Australia says finds new dolphin the Snubfin

By Paul Tait
Tue Jul 5,11:16 AM ET

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian researchers have identified a new species of dolphin which was once thought to have been the same as an extremely rare mammal predominantly found in Asian coastal waters and rivers.

The Australian Snubfin Dolphin has been declared a separate species to the Irrawaddy dolphins of Southeast Asia, one of the rarest sea mammals on the planet, researchers at James Cook University and the Museum of Tropical Queensland said on Tuesday.

Researcher Isabel Beasley said the newly identified Australian Snubfin Dolphins, or Orcaella heinsohni, live in shallow waters off northern Australia and possibly in neighboring Papua New Guinea.

Beasley said it was impossible to estimate the population of these dolphins because not enough was known about them, but thought one group of about 200 of the dolphins lived off Townsville in the far north of Australia's Queensland state.

"It means that Australia now has an endemic species living in its waters and it's a higher conservation priority now," Beasley told Reuters by telephone.

Australian Snubfins are close relations of the highly endangered Irrawaddy, or Orcaella brevirostris.

Conservation group WWF International estimates there are fewer than 1,000 of the small, migratory and poor-sighted Irrawaddy left in the shallow, murky coastal waters of countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Because the new Australian species also lives in shallow waters, Beasley fears they face the same threats as Irrawaddy.

"Unfortunately, because they live in these environments, they are susceptible to many human threats including accidental catch in shark and fishing nets as well as the effects of coastal development," she said.

The Australian scientists said they hoped publication of their findings in the Marine Mammal Science journal would open the way for more research into the little-known new species.

"Even though Australia is a developed country with more resources than Asian countries, more is known about the Mekong River dolphin population in Cambodia than the Australian species," said Peter Arnold of the Museum of Tropical Queensland.

Beasley began to investigate after she noticed variations in size and color between the Asian and Australian dolphins. The Australian Snubfins were found to have three colors on their bodies ranging from dark brown to white compared with uniformly slate gray of the Irrawaddy.

Beasley and Arnold said they identified the new species by examining the skulls and external measurements and observing the dolphins in seven countries.

A genetic study undertaken with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California confirmed their suspicions.

"There are clear differences between the two populations that had not been previously recognized and these were confirmed by the studies on DNA," Beasley said.

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