Australian Snubfin Dolphin

The Australian Snubfin Dolphin (Orcaella heinsohni) is a recently recognized species of dolphin first described in 2005.

It is closely related to the Irrawaddy Dolphin, and closely looks like it. Until very recently it was thought to be an Irrawaddy dolphin. However, the Australian Snubfin Dolphin is three-colored, while the Irrawaddy dolphin only has two colors on its skin. Also the skull and the fins show minor differences between the two species.

The discovery of a new mammal is rare, experts say. In fact, the Australian Snubfin is the first new dolphin species to be discovered in 56 years. Two scientists at James Cook University, Isabel Beasley and Peter Arnold, took DNA samples from the population of dolphins off the coast of Townsville, Queensland. They then sent the samples to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. The results showed that George Heinsohn, (honored by the choice of the Snubfin’s scientific name) was correct in his hypothesis that the Townsville population was a new species. Beasley states the Snubfin “has three colors, it’s dark on the top and then it has a lighter kind of brown on the middle and a white belly. They have a rounded forehead, which is very unlike other dolphin species in Australia, and also it has a very small”, snubby dorsal fin, hence the name “Snubfin”. The Irrawaddy, unlike the Australian Snubfin, is just “uniform slate gray with a white belly.”

In the Pacific Ocean off Townsville, about 200 individual Snubfin dolphins were found. It is expected that the range of the species extend into Papua New Guinea, but that the majority live in Australian waters. They are not thought to be common and are being given a high conservation priority.

The taxonomic name, Orcaella heinsohni, was chosen in honor of George Heinsohn, an Australian biologist who worked at James Cook University in the 1960s and 1970s on dolphin species, including this one.