In July of this year, researchers set out to track a group of 50 to 60 belugas in Canada’s St. Lawrence River, hoping to learn more about the whales’ social interactions. Observing the animals with the help of a drone, which offers a nice view of the whales as they glide beneath the surface of the water, the scientists noticed something unusual: a long-tusked, grey-skinned narwhal bobbing amidst the stark white belugas, seemingly at home in the foreign pod.
As Emily Chung of the CBC reports, narwhals typically dwell in frigid Arctic waters, some 600 miles north of where the group was found. But the interloper—a juvenile male, judging by the length of its tusk—appears to have been completely accepted by its new friends. Footage captured by the non-profit Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) shows the narwhal frolicking with a group of young belugas, believed to be mostly or entirely males.
“It behaves like it was one of the boys,” Robert Michaud, GREMM’s president and scientific director, tells Chung. “It's a like a big social ball of young juveniles that are playing some social, sexual games.”
This isn’t the first time that the narwhal has been seen with its adoptive family. The researchers examined the narwhal’s unique markings and determined that it is the same individual that was spotted with the beluga group in 2016 and 2017.
Belugas and narwhals belong to the same family, Monodontidae, and their habitats overlap in certain parts of the Arctic. (The St. Lawrence beluga pod is an atypical branch of the species that stayed in more southerly waters after the last ice age, according to Greg Mercer of the Guardian.) Scientists still have a lot to learn about the species’ social structures and modes of communication, but both narwhals and belugas are known to be highly social animals. And there is some evidence to suggest that they have mingled in the past. In 1993, scientists described an unusual cetacean skull found West Greenland, which they believed to belong to a beluga-narwhal hybrid. DNA testing has never confirmed this hypothesis, however.
Marine mammal biologist Martin Nweeia tells the CBC’s Chung that he isn’t particularly shocked to learn that a narwhal was seen swimming with a group of belugas.
“I don’t think it should surprise people,” he says. “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 yet, the GREMM researchers write on the website Whales Online that they were surprised to see the narwhal hanging out with its beluga buddies. In spite of the similarities between them, belugas and narwhals have rarely been observed interacting in the wild, even when they cross paths in the north. They are, in fact, quite distinct species, especially when it comes to their hunting patterns. Narwhals prefer to dive for fish in deep, ice-covered waters, while belugas find their food in clear, shallow areas along the coast.
And a lingering question persists about the St. Lawrence narwhal: What was it doing so far south of its normal range?
The GREMM researchers posit that “climate change being observed in the Arctic” might be to blame. As melting sea ice has thrown the Arctic ecosystem out of balance, whales have been forced to venture into unusual territory in search of food, writes Brandon Specktor of Live Science. Young belugas, for instance, have been sighted as far afield as New Jersey. Some lonely whales have even tried to cozy up to boats, leading to fatal collisions with propellers.
In the future, if climate change continues to alter whales’ northern habitats, the St. Lawrence narwhal and its band of beluga friends may not be quite as anomalous as they are today. As the GREMM researchers write, “these two related species might find themselves in one another’s company more and more frequently in the decades to come.”