New dolphin species declared

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Marine scientists and new agers have a good reason to pop a few champagne corks: the Australian snubfin dolphin has just been declared the newest species on the block.

The snubfin, or Orcaella heinsohni, which is found off the north coast from the Brisbane River to Broome, had been considered a local variation of a predominantly Asian species, the Irrawaddy, Orcaella brevirostris.

However, Queensland scientists who carried out skull measurements, observations, and genetic testing have found that Australia’s Irrawaddies are a separate species.

Isabel Beasley, a PhD student at James Cook University in Townsville who began taking cranial spans in 1997, said the declaration of the new species was important for both dolphin species.

Subtracting estimates of Australian snubfin populations from Irrawaddy populations placed the Asian dolphins nearer to extinction than previously thought, Ms Beasley said, and conservation efforts for both species could be stepped up.

Numbers of Irrawaddy in the Mekong River have not recovered from hunting by Khmer Rouge guerillas in the early 1970s, and fishermen continue to net them, Ms Beasley said.

“There are less than 200 [snubfins] living around Townsville