Hybrid Dolphin: Neat Curiosity or Bad Omen?
Clymene dolphins are a hybrid of closely related spinner and striped dolphins.
Originally designed to live on land, marine mammals are a diverse, charismatic group of animals that include more than 120 species. The animals share key characteristics of land mammals. They have hair, breathe air, give birth to live young, which feed off mother's milk when young. They have warm bodies and usually thick blubber to keep their body temperatures high. The bottlenose dolphin is probably the most widely recognized marine mammal, easily spotted just offshore from beaches around the world. Small groups of 20 or less can live in close proximity to shorelines, but groups living more offshore can reach several hundred. Bottlenose dolphin calves stay with their mothers for up to six years, learning how to hunt and become good dolphin citizens. Full-grown dolphins reach eight to 12 feet in length and can weigh up to 1,430 pounds. The bottlenose dolphin is protected in U.S. waters.
What makes them "marine" depends on the animal. They either live mostly in the sea or, like polar bears, depend on the ocean for food. The largest in the group are whales -- including humpback whales. These massive animals reach up to 50 feet in length and weigh up to 79,000 pounds. To maintain their weight, the animals feed on tons of krill and fish. They neared extinction due to whaling, but have recovered somewhat since a 1966 moratorium on whaling was introduced.
While polar bears live mostly on land or ice, they are excellent swimmers and have been known to swim up to 45 miles a day. The massive animals, weighing up to 1,500 pounds, hunt mostly seals. In recent years, biologists have observed that the bears are swimming now more than ever as melting stretches the distances between Arctic ice flows. Because they depend on sea ice to hunt seals, the polar bear is considered threatened as global warming melts and thins ice in this region.
This member of the weasel family is also the smallest marine mammal, with females weighing about 60 pounds and males weighing up to 90 pounds. They may be small, but they're also clever. They're the only marine mammals known to use tools. They use stones to break open clams and store food they gather in the folds of their armpits! Another feature that sets them apart is their lack of blubber. These marine mammals depend mostly on their fur to stay warm. That feature makes them particularly vulnerable to oil spills, which can compromise their fur's insulating effect.
Immediately recognizable by its long tusks and whiskers, the sea walrus is a hefty, flippered member of the Odobenidae family and is, in fact, the last living member of this group. Since both the males and females have big tusks and not much for teeth, the animals feed by sucking up shellfish from the ocean floor. So, just what are those tusks for? The longer they are (they grow to be up to four feet long in males), the higher an animal is ranked in the group. Males attack each other with their tusks to establish dominance. The ivory appendages are also handy for poking holes in the winter ice and for helping the animals pull themselves out of the water.
Manatees, also known as sea cows, are gentle herbivores that live in marshy areas in tropical and subtropical waters. The average adult manatee can weigh up 1,200 pounds and is around 10 feet long. Because of their slow metabolism, these animals can only survive in warm waters. Due to the unusually long, cold winter this year in part of the southeastern United States, populations of manatees throughout Florida were devastated. During the day, manatees usually like to stay close to the surface. At night, manatees will often sleep about three to 10 feet below sea level. This is why these gentle animals are so often accidentally injured, maimed or killed by passing boats.
Found up and down the North American coastlines, these marine mammals spend half of their lives swimming. Although they can reach up to six feet in length and weigh around 180 pounds, when on land and in plain sight harbor seals may not be easy to spot. Their spotted brown or tan fur allows harbor seals to blend in with sand and rocks. Unlike their very vocal relatives -- sea lions and elephant seals -- harbor seals are quiet creatures that make little noise. They like to hang out on beaches, sand bars and rocks during low tide to bask in the sun and sleep, but they never go far from the water. At the slightest sign of danger, they will quickly slip back under the waves. These expert swimmers have been known to plunge to depths of more than 1,600 feet and stay underwater up to 28 minutes.
The small and sleek clymene dolphin could be a barometer of how well ocean life is faring, given that the dolphin was recently determined to be the first known naturally occurring marine mammal hybrid.
Molecular analysis, outlined in a study in the latest issue of the journal PLoS ONE, found that clymene dolphins, which live in the Atlantic Ocean and can grow to about 7 feet long, are a cross between closely related spinner and striped dolphins.
"In most cases found in nature, each species favors its own kind when mating," co-author Ana Amaral of the University of Lisbon told Discovery News. "In order for these three dolphin species to keep their genetic diversity intact, they must, for the most part, be mating preferentially within their own species."
Nevertheless, something compelled the spinner and striped dolphins to mate outside of their own species, resulting in the clymene. This would be somewhat like a human choosing to mate with a chimp, and a love child emerging from that pairing representing an entirely new species.
Evidence suggests that a segment of our species did mate with Neanderthals, since Neanderthal DNA is within the genome of non-African humans, but that Neanderthals were simply absorbed into Homo sapiens.
The clymene, on the other hand, is now viewed as being distinct from striped and spinner dolphins.
Amaral and her colleagues explained that DNA analysis shows the clymene's mitochondrial genome most resembles that of the striped dolphin. Its nuclear genome, however, is more closely related to that of the spinner dolphin.
Striped and spinner dolphins don't even look the same, making the love match all the more surprising.
"Physically, they possess different coloration patterns and their skulls differ in their shape and size," Amaral said. "These differences, however, do not prevent the dolphins from mating and producing fertile hybrids."
Naturally occurring hybrids are not so rare among plants, fishes and birds. It's not because they are more amorous. It's just primarily due to the fact that genetic and embryonic development factors in mammals tend to prevent their hybrid offspring from being viable.
It appears that multiple spinner and striped dolphins have been mating with each other for years, enough to produce the new clymene population.
The clymene's mitochondrial genome most resembles that of the striped dolphin while its nuclear genome is more closely related to that of the spinner dolphin.NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center
"It is not clear if diminishing populations led to these hybridization phenomena," Amaral said. "There also can be other contributing factors, such as the need to explore new habitat with new resources."
If human activities affected the dolphins' original habitat and food supply, then we could be partly responsible for the spinner-striped dolphin matings.
It is known that all of these dolphins are susceptible to incidental capture as bycatch in fishing nets. They are also directly hunted for either human consumption or shark bait. Pollution, habitat loss and climate change pose additional threats.
As it stands, it's unclear if the emergence of clymene dolphins signals good or bad news for ocean ecosystems.
"Very little is known about the clymene dolphin, whose scientific name translated from Greek is 'oceanid,' but ironically also can mean 'fame' or 'notoriety,'" Howard Rosenbaum, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Ocean Giants program said.
Further research may determine if the clymene will gain fame as a marine mammal novelty, or notoriety as further evidence that marine mammal populations are in jeopardy.