Snubfin and Humpback dolphins

by Michelle Watson

Rare Indo-pacific humpback dolphin playing and jumping. Flickrcom: Blue Dolphin Marine Tours.

Rare Indo-pacific humpback dolphin playing and jumping. Flickrcom: Blue Dolphin Marine Tours.

Human interaction with the northwest coast of Australia could be potentially wiping out two recently discovered species of dolphins.

Living off the northwest coast of Australia, the snubfin dolphin and humpback dolphin have recently been studied to track the population difference and genetic make-up of these animals. This study published July 4th, 2014 in Volume 9, Issue 7, of PLOS science journal, was an effort to learn more about the conservation status of these species as well.

These two species of dolphins are considered to be near threatened by the International Union for the conservation of nature (INCU). Both require checking up on due to the lack of information provided on their existence.
Professor Anna Kopps from the University of Exeter in Cornwall, UK said, “Not much is known about the humpback and snubfin dolphins. In fact, the species Australian snubfin dolphin was only described in 2005…”

Seven scientists worked together to track these animals and gather results. These scientists work at different universities all around the world including the United Kingdom and Australia.

In order to better understand these creatures, they took a series of skin tissue from dolphins off the northwest coast
of Australia. There were four different locations from which they took dolphin tissue samples: North West Cape, Dampier Archipelago, Rosebuck Bay, and Cygnet Bay.

From this, they were able to remove the DNA from each particular dolphin to better understand their genetic make-up. In looking at this DNA they were able to see if a hybrid dolphin, a cross between a snubfin dolphin and a humback dolphin, would have one DNA copy from their mom and another DNA copy from their dad. It turns out, that the hybrid dolphin they found had this genetic make-up.

If the hybrid did have a copy of both a snubfin dolphin’s DNA and a humpback dolphin’s DNA then it could have different phenotype, or physical characteristics. Think of it this way: when you are born, you do not look like an exact copy of your mom or dad, instead you look like a mixture of the two. That is why in some cases a child will have their mother’s hair color and have their dad’s eye color. The same idea goes for a hybrid dolphin. A hybrid dolphin might have the mouth of a snubfin dolphin and the humpback of a humpback dolphin.

The pressing issue of hybridization is that the snubfin dolphin and the humpback dolphin both are considered near threatened species. If these two species begin to breed with one another it could possibly decrease the amount of one species. Additionally, human interaction with the northwest coast of Australia may be a contributing factor to the small amount of snubfin and humpback dolphins.

Kopps said, “…many resources are (planned to be) mined in north Western Australia which leads to large-scale habitat modification of the inshore environment possibly compromising snubfin and humpback dolphin habitat.” This could directly affect the snubfin and humpback dolphins populations.

Because there is so little information about these species, it is important that we try our best to keep their numbers high by limiting human interaction off the coast.


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