Researchers have discovered a new species of humpback dolphins living just off the northern Australian coast. Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have been debating for years about how many species of humpback dolphins there are. About 10 years ago, the scientists decided that there was only enough proof to officially identify 2 species of dolphins within the humpback’s genus Sousa, even though many scientists have proposed that there are up to four different species of humpback dolphins.
The two species agreed upon were the Atlantic humpback and the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin and the community agreed to wait for further information before naming a third, or fourth, species. That day has come, with the third, as yet unnamed, previously unknown species having been found.
The new discovery of the dolphin species living off the Australian coast is a vital step for conservation efforts to protect and preserve the cetaceans. Howard Rosembaum, director of WCS’s Ocean Giants program says that the new admissions should assist conservation groups in creating policies more applicable and effective for each unique species. Martin Mendez, assistant director of the Latin America and the Caribbean Program says that this new discovery is essential for preservation efforts so as to create the correct “framework” for particular conservation programs.
“You have to absolutely know what you are trying to preserve here,” Mendez says.
The Indo-Pacific humpback group is considered as a near threatened species and the Atlantic humpback is classified as vulnerable. Coastal fishing and invasion of habitat are two major factors that threaten the humpback dolphin. There is hope that this new research will assist in raising awareness and management for conservation efforts of this IUCN Red List group.
The WCS posted their research in the journal Molecular Ecology. In the article, the team states that they tested genes and used physical comparison to settle the decade long humpback dolphin debate. The scientists found that there is sufficient genetic variation in the humpback dolphin to suggest the new species identification. The genetic testing was performed on tissue taken from 235 different dolphins. Scientists also examined 180 dolphin craniums to determine the potential differences between the species. The samples were taken from dolphins in West Africa, the coast of Australia, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean. Rosenbaum admitted that the Marine mammal community specified at least two different forms of proof are needed in order for a species distinction to be made and accepted. In this case, the genetic testing and the physical differences serve as proof enough for the new humpback species. The physical characteristics that identified the new species include (but are limited to) the length of the dolphins’ beaks and the amount of the teeth and the positioning in their mouths.
Although it is rare to discover a new species of mammal, such as the humpback dolphin species off the Australian coast, the researchers are using technology that provides detailed analysis that can provide ground breaking genetic information. The new technology has enabled researchers to discover the new dolphin species off the Australian coast and there are hopes that more information will be revealed soon.
“One of the reasons we’re finding new species is because we’re finding new tools,” Mendez says. “Genetics opens a new window into these kinds of questions.”