Scientists Discover New Species Of Dolphin In Smithsonian Fossil Collection

Posted: Aug 17 2016, 7:44am CDT | by , Updated: Aug 17 2016, 7:56am CDT, in News | Latest Science News


New Species of Dolphin Discovered by Smithsonian Scientists
The skull of Arktocara yakataga, new species of extinct river dolphin. Credit: Credit: James Di Loreto, Smithsonian

The extinct dolphin swam ancient rivers around 25 million years ago

Some 60 years ago, an unusual skull was discovered in the area of southeast Alaska and it was of an ancient dolphin. The skull was later handed over to Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and has been a part of the vast collections of the museum ever since.

The reanalysis confirms that the skull belonged to an extinct river dolphin which used to swim in freshwater around 25 million years ago and it represents an altogether new genus and species previously unknown to scientists. The specimen has been given the name Arktocara yakataga which is a combination of two Latin words. Arktocara means the face of the north while yakataga is the ancient name for the region where the fossil was discovered. 

The fossil consists of a piece of skull which is estimated to be 9 inches long. The fossil was initially misunderstood due to the lack of technology and remained in Smithsonian fossil collection for decades. The only thing researchers knew about the skull was that it belonged to an ancient dolphin and was found in Alaska.

Earlier this year, researchers from Smithsonian institute decided to analyze the skull again. When they compared it with the skulls of other dolphins both living and extinct, they found that the specimen was closely related to a modern-day river dolphin from a group  of dolphin called Platanista. The group was once very large and diverse but now is limited to just one species known as South Asian river dolphin and is found in the murky rivers of Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The dolphin cannot see and uses echolocation to navigate through the rivers, which makes the species especially interesting to the scientists. 

“Considering the only living dolphin in this group is restricted to freshwater systems in Southeast Asia, to find a relative that was all the way up in Alaska 25 million years ago was kind of mind-boggling.” Smithsonian paleontologist Alexandra Boersma said in a statement.

This fossil will help scientists to piece together the evolutionary history of South Asia river dolphin or Platanista in particular and dolphins and whales in general.

“One of the most useful ways we can study Platanista is by studying its evolutionary history, by looking at fossils that are related to it to try to get a better sense of where it’s coming from. Exactly how that once diverse and globally widespread group dwindled down to single species in Southeast Asia is still somewhat a mystery, but every little piece that we can slot into the story helps.”

Scientists estimate that skull fossil came from the late Oligocene epoch, around the time ancient whales diversified into two distinctive groups of whales and marked the beginning of the lineage of whales that we see today. 

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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