Story by Kelsey Corcoran
Photos provided by Paul Aurisch

Next time you see a dolphin in Hervey Bay, take a good look because it could be the newly-named Sousa sahulensis.

Local marine biologist Yvonne Miles said our local humpback dolphin is actually a different species to other humpback dolphins. She said it had been identified as a third species, so had been renamed from Indo Pacific Humpback Dolphin to its Latin name, Sousa sahulensis.

The discovery was made by researchers who came to the Fraser Coast to conduct studies into dolphins a few years ago.

“There was a young lad who came and did some work for the Southern Cross University and was looking at dolphins in the area,” Yvonne said.
“It was noted that this dolphin in Australia didn’t have a prominent hump compared to those which are more easterly.  After looking at that, and looking at the mouth, the research and team counted the number of teeth and realised the number was different as well.  Their dorsal fin is central, its one-third of the body and their beak is quite big, and they have a prominent melon, which is a very different head shape to a dolphin.  They realised that the species perhaps didn’t belong to the family they had put it in.”

So Yvonne joined the team when they went out to take some DNA samples. Using a dart they took a small sample of skin. Unfortunately, people on the beach had seen them ‘shooting’ the dolphins in Tin Can Bay. The incident made the news and it was reported that they had been killing dolphins. Yvonne said it was all eventually straightened out. Importantly though, when the tests came back they realised that the dolphins were from a different family and they had to restructure the family tree.

The humpback dolphins which were found in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean were then split into three species – the Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphin, the Indo Pacific Humpback Dolphin and now the Australian Humpback Dolphin or Sousa sahulensis.

Yvonne, who is the managing director of the international marine mammal observation organisation Scanning Ocean Sectors, spoke about the newly-named species during a lunchtime wildlife talk at the Fraser Coast Regional Library. She travels the world observing and monitoring marine mammals and training others to do the same.

During the talk, she also spoke about the threats to coastal marine animals. She said they faced habitat loss and degradation, being caught as bycatch, water pollution, damaging underwater noise, vessel traffic, overfishing of their prey and some pitfalls from wildlife tourism. She described dolphins as ‘children of the sea’ and said they had complex family relationships.  The females don’t reproduce until they are eight to ten years old and are strong enough to give birth. They are pregnant for about a year and then look after the calf for two years.

Yvonne described a scene she’d witnessed where hundreds of dolphins greeted a whale with a newborn calf. She said the mother whale and calf were circled by the massive pod of dolphins which appeared to be welcoming the newborn, and singing to it.

She said that if anyone found a marine mammal washed up on the shore or in distress, you should contact RSPCA or Wildlife Rescue Fraser Coast.

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