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How Exciting: Rare Snubfin Dolphin Discovery

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« on: August 01, 2008, 04:25:56 am »
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The World Today - Australia claims new dolphin species

[This is the print version of story http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2005/s1407360.htm]

The World Today - Tuesday, 5 July , 2005  12:50:00

Reporter: Karen Barlow

TANYA NOLAN: It was thought to be just another regular visitor from Asia that liked the shallow waters of the Great Barrier Reef. But the rare and strange looking dolphin has in fact been declared a new Australian species.

Queensland and Californian scientists have confirmed with DNA profiles and skull measurements, that the short stubby dorsal fin and round bulbous head belong to the newly-named Australian Snubfin dolphin.

Karen Barlow reports.

(sound of dolphins)

KAREN BARLOW: The clear, shallow water surrounding the Great Barrier Reef is a dolphin haven. And it's long been thought that it was attracting peculiar dolphins from South East Asia known as the Irrawaddy.

But some marine researchers suspected something different about the dolphins frolicking in the waters off Townsville.

James Cook University's Isabel Beasley.

ISABEL BEASLEY: When you look at it, it has three colours, 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 dorsel fin, snub fin dorsel fin, which is where its name actually comes from.

KAREN BARLOW: Is it reminiscent of a dugong more than a classic dolphin?

ISABEL BEASLEY: That's probably quite correct actually. The way that its forehead is shaped, it's very rounded, and many people do confuse the two, but it is that small little dorsel fin on that back of its body, how you can distinguish it.

KAREN BARLOW: Is it a showy or shy dolphin?

ISABEL BEASLEY: Oh it's very unlike the classic bottlenose or other species that you get. It's a very shy dolphin, it tends to keep away from boats.

KAREN BARLOW: Since 1996, Isabel Beasley has been studying the Asian Irriwaddy dolphin. That species is in trouble. Khmer Rouge guerrillas hunted Irrawaddy in the Mekong River in the early 1970s and they're still considered in the area to be a delicacy. Three years ago, Ms Beasley was invited into Townsville-area dolphin investigations.

ISABEL BEASLEY: I met a man at the Museum at tropical Queensland, Dr Peter Arnold, and him and a man called George Heinsohn who also worked at James Cook University, they'd been actually also studying this population since about the 1960s or 1970s.

They'd written a paper in 1996 where they had come to the conclusion that there may be differences, so we worked together from that point on, Peter Arnold, myself and George Heinsohn, and that's when we came to the conclusion that there were so many different characters that there was potential for species level differences.

KAREN BARLOW: With subtle physical differences between the Asian and Australian dolphins confirmed, Isabel Beasley it was left to DNA profiling to settle the matter.

ISABEL BEASLEY: A new species of mammal occurs very, very rarely. In terms of dolphins, the last dolphin species was discovered back in 1956, I think that was the Frasers dolphin that was discovered in Borneo

KAREN BARLOW: So it's quite a breakthrough for the area?

ISABEL BEASLEY: Exactly. Yeah. There's not many countries in the world that actually have their own particular species, and although it looks like it may occur that the Australian Snubfin might also occur in Papua New Guinea waters, the majority of the population occurs in Australia. So it's, yeah, extremely important in terms of conservation and management that Australia now focuses very strongly on this new species.

ISABEL BEASLEY: Not much is known about Australian Snubfin dolphin numbers, but around 200 have been observed in the Townsville area. Like other dolphins they are susceptible to shark nets, coastal development and harassment from fishing and tourist boats.

TANYA NOLAN: Karen Barlow on the permanent resident we didn't know we had.

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