Meet the “Narluga”: Trent Scientist Helps Confirm Hybrid Arctic Animal

June 20, 2019

Canada Research Chair Dr. Paul Szpak works with team from Denmark to prove animal skull belonged to a hybrid from narwhal and beluga whale

Skulls of (a) a narwhal, (b) the narluga, and (c) a beluga. (Eline Lorenzen)
Skulls of (a) a narwhal, (b) the narluga, and (c) a beluga. (Eline Lorenzen)

If you’ve ever wondered what happens when (and if) two different whale species mate, researchers, including Trent’s own Dr. Paul Szpak, now have an answer – a new type of whale is born.

Nearly three decades ago, scientists obtained an unusual skull from an Inuit hunter in West Greenland. Its unusual morphology—a large robust skull, some long peg-like teeth and a few spiraled teeth resembling corkscrews—led scientists to hypothesize in 1993 that the skull came from a hybrid between a narwhal and a beluga whale.

That hypothesis has been proven correct today by a study published in the multi-disciplinary online journal Scientific Reports.

Trent University assistant Anthropology professor Dr. Paul Szpak and was part of an international collaboration that proved through chemical and DNA analysis that the mother was a narwhal and the father was a beluga – confirming the world’s only-known ‘narluga.’

“To get the chance to analyze material from an animal that nobody has ever worked with before has been extremely cool,” said Professor Szpak, who is a Canada Research Chair in environmental archeology.

At Trent’s world-class chemistry facilities, Prof. Szpak performed a chemical analysis using a technique called isotope ratio mass spectrometry on the hybrid remains and on other narwhals and belugas.

 “The results of the chemical analysis showed that the hybrid had a very unusual diet, very different than either belugas or narwhals,” Prof. Szpak says. “We hypothesized that this individual may have fed more in deeper parts of the ocean and that it may have had this unique diet because of its very unusual teeth.”

While this is the only known narluga to have been studied, Prof. Szpak says there may be more and the finding teaches the world about the biology of belugas and narwhals and how the two species interact.

There will be follow-up studies on this, although not necessarily with this particular specimen. Prof. Szpak and the team from Copenhagen will be collaborating on a number of different projects that are focused on using natural history collections to better understand the biology of mammals that live in the Arctic, especially belugas, narwhals, polar bears and bowhead whales. 

The full study is available in Scientific Reports.

Undergraduate students at Trent learn about the kinds of chemical analyses and techniques used in the study in the third-year course, Ancient Biomolecules, taught by Prof. Szpak.

Prof. Szpak says he is always looking for talented graduate students to join his lab and contribute to his research program.

Find out more about Trent’s Anthropology program.