For today’s Creature Feature, we’d like to introduce you to a new species of humpback dolphin—so new, in fact, that it doesn’t even have a name!
Humpback dolphins are a family of dolphins with a distinctive hump beneath their dorsal fins, similar to the humpbacked whale. Growing to about eight feet in length, they range in color from dark gray to white to light pink.
Previously the family group was divided in to two species, the Atlantic humpback dolphin (Sousa teuszii), living in the eastern Atlantic off West Africa, and the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis) living in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Additionally, some scientists suspected that the humpback dolphins in the west Indian Ocean were actually a third species called Sousa plumea.
Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the American Museum of Natural History, and other institutions set out to determine the exact number of species in this family group, analyzing both physical characteristics and dolphin genetics.
After examining 180 dolphin skulls and analyzing DNA from 235 tissue samples, the team determined that there are actually four distinct species of humpback dolphins, one of which is entirely new to science. The new species, which has not yet been named, is found in the waters off of northern Australia. The researchers also confirmed that Sousa plumbea is indeed a separate dolphin species. Their research was recently in the journal Molecular Ecology.
Like many other species of dolphins and whales, humpback dolphins are threatened by human activity. The Atlantic humpback dolphin is considered “vulnerable,” due to habitat loss and heavy fishing activity, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Indo-Pacific species Sousa chinensis is similarity at-risk, considered “near threatened” by the IUCN.
Hopefully, the discovery of this fourth species will help ensure that it too is protected.