July 5, 2005

Australia says finds new dolphin the Snubfin

By Paul Tait

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian researchers have identified anew species of dolphin which was once thought to have been thesame as an extremely rare mammal predominantly found in Asiancoastal waters and rivers.

The Australian Snubfin Dolphin has been declared a separatespecies to the Irrawaddy dolphins of Southeast Asia, one of therarest sea mammals on the planet, researchers at James CookUniversity and the Museum of Tropical Queensland said onTuesday.

Researcher Isabel Beasley said the newly identifiedAustralian Snubfin Dolphins, or Orcaella heinsohni, live inshallow waters off northern Australia and possibly inneighboring Papua New Guinea.

Beasley said it was impossible to estimate the populationof these dolphins because not enough was known about them, butthought one group of about 200 of the dolphins lived offTownsville in the far north of Australia's Queensland state.

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

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

Conservation group WWF International estimates there arefewer than 1,000 of the small, migratory and poor-sightedIrrawaddy left in the shallow, murky coastal waters ofcountries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

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

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

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

"Even though Australia is a developed country with moreresources than Asian countries, more is known about the MekongRiver dolphin population in Cambodia than the Australianspecies," said Peter Arnold of the Museum of TropicalQueensland.

Beasley began to investigate after she noticed variationsin size and color between the Asian and Australian dolphins.The Australian Snubfins were found to have three colors ontheir bodies ranging from dark brown to white compared withuniformly slate gray of the Irrawaddy.

Beasley and Arnold said they identified the new species byexamining the skulls and external measurements and observingthe dolphins in seven countries.

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

"There are clear differences between the two populationsthat had not been previously recognized and these wereconfirmed by the studies on DNA," Beasley said.