Meet the World’s Newest Dolphin Species

Scientists hope their identification of the Australian humpback dolphin will spur efforts to protect the species.

Todd Woody is TakePart's senior editor for environment and wildlife.

Welcome the newest addition to the Flipper family, the Australian humpback dolphin.

The Australian humpback dolphin has been around for millennia. We just didn’t know it, as the species was lumped in with other humpback dolphins that roam the world’s oceans. But in a new study, scientists say they’ve solved a 300-year-old taxonomic riddle, declaring that the Down Under dolphin is a separate species from its African and Asian relatives.

In this case, a name is more than a just name. Scientists hope the classification of the Australian dolphin as a distinct species will spur efforts to conserve the marine mammal and learn more about its rather mysterious life.

“These dolphins live mostly in areas that are heavily influenced by human activities, yet where there has been relatively little marine mammal research, at least until recently,” wrote authors Thomas A. Jefferson of environmental consulting firm Clymene Enterprises and Howard Rosenbaum of the Wildlife Conservation Society in the study, which was published in the journal Marine Mammal Science. “As a result, most known populations are facing diverse threats to their survival, but at the same time they have been little studied.”

With a gray back and a lighter-colored belly flecked with white, the Australian humpback dolphin can grow up to nine feet long and ranges from the shallow tropical and subtropical waters off the Australian coast to Papua New Guinea.

Because the dolphins don’t venture into the deep ocean beyond the Sahul Shelf that extends from Australia to Papua New Guinea, the scientists believe they evolved separately from other humpback species. Analysis of the Australian dolphin’s DNA and its physical attributes shows that it is indeed a separate species from African and Asian humpback dolphins, according to the research.

The study estimates that at most there are only a few thousand Australian humpback dolphins, which have been given the scientific name Sousa sahulensis. Despite their living near the coast, little is known about their behavior, though a humpback dolphin kept in captivity at a SeaWorld water park in the state of Queensland is estimated to be 48 years old.

Although the dolphins are rarely seen, their close proximity to the coast has put them in harm’s way.

“Known and potential threats include habitat loss and degradation, effects of overfishing, direct takes (both illegal killing and live capture), incidental catch (including in antishark nets in New South Wales), pollution, epizootics, vessel traffic, and wildlife tourism,” according to the study. “In particular, the northwestern portion of Australia is undergoing rapid development, with port facilities construction for oil, gas, and mining operations.”

“There are several large marine protected areas in the tropical waters of Australia, but in general, these may not provide adequate protection for the critical habitat areas of this species,” it added. 

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