Scientists Discover New Species of Marine Mammal: Australian Humpback Dolphin

First Posted: Aug 04, 2014 08:12 AM EDT

You'd think that scientists would have discovered most new mammal species by now, but we're finding more each and every day. Now, scientists examining a taxonomically confused group of marine mammals have uncovered a new species: the Australian humpback dolphin.

Humpback dolphins are a widespread group of coastal cetaceans that range from the coast of West Africa to the northern coast of Australia. Yet while this group has long been known, researchers have not teased apart the different species. That's why they conducted a 17-year long systematic examination of all available historical records, physical descriptions and genetic data of humpback dolphins.

"We've finally managed to settle many long-standing questions about humpback dolphins-particularly how many species actually exist-using a huge body of data collected over two centuries and analyzed with the latest scientific tools," said Thomas Jefferson, one of the researchers, in a news release.

More specifically, the scientists employed external and skeletal measurements of the dolphins, coloration, molecular genetics and geographic distribution in order to characterize and understand the marine mammals. This allowed them to identify the Australian humpback dolphin species, which joins three other closely related species: the Atlantic humpback dolphin, the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, and the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin.

"The formal recognition and naming of a new species brings with it need to formulate or update plans for protection of these dolphins," said Howard Rosenbaum, one of the researchers. "Humpback dolphins throughout their range are threatened with fisheries interactions, vessel impacts, and development in their coastal habitats. Efforts to protect humpback dolphins and other coastal dolphins, and their most important habitats are essential for the survival of these species."

The findings reveal a bit more about these species and could also help with their conservation. As threats from human impacts continue to rise, it's crucial to understand the range and distribution of these dolphins in order to better protect them in the future.

The findings are published in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

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