New species of fossil dolphin found

Dolphin skullImage copyright
James Di Loreto, Smithsonian

Image caption

The skull was found in Alaska in 1951 and belongs to a previously unrecognised species

Scientists have identified a new species of dolphin that lived 25 million years ago.

The extinct animal has been described through re-examination of a specimen that’s been in a museum collection since 1951.

Researchers think it is a relative of the endangered South Asian river dolphin, offering clues to the evolutionary history of modern species.

The findings have been published in the journal open access PeerJ.

The fossil, a partial skull about 22cm (9ins) long, was discovered in southeastern Alaska by geologist Donald J Miller.

It then spent decades in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

The dolphin swam in sub-arctic marine waters about 25 million years ago, according to the new study’s authors Alexandra Boersma and Nicholas Pyenson, who are based at the Smithsonian.

The specimen represents a new genus and species, they say, which has been named Arktocara yakataga.

Based on the age of nearby rocks, the scientists estimated that Arktocara came from the late Oligocene epoch, around the time that ancient whales diversified into two groups – the baleen whales, which include blue whales and humpbacks, and the toothed whales, which include sperm whales, porpoises and dolphins.

Image copyright
Alexandra Boersma

Image caption

This artist’s impression shows what the dolphin might have looked like

By studying the skull and comparing it to those of other dolphins, both living and extinct, the team determined that A. yakataga is a relative of the South Asian river dolphin Platanista. This living dolphin is the last survivor of a once-widespread group.

The skull confirms that Platanista belongs to one of the oldest lineages of toothed whales still alive today.

“One of the most useful ways we can study Platanista is… by looking at fossils that are related to it to try to get a better sense of where it’s coming from,” said Ms Boersma.

“Exactly how that once diverse and globally widespread group dwindled down to a single species in Southeast Asia is still somewhat a mystery, but every little piece that we can slot into the story helps.”

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