Marine Scientist Explains Why a Lone Narwhal Travels With Beluga Whales
Scientists who work for the nonprofit Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) recently came across a rare sight while following a pod of ten young male beluga whales in the St. Lawrence Estuary. Embedded among the crew of white, blubbery belugas was a singular ‘unicorn of the sea’ — a grey speckled narwhal with a twisted tusk. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why this fellow is traveling with a species other than his own, but they believe this isn’t his first time in the crew.
Footage of the narwhal, released this month, was collected as a part of the annual St. Lawrence beluga census. GREMM scientists use drones to track the daily lives of 900 beluga whales whose range extends from the St. Lawrence Estuary to the Saguenay Fjord in Quebec, Canada. The whales are geographically and genetically distinct from Arctic belugas. According to GREMM president and scientific director Robert Michaud they appear to have accepted the narwhal — who has been seen twice before in the estuary — with ease.
“It [the narwhal] behaves like it was one of the boys,” Michaud told CBC. “They are in constant contact with each other. It’s just like a big social ball of young juveniles that are playing some social, sexual games.”
While social, sexual games sound fun, marine ecologist and University of Alaska Fairbanks research assistant professor Donna Hauser, Ph.D. tells Inverse there are more reasons why this video is “surprising.”
“Belugas and narwhals are closely related and both are social species, but there is still a lot scientists do not know about their social and behavioral ecology to help interpret this interaction,” Hauser says. “For example, narwhals tend to have a more specialized diet than belugas and are more migratory than St. Lawrence belugas.”
This narwhal is very far south of the usual range of narwhal populations residing in the Eastern Canadian Arctic and in West Greenland, Hauser says. Because both species tend to have specific and distinct seasonal ranges and migration routes, they rarely interact. Additionally, it’s hazy whether this narwhal can even communicate with his beluga boys.
“It is unclear how similar their acoustic communications are, although both use a variety of clicks and whistles,” Hauser says. “Belugas are often referred to as the ‘canaries of the sea’ because of their very diverse acoustic repertoire.”
According to Michaud’s interpretation of the whale’s interactions though, something must be getting through. His team has observed the narwhal blowing bubbles in a similar way to the belugas, and says it hasn’t been treated like it has a giant tooth protruding out of his head. In a blog posted by GREMM accompanying the video, it’s theorized that due to climate change, there’s a chance that the two shale species “might find themselves in one another’s company more and more frequently in the decades to come.”
In turn, increased interactions between narwhals and belugas could result in a “narwhal-beluga hybrid” — an animal that has been thought to born on an extremely rare occasion, but hasn’t actually been genetically confirmed. For now, it’s just some boys enjoying some fine Canadian water and each other’s social, sexual company.