Skull ecomorphological variation of narwhals (Monodon monoceros, Linnaeus 1758) and belugas (Delphinapterus leucas, Pallas 1776) reveals phenotype of their hybrids

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Narwhals and belugas are toothed whales belonging to the Monodontidae. Belugas have a circumpolar Arctic and sub-Artic distribution while narwhals are restricted to the Atlantic Arctic. Their geographical ranges overlap during winter migrations in the Baffin Bay area (Canada/ West Greenland) and successful interbreeding may occur. Here, we employed geometric morphometrics on museum specimens to explore the cranium and mandible morphology of a known hybrid (NHMD MCE 1356) and the cranium morphology of a putative hybrid (NHMD 1963.44.1.4) relative to skull morphological variation in the parental species. Specifically, we used 3D models of skulls from 69 belugas, 86 narwhals, and the two known/ putative hybrids and 2D left hemi-mandibles from 20 belugas, 64 narwhals and the known hybrid. Skull shape analyses allowed clear discrimination between species. Narwhals are characterised by a relatively short rostrum and wide neurocranium while belugas show a more elongated and narrower cranium. Sexual size dimorphism was detected in narwhals, with males larger than females, but no sexual shape dimorphism was detected in either species (excluding presence/absence of tusks in narwhals). Morphological skull variation was also dependent on different allometric slopes between species and sexes in narwhals. Our analyses showed that the cranium of the known hybrid was phenotypically close to belugas but its 2D hemi-mandible had a narwhal shape and size morphology. Both cranium and mandible were strongly correlated, with the pattern of covariation being similar to belugas. The putative hybrid was a pure male narwhal with extruded teeth. Comparison of genomic DNA supported this result, and stable carbon and nitrogen isotope values suggested that the putative hybrid had a more benthic foraging strategy compared to narwhals. This work demonstrates that although the known hybrid could be discriminated from narwhals and belugas, detection of its affinities with these parental species was dependent on the part of the skull analysed.

TidsskriftPLoS ONE
Udgave nummer8
Antal sider23
StatusUdgivet - 2022

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© 2022 Vicari et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

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