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What about the new species of dolphins in Port Phillip?

The Dolphin Research Institute was formed to achieve the protection of dolphins in our region and over three decades we have conducted and supported science to create a better understanding of our dolphins.

A PhD project we supported led to the publication of a paper by Dr Charlton-Robb et al. in 2011 which describes the Burrunan dolphin (Tursiops australis) as a new species resident in Port Phillip and the Gippsland Lakes.

This seemed to add important knowledge that we hoped would support greater protection of our local bottlenose dolphins.

On-going peer review is a critical part of science. In this light, the International  Committee for Taxonomy for marine mammals has rejected the Burrunan dolphin as a species in every annual review of the scientific status of all marine mammal species since 2011.

It’s important to reinforce that taxonomic classifications of animal and plant groups are also an ongoing part of science and it is not unusual to have major revisions of species and name changes based on research findings.

The most recent paper regarding the species status  (Jedensjo et al. (2020)) is mentioned by the Taxonomic Committee and can be downloaded HERE.

The conclusion is that the resident bottlenose dolphins in Port Phillip and the Gippsland Lakes are Tursiops truncatus, the ‘common bottlenose dolphin’.

Based on the understanding in 2011, the Burrunan dolphin was listed under the Victorian Fauna and Flora Guarantee Act. This was reviewed in 2020 and in spite of the evidence, the species is still listed in Victoria. This is in contrast to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Australia’s National Marine Mammal Centre (Federal Government) and other state governments. Also the International Committee for Taxonomy (below).

The Institute views that the best available science should always inform decision making otherwise the system is at risk of breaking down by providing legal loopholes or by omitting vulnerable species or communities.

Consequently, the Institute would support the listing of the communities of the resident bottlenose and common dolphins in Port Phillip and the resident bottlenose dolphins in the Gippsland Lakes, on the basis of their small and isolated populations. However,

In Victoria, dolphins are afforded high levels of protection by the Marine Mammals Section of the Wildlife Act, so have effective legislated protection.

The International Committee for Taxonomy is composed of eminent specialists in marine mammal taxonomy and is a committee of the International Society for Marine Mammalogy (publishers of the prestigious journal “Marine Mammal Science”). Their entry about the species is included below and it is linked to the SMM site.  (Updated June 2023)

The Burrunan dolphin Tursiops australis, described by Charlton-Robb et al. (2011), is not included here; its basis is questionable because of several potential problems: 1) the specimens were compared morphologically only with bottlenose dolphins from Australia; 2) despite the small sample sizes, the series overlapped in all metric characters and separation was possible only with multivariate analysis (which commonly resolves geographical forms within a species, e.g., see Perrin et al. (1999) and Perrin et al. (2011) for Stenella longirostris and Tursiops truncatus, respectively); 3) comparisons of external morphology and non-metric characters were made only with T. truncatus, to the exclusion of T. aduncus; and 4) support for important nodes in molecular trees suggesting phylogenetic separation was low. A rigorous re-evaluation of the relevant data and arguments is needed. Recently, Jedensjö et al. (2020) conducted a broader morphological comparison of Tursiops skulls from around Australia, including skulls of both Ttruncatus and Taduncus and their respective holotypes, and did not find support for the Burrunan bottlenose dolphin, Taustralis, proposed by Charlton-Robb et al. (2011). Skulls previously classified as Taustralis all fell well within the Ttruncatus group. In contrast, Moura et al. (2020) placed Taustralis within a Taduncus clade based on a nuclear genetic phylogeny.


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