DNA Analysis Reveals Mystery of Clymene Dolphin Heritage: They’re A Natural Hybrid Of Two Species

By Rhonda J. Miller on January 13, 2014 12:17 AM EST

Clymene Dolphins
The clymene dolphin has been discovered through DNA analysis to be a natural hybrid two other species of dolphins. (Photo: NOAA Southeast Fisheries / Rhonda J. Miller)

The clymene dolphin, also known as the short-snouted spinner dolphin, has been discovered to be a hybrid of two distinct dolphin species, clarifying the identification and opening up a window for scientists on how a new marine species is born. Scientists previously thought the clymene dolphin was a subspecies of the spinner dolphin, but in 1981 determined by its anatomy it was a "distinct species," according to National Geographic. The clymene dolphin grows nearly seven feet long, or 2.1 meters, and lives in deep waters in tropical and temperate parts of the Atlantic Ocean.

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While the outward appearance of the clymene dolphin and its behavior are similar to the spinner dolphin, its skull resembles that of the striped dolphin. Using DNA analysis, the research team, led by marine biologist Ana Amaral of the University of Lisbon in Portugual, discovered the clymene is a hybrid. The results are in the study,"Hybrid Speciation" in a Marine Mammal: The Clymene Dolphin,"  published Jan. 8 in the journal PLOS One

While the exchange of genetic material between different species to create a new species, or hybirid speciation, has been described in plants, fish, and insects, it has been considered exceptionally rare in mammals, according to scientists. The discovery about the origin of the cylmene dolphin presents evidence for the creation a new hybrid species in marine mammals. "Mammals are generally less capable than other types of animals to produce healthy, fertile hybrids," evolutionary ecologist Pamela Willis of the University of Victoria in Canada told National Geographic.

However, hybrids were not unheard of in cetaceans, such as whales and dolphins, both in captivity and in the wild, said Willis. Cetaceans have very similar numbers of chromosomes across species, so researchers had speculated they could produce viable hybrids more easily than other mammals. This study "adds to an ever-increasing amount of recent research that indicates that hybridization is a common and important part of animal evolution, facilitating the formation of new species," Willis said.

"Traditionally, biologists have viewed hybridization as rare and either insignificant, evolution-wise, or serving only to meld species together into one," she said. "We're undergoing a paradigm shift in recognizing the creative role hybridization plays in contributing to animal evolution and diversity."

"Our study represents the first such documented instance of a marine mammal species originating through the hybridization of two other species," said Amaral. "This also provides us with an excellent opportunity to better understand the mechanisms of evolution." 

A team from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the American Museum of Natural History's Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, and the University of Lisbon collaborated on solving the mystery of the clymene dolphin's origins, Red Orbit reported.

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