The young narwhal behaves like the belugas and appears to already be fully accepted as a part of the group. Will more of these inter-species encounters happen as the climate continues to change?
Beluga Pod Adopts Lost Narwhal
Last July, the researchers and scientists from the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals or GREMM observed a lone narwhal playfully swimming with a pod of young beluga whales in Canada's St Lawrence River. A closer look at the narwhal confirmed that it was the very same narwhal that has been spotted in the area several times since 2016, swimming with possibly the same group it has been swimming with for years.
Typically, narwhals live in the icy Arctic waters, which means that it is roughly 1,000 kilometers away from its home. GREMM President and Scientific Director Robert Michaud stated that it is actually quite normal for young whales wandering away into different habitats.
Some of these young whales end up getting injured by propellers when they try to make friends with humans or boats. In the case of the narwhal, it is quite fortunate that he found the accepting group of young belugas.
The narwhal seems to have adopted the belugas' behavior such as blowing air bubbles. The way that the inter-species pod was swimming appears as though the belugas have fully accepted the narwhal as a part of their group.
The group, consisting of about 10 mostly male, young beluga whales and the juvenile male narwhal, were observed to be in close contact with each other, rolling, rubbing, and swimming close to the surface together.
The group's behavior as though they were all just belugas is rather interesting because even though the two species are actually related, their behaviors are different. For instance, narwhals typically dive and hunt in deep waters covered in ice whereas belugas prefer shallow, coastal waters with less ice. According to Michaud, the narwhal was behaving like it was 'one of the boys.'
Evidently, the changing environment and melting ice in the Arctic due to climate change may prompt more similar encounters between species that do not typically mingle. A perfect example would be polar bears and grizzly bears that have even been observed to interbreed. As such, researchers at GREMM wonder if they might one day see narwhal-beluga hybrids at St. Lawrence in the future as well.
Interestingly, the research team of Harvard's Martin Nweeia has observed a similar but opposite occurrence in which the beluga whales were the ones swimming with narwhals in the Arctic. According to Nweeia, who has been studying narwhals for nearly 20 years, although not a lot is still known about the social structures of both species, their social nature enables them to exhibit care and compassion.
'I think it shows … the compassion and the openness of other species to welcome another member that may not look or act the same. And maybe that's a good lesson for everyone,' said Nweeia.