October 30 – Get Humpback Where You Belong

Today’s factismal: A new species of humpback dolphin has been identified, living off the Australia coast.

Great news from Down Under this week – scientists have identified a new species of humpback dolphin, living off the northern coast near Darwin, Australia. These dolphins looked very similar to another, known species of humpback dolphins, which is why they weren’t identified before. It took several years of data collection and comparison before the scientists could conclusively say that this was a new species. But the best part of the news is that it might not have happened at all if it weren’t for citizen scientists!

You see, in order to identify the as-yet unnamed species, scientists needed to compare the bodies of the new dolphin to those of known dolphins. They had two primary tools to do that with. First, they used the preserved skeletons of 180 dead dolphins that had been collected over the past few decades, and looked for consistent differences. (If one skeleton has an unusual bump, that may just be a freak. But if many of them do, then it is probably a new species.) And then they turned to DNA collected by volunteers from beached dolphins; the volunteer humans would take a blood sample from the beached dolphin before helping it head back out to sea. Using 235 samples, the scientists were able to analyze both the cellular DNA (which tells about the animals) and the mitochondrial DNA (which tells about the animals’ families). Based on their results, they knew that they had a new species.

The new dolphin species (Image courtesy Guido Parra)

The new dolphin species
(Image courtesy Guido Parra)

The new species of dolphin is about eight feet long, weighs about 300 pounds, and has a distinctive hump under it dorsal fin (the “shark fin” at the top). They rang in color from grey to pinkish white, and have a long, thin mouth filled with 34 sharp teeth that they use to catch fish. (They like to eat mullets, so Billy Ray better not go swimming there.) But that’s about all that we know for sure about the new species. With time and patient observation, we should learn more.

And that is also what is needed to help understand the harbor porpoises that live in the Salish Sea north of Seattle: time and observations. And there is a group of researchers looking for citizen scientists to help them make those observations. If you are interested in being part of the group, then head over to the Pacific Biodiversity Group’s website. Who knows? Maybe there’s another new species hiding in plain sight there as well!

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