

“As far as we know, this is the first and only evidence in the world that these two Arctic whale species can interbreed,” said Eline Lorenzen, biologist and curator at the University of Copenhagen Natural History Museum of Denmark. “So, interbreeding between the species appears to be either a very rare or a new occurrence.”

The creature in question was shot by a Greenlandic hunter in the 1980s who decided to keep its skull because of its “odd appearance,” the museum said.

Several years later, it was picked up by Professor Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources who hypothesized the hybrid in a 1993 study.  

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