A rare narwhal in eastern Canada’s St. Lawrence River has apparently been adopted by a band of beluga whales, scientists have revealed.
The young, gray-speckled narwhal was first spotted in the river in 2016 with approximately 100 adult belugas. But it has recently begun traveling with a pod of about ten belugas, all believed to be juvenile or young adult males.
Narwhals have a single pointed tusk growing from their head. Their tusks can be seen in drone video footage of the whales taken by the Canadian nonprofit Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals.
The narwhal “seems to be at home with the St. Lawrence belugas,” said a GREMM statement.
The members of the pod are in “constant contact with each other,” GREMM president Robert Michaud told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The narwhal “behaves like one of the boys” and seems to have been completely accepted by the belugas, said Michaud. “It’s a like a big social ball of young juveniles that are playing some social, sexual games,” he said.
The narwhal is even beginning to pick up beluga behavior, such as blowing bubbles.
Narwhals and belugas, the only species in the Monodontidae family, are closely related and are about the same size. But narwhals are Arctic creatures and are typically seen more than 600 miles north of this pod. And Narwhals hunt deepwater fish usually in areas covered with ice. Belugas prefer shallower, warmer coastal water, and tend to seek fish like salmon closer to the surface.
GREMM scientists speculated that this narwhal-beluga marriage might be linked to a changing climate.
“Due to the climate change being observed in the Arctic, there is a chance that these two related species might find themselves in one another’s company more and more frequently in the decades to come,” GREMM noted on its website. “We already see this phenomenon in other species such as the polar bear and the grizzly, which have even been observed to interbreed. Might we someday observe a narwhal-beluga hybrid in the St. Lawrence?”
“I don’t think it should surprise people,” Martin Nweeia, a researcher at Harvard University who studies both narwhals and belugas, told the CBC. “I think it shows … the compassion and the openness of other species to welcome another member that may not look or act the same.”
During the Middle Ages, Narwhal tusks were treasured as unicorn horns. An eight-foot-long Medieval narwhal tusk identified then as a unicorn horn in on exhibit with the Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.