National Geographic News

Clymene dolphins surf the waves in the Atlantic Ocean.


Charles Q. Choi

for National Geographic

Published January 11, 2014

A well-known dolphin species, the clymene dolphin, arose from mating between two separate and distinct dolphin species, report genetics researchers.

Also known as the "short-snouted spinner dolphin," the clymene dolphin (Stenella clymene) grows to nearly seven feet (2.1 meters) long and dwells in deep waters in tropical and temperate parts of the Atlantic Ocean.

Evolutionary biologists have seen other such hybrid species elsewhere in the animal kingdom. The new discovery, reported in the journal PLOS ONE by a team led by marine biologist Ana Amaral of Portugal's University of Lisbon, adds to increasing evidence of such cross-breeding commonly leading to new species, even in the wide-open oceans.

Clymene dolphins feed mostly at night when squid and fish come to the surface of the water. The short-snouted dolphin gets its name from the ocean nymph Clymene of Greek mythology. (See "Dolphins Have 'Names,' Respond When Called.")

Researchers initially thought the clymene dolphin was a subspecies of the spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris). However, in 1981, a closer look at the clymene's anatomy revealed it was a distinct species.

But experts remained uncertain about the clymene's relationship with its close relatives. Although its outward appearance and behavior are more similar to those of the spinner dolphin, its skull features closely resemble those of the striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba).

DNA Analysis

To help solve this mystery, the study scientists analyzed skin samples from 15 clymene dolphins, as well as from 21 spinner and 36 striped dolphins. They collected the DNA from free-ranging dolphins—using special tissue-collecting darts—and from dead, stranded dolphins.

The investigators looked at nuclear DNA, which is found in the cell's nucleus and comes from both the mother and father, as well as DNA from their mitochondria—the cell's powerhouse—which possesses its own genes and is passed down solely from the mother.

"When I was first analyzing the data I collected, it was very confusing," said Amaral.

That's because Amaral and colleagues discovered that while the nuclear DNA of the clymene dolphin most resembled that of the spinner dolphin, the mitochondrial DNA was most similar to that of the striped dolphin. (See pictures of other hybrid animals.)

This is strong evidence that the clymene dolphin is a naturally occurring hybrid of the spinner and striped dolphins, said Amaral. Continued hybridization may still occur between the clymene dolphin's parent species, although at low levels, the study authors added.

The birth of a new species, known as speciation, is often thought to happen when one species splits into two or more isolated populations that diverge as they amass differences over time due to a lack of interbreeding.

Hybrids are usually infertile, with the mule—a cross between a male donkey and a female horse—being the most familiar example of this.

Hybrid Species: How Rare?

Past studies have shown that hybridization could occasionally lead to fertile offspring and even new species in plants, fishes, insects, and birds.

To get a hybrid species, two things need to occur, said evolutionary ecologist Pamela Willis at the University of Victoria in Canada, who did not take part in the study.

"You need to have hybrids be as fit as the parental species, able to carve out their own ecological space," she explained.

Then they somehow have to mate with only each other, rather than with either parental species, "hence allowing them to spin off onto their own, independent evolutionary trajectory and become a species of their own," Willis added. "Both of these conditions are hard to meet."

Scientists had thought hybrid speciation was exceptionally rare in mammals. "Mammals generally are less capable than other types of animals to produce healthy, fertile hybrids," Willis said.

Still, hybrids were not unheard of in cetaceans such as whales and dolphins—both in captivity and in the wild. Since cetaceans have very similar numbers of chromosomes across species, researchers had speculated they could produce viable hybrids more easily than other mammals.

"Ironically, one translation of clymene can mean notorious or infamous, and now this dolphin turns out it's living up to its name by being the first marine mammal known to arise through hybrid speciation," said study co-author Howard Rosenbaum, a marine biologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Future research will analyze the DNA of these dolphins in greater detail to help deduce how long ago the clymene dolphin arose, Amaral says.

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."

"Dolphins could help us better understand this rare form of speciation," added Rosenbaum. "We hope this work highlights the importance of conserving dolphins."

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Ross Winters
Ross Winters

It is interesting that they say mamals are less likely to produce hybrid species. I have heard of several possible mamal hybrid species. Wolves and cayote, and especially Homo sapian, neanderthal and denisovan. So it must not be that uncomon.

Terry Aley
Terry Aley

So you're saying two separate species mated, producing most likely one dolphin. Then the two separate species mated again, producing a second opposite sex dolphin of similar age. Then these two (brother and sister) dolphins left the pack and started their own family, which never outcrossed to any other dolphins. And built a population from there. It's hard to grasp that hybrids would appear, then said hybrids leave the pack and only maintain their own hybrid lineage. Maybe two dolphins of two different species were isolated for some weird reason. Then their offspring were unable to mate outside the group because there were no other dolphins in the area. Creating a small population that grew from there. But it would be very strange for two different species of dolphins (that normally live in pods or groups) to be so isolated from other dolphins long enough to develop a large self-sustaining population like this.

Tom Jordan
Tom Jordan

A mule is a sterile offspring between the mating of either a Jack Ass and a mare or a Stallion and a Jennet, female Ass, not a donkey.

Marisa Galli
Marisa Galli

How very interesting! It supports again how Darwin was basically right even if he didn't have access to the idea of a DNA! It must have proceeded like this, if any species wanted to survive. I wonder how many others didn't!!! Marisa Galli

Richmond Acosta
Richmond Acosta

Are there any naturally occurring hybrid-species of animals out there?

J. Abildgaard
J. Abildgaard

Love dolphins....they're so 'human'...............

Ken Jackson
Ken Jackson

Page freezes up when clicking "see pictures of other hybrid animals" I did register for NG and had to sign-in four times. Then the page froze. Thumbs down.

Sarah Rubock
Sarah Rubock

@Ross Winters  In relation to other kingdoms and even other clades in the animal kingdom, hybridization in mammals is rare. While not unheard of, it occurs far less often than in other types of organisms!

You are right that it happens and there are some well know examples, but I think the author of the article was speaking in comparative terms.

Nicole Castillo
Nicole Castillo

@Terry AleyMaybe they 'speak differently' and the parent specie found them to be less desirable and therefore they turned to other like them?

Sarah Rubock
Sarah Rubock

@Richmond Acosta  This dolphin species is one example. In North America, coyote-wolf hybrids aren't unheard of. Most hybrid speciation occurs in the plant kingdom, though.


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