New Dolphin Species Discovered in Big City Harbor

Identified by DNA tests, the new mammals were right under researchers' noses.

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A Burrunan dolphin—one of an entirely new species—surfaces near Melbourne, Australia.

An entirely new species of dolphin has been discovered in Australia, and not in some isolated lagoon but in the shadows of skyscrapers, scientists say.

One of only three new dolphin species found since the 1800s, the Burrunan dolphin—named after an Aboriginal phrase that means "large sea fish of the porpoise kind"—is known from only two populations so far, both in the state of Victoria (map).

About a hundred Burrunan dolphins have been found in Port Phillip Bay (map) near Melbourne, Australia's second most populous city. Another 50 are known to frequent the saltwater coastal lakes of the Gippsland region (map), a couple hundred miles or so away.

Dolphin DNA Surprise

It's long been known that distinct dolphin populations roam off southeastern Australia. But now DNA tests have shown that the creatures dolphins are genetically very different from the two recognized bottlenose dolphin species, the common bottlenose dolphin and the Indo-Pacific bottlenose.

The results were so surprising that the team initially thought there was a mistake and reran the tests, said study leader Kate Charlton-Robb, a marine biologist at Australia's Monash University.

"The main focus of the research was to figure out which of the two [known] bottlenose species these guys were," she said.

"But from the [DNA] sequences that we got, it turned out that they were very different from either of the two known species."

The team also examined dolphin skulls, collected and maintained by Australian museums over the last century, and determined that Burrunan dolphins have slight cranial differences that set the species apart.

Finally, the animals just plain look different, Charlton-Robb said.

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