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Scientists identify a new dolphin species off Australia

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013 10:33 a.m. CST • Updated: Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013 10:36 a.m. CST

(MCT) — A team of scientists says it has found a new species of dolphin swimming off the northern coast of Australia.

The dolphin, a member of the humpback family, isn't exactly new to science — researchers have known about the population for years — but it is newly described by science. In fact, it is so new it doesn't have a name.

Humpback dolphins are wide-ranging but have not been well studied. They have a tell-tale bump in front of their dorsal fin and prefer coastal waters such as estuaries and deltas. They can grow to 8 feet, and their color ranges from dark gray to pink or even white. Scientists believe they eat mullet and other fish.

For more than a decade, a debate has raged about how many species of humpback dolphins exist. Some scientists said two _ the Atlantic humpback and the Indo-Pacific humpback. Others thought the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin was actually two separate species.

Recently, Dr. Martin Mendez, assistant director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Latin America and Caribbean Program, and Howard Rosenbaum, director of the society's Ocean Giants Program, decided to see whether they could shed new light on the question. Together they collected hundreds of samples of humpback dolphins to compare genetic and morphological characteristics among geographic populations.

In a study published in the Journal of Molecular Ecology, the team said it analyzed 180 dolphin skulls and looked at 245 tissue samples, mostly from beached humpback dolphins and museum specimens. The results surprised even them.

Instead of two or three distinct species, they found four.

"Based on the findings of our combined morphological and genetic analysis, we can suggest that the humpback dolphin genus includes at least four member species," Mendez said in a statement.

The four species they identified include the Atlantic humpback dolphin that lives in the eastern Atlantic off West Africa; the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin that ranges from the central to the western Indian Ocean; a second species of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin that lives in the eastern Indian and western Pacific Oceans; and the species that lives off northern Australia.

The researchers are hoping that the discovery will help efforts to protect the humpback dolphins, which are suffering from loss of habitat.

"This discovery helps our understanding of the evolutionary history of this group and informs conservation policies to help safeguard each of the species," Mendez said in the statement.

(c)2013 Los Angeles Times Distributed by MCT Information Services

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