A previously unknown species of humpback dolphin living off the coast of northern Australia has been identified, report scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and the American Museum of Natural History.

Scientists traced the animal’s evolutionary history and used genetic testing, examining tissue from 235 dolphins, to identify the currently unnamed species. Humpback dolphins are divided into two groups, one group in the Atlantic Ocean and the other group found in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

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While the Atlantic humpback dolphin is a recognized species, the researchers argue new evidence should split the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin into three species, one of which would be new.

“Based on the findings of our combined morphological and genetic analyses, we can suggest that the humpback dolphin genus includes at least four member species,” said Martin Mendez, assistant director of the society’s Latin America and the Caribbean program, in a press release. “This discovery helps our understanding of the evolutionary history of this group and informs conservation policies to help safeguard each of the species.”

Humpback dolphins, named for a hump below the dorsal fin, grow up to 8 feet in length and their coloring ranges from dark gray to pink or white.

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The dolphins are threatened by habitat loss and fishing activity throughout their range.  

“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.

The study appears in the latest edition of Molecular Ecology.


A new as-of-yet unnamed species of humpback dolphin swims off the coast of northern Australia.  Photo: Guido Parra