Meet The Australian Humpback Dolphin, A Recently Discovered Species That May Already Be Endangered

<p><a class="checked-link" href="" style="text-decoration: none;">R.L. Pitman</a></p>

a press releaseFor hundreds of years, humpback dolphins have been part of a "taxonomically confused" group of animals -- that is to say, several species of these kinked cetaceans were clumped under one name. Over the years, scientists splintered this family of dolphins into multiple species -- and today, after a long review process, a fourth species has been officially named: the Australian humpback dolphin.

After a 17-year analysis of dolphin details -- from skeletons to teeth on down to DNA -- a pair of researchers determined that these dolphins, found off the coast of northern Australia, belong to a heretofore unnamed species.

"We've finally managed to settle many long-standing questions about humpback dolphins -- particularly how many species actually exist -- using a huge body of data collected over two centuries and analyzed with the latest scientific tools," says marine biologist Thomas A. Jefferson, in a press release.

[The latest addition to the humpback dolphin family, the Australian humpback, is shown at the bottom; via U. Gorter]

Australian humpback dolphins are dark gray, with slightly fewer vertebrae than their white-and-pink neighbors, the Chinese humpback dolphins.

Given this discovery, "IUCN Red List designations for the four species will need to be assessed or revised, and the national status listings of many countries (e.g., Australia, China, South Africa) will also need to be reexamined," the scientists write in Marine Mammal Science. It's likely there are only a few thousand Australian humpback dolphins, all told, although this rough population estimate is based on sightings of the rare cetaceans.

Humpback dolphins face three major threats: commercial fishing, impacts with watercraft and "development in their coastal habitats," says Wildlife Conservation Society biologist Howard Rosenbaum, who worked with Jefferson to name the new species. "Efforts to protect humpback dolphins and other coastal dolphins, and their most important habitats, are essential for the survival of these species."