For more than two years, scientists have observed a lone narwhal in the St. Lawrence River, more than 600 miles south of its usual habitat in the Arctic. What stands out as interesting, however, is the observation that the narwhal seems to have been adopted by a pack of beluga whales.
According to CBC News, the narwhal sports a tusk measuring close to two feet in length, thus possibly making it a juvenile male. The animal’s peculiar circumstances were first observed about two months ago when scientists from the Quebec-based Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) filmed it playing with a group of about nine or 10 young belugas, most of whom also appeared to be male.
As observed by GREMM president and scientific director Robert Michaud, the young narwhal seemed to be behaving “like it was one of the boys,” as it joined the group of belugas in “rolling and rubbing” against each other. This behavior was seen as a sign that the belugas accepted the narwhal into their pod, as it was similar to how the belugas alone played with each other when the narwhal wasn’t involved.
“They are in constant contact with each other. It’s a like a big social ball of young juveniles that are playing some social, sexual games,” Michaud explained.
Narwhal sightings outside the Arctic are considered to be rare, as their range is usually limited to the icy waters surrounding parts of several countries, including Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia. While their southmost range is thought to be Quebec’s Ungava Bay, which is found south of Baffin Island, there have been some notable sightings beyond that, including one in 2003, where scientists from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans spotted a narwhal in the St. Lawrence estuary.
The narwhal that GREMM scientists believed to have become a full-fledged member of the pod of belugas was first spotted by the nonprofit whale research organization in July, 2016, when researchers aboard GREMM’s boat, Le Bleuvet, saw the animal swimming with a group of 60 to 80 belugas. Scientists observed that the narwhal blew bubbles in a very similar fashion to the belugas, and was mostly inconspicuous to the beluga pod, with the exception of “one curious juvenile,” as CBC News noted.
'One of the boys': lost narwhal finds new home with band of beluga whales https://t.co/A3vO8Pe064
— The Guardian (@guardian) September 13, 2018
A second sighting was reported for the same narwhal in 2017, followed by another three sightings in the current year, as researchers believe the creature was swimming with juveniles from the same pod as in previous years. Even then, other scientists commented that it was truly unusual to see a narwhal that wasn’t just hundreds of miles south of its range but also seemingly assimilated into a beluga pod.
Randall Reeves, a scientist who has been studying whales for about four decades and co-authored a study regarding a purported narwhal-beluga hybrid in 1993, remarked that belugas and narwhals tend to “stick to their own kind,” despite their reputation as social animals. However, this was countered by Harvard researcher Martin Nweeia, who said that this shared trait of being social could help both species become “similarly capable of caring and compassion.”
Talking about the reasons why the young narwhal ended up with another species’ pod, GREMM’s Michaud told CBC News that its behavior is common among young whales to “wander into strange habitats” and socialize with other creatures. He added that the narwhal was “very lucky” to have found “almost normal buddies” in the pod of belugas it ended up with.