Rare "Snubby" Dolphins Spit to Hunt

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
April 20, 2009

Spitting in public isn't rude in snubfin dolphin society—it's expected.

The rare marine mammals hunt together by chasing fish to the surface and then "spitting" water at them to herd them for the kill, researchers with the conservation nonprofit WWF recently discovered.

As their name implies, snubfin—or "snubby"—dolphins have especially short dorsal fins, but they may be more recognizable by their melon-like heads and beakless profiles. The social animals dwell in groups of six or more.

The six-foot-long (two-meter-long) snubfins are now the second dolphin species known to use a cooperative hunting technique in which they shoot jets of water from their mouths to drive fish toward other dolphins.

"It's incredibly unusual behavior that has only been noted before in Irrawaddy dolphins," said WWF-Australia's marine and coasts manager, Lydia Gibson.

"It's a bizarre kind of technique. Some were seen spitting water high into the air and [others] straight along the surface of the water. It's a fascinating behavior, but we still know so little about them and about exactly how they do it."

Snubfin and Irrawaddy dolphins were thought to be the same species until 2005, when scientists learned that snubfins were a unique species swimming the mangroves, rivers, estuaries, and coastal waters of northern Australia.

(Related: "6,000 Rare, Large River Dolphins Found in Bangladesh.")

Snubfins are coastal dwellers and appear to inhabit small territories, so they may be especially susceptible to pollution, coastal development, and other threats to mangrove ecosystems, Gibson noted.

"Their presence is an indicator of a healthy ecosystem, so we have an [important] opportunity" to learn more about the mysterious dolphin's lifestyle and thus make better decisions about preserving its habitat, she said.

"It's critical to do what we can to protect our coastal ecosystems."




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