New Humpback Dolphin Species Discovered Near Australia

By Ben Wolford on November 2, 2013 12:27 PM EDT

Scientists have discovered a new species of dolphin off the coast of Australia.
Scientists have discovered a new species of dolphin off the coast of Australia.

Scientists have discovered a new species of dolphin belonging to the Humpback genus off the Australian coast. The finding is hailed as a major step toward marine mammal conservation in the region.

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After probing genetic data across wide swaths of ocean, researchers for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other groups identified four distinct species of humpback dolphins, one of which was previously unknown, the society announced this week.

"This discovery helps our understanding of the evolutionary history of this group and informs conservation policies to help safeguard each of the species," said Martin Mendez, the lead author of the study, published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

The physical differences between the dolphins were minute, Mendez told LiveScience, "but we were surprised to see that the genetic data came out quite different." It turns out this new dolphin — so new it hasn't even been named yet — was sufficiently geographically isolated from other Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins to genetically branch off into a whole new species.

The researchers set out to understand the humpback dolphin genus by collecting 180 skulls from mostly beached and museum specimens. They also gathered 235 tissue samples to examine their mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, looking for variations. With a clearer picture of the animals' taxonomy, they hope to strengthen conservation efforts.

"New information about distinct species across the entire range of humpback dolphins will increase the number of recognized species, and provides the needed scientific evidence for management decisions aimed at protecting their unique genetic diversity and associated important habitats," said Howard Rosenbaum, director of WCS's Ocean Giants program and senior author of the paper.

As Mendez told The Washington Post, "You have to absolutely know what you are trying to preserve here."

Humpback dolphins in the Atlantic Ocean are considered "vulnerable" species, and the ones in the Indian and Pacific oceans are listed as "near threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They're dying from habitat loss and fishing. Based at the Bronx Zoo, the Wildlife Conservation Society sponsors studies, education, and zoo management to try to protect animals and habitats.

When a new animal species is discovered, the scientific community sets into motion. For one, other biologists might argue that the genetic or physical variation is too slight, that there's not a new species at all. When there's agreement, typically the people who discovered it get the privilege of naming it. But they have to abide by a code set forth by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. This organization makes sure every animal gets a unique name, universally accepted by the scientific community.

According to the commission, there are "several million" animal species (some estimates say almost 9 million), and 15,000 new species are added to the list every year.

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