Flinders scientist helps find new dolphin species

Photo of humpback dolphins by Guido J Parra

A species of dolphin previously unknown to science has been found in waters off Northern Australia by a team of international researchers, including Flinders University animal studies expert Dr Guido J Parra.

In a study to determine the number of different species in the family of humpback dolphins, the researchers have found strong evidence to suggest the recognition of at least four distinct species – one of which is completely new to science.

Based on an analysis of genetic data and physical features, the researchers have identified four species in the humpback genus; the Atlantic humpback dolphin which is found in waters off West Africa, the Indo-Pacific humpback which ranges from the central to western Indian Ocean, another species of Indo-Pacific humpback which inhabits the eastern Indian and western Pacific Oceans and a fourth, previously unknown Indo-Pacific species found in waters off Northern Australia.

Working to bring taxonomic clarity to a widespread yet poorly-known group of dolphins, the researchers examined 180 skulls and 235 tissue samples from beached dolphins and museum specimens to compare genetic and morphological characteristics from the eastern Atlantic to the western Pacific oceans.

While the Atlantic humpback dolphin is a recognised species, Dr Parra said the research provides new evidence to split the Indo-Pacific humpback into three separate species – including a new species found in Australian tropical waters.

“We are very surprised and of course delighted to discover the recognition of a completely new species,” Dr Parra, a senior lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences and research leader of the Cetacean Ecology, Behaviour and Evolution Lab (CEBEL) at Flinders University, said.

“The added bonus is that it is located right here in Australia, and could potentially be endemic to our waters,” he said.

“Based on these findings, a formal adjustment to the naming and number of the species will soon occur through a separate process.”

Dr Parra said the information provides much-needed scientific evidence to inform management decisions aimed at protecting the humpback dolphin’s unique genetic diversity and habitats.

“In order to conserve and protect all forms of humpback dolphins we need to maintain high-quality habitats, which present great challenges as the coastal distribution of these species usually coincides with highly-populated developing countries.

“Australia is one of the few developed nations in the Indo-Pacific with a relatively vast and unpopulated tropical coast, but this is changing rapidly with the northern coast currently undergoing major coastal developments.

“Australia now has the opportunity and responsibility to develop research and conservation programs that will contribute to the conservation and long-term survival of this new dolphin species.”

The study, led by Dr Martin Mendez and Dr Howard Rosenbaum from the Wildlife Conservation Society and the American Museum of Natural History, has just been published in the latest edition of Molecular Ecology.

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