Humpback dolphins swim throughout the Indian, Pacific and eastern Atlantic Oceans. Such a wide geographic distribution has caused isolated dolphin populations to evolve into distinct species that have adapted to their specific habitat. Scientists knew of three species for years; This new discovery represents a fourth.
“We were surprised,” said Martin Mendez, co-author of the study published in the journal Molecular Ecology. “Morphologically, these guys are not all that different from other dolphin species, but we were surprised to see that the genetic data came out quite different.”
The team examined genetic and morphological data from animals representing every humpback dolphin habitat, including 235 tissue samples and 180 skulls.
Researchers say this new information will help them understand the habitat range of dolphin populations, which will improve efforts to protect them from extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed the Atlantic species as vulnerable, and the Indo-Pacific species as near threatened, which is slightly better than vulnerable. Loss of habitat and fishing are the greatest threats.
“New information about distinct species across the entire range of humpback dolphins will increase the number of recognized species, and provides the needed scientific evidence for management decisions aimed at protecting their unique genetic diversity and associated important habitats,” said study co-author Howard Rosenbaum.
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