Scientists at Smithsonian Accidently Discover New Species of Ancient Dolphin

© Wiz ScienceSouth Asian River Dolphin (Platanista gangetica)
South Asian River Dolphin (Platanista gangetica) - Sputnik International
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A fossil forgotten for over 60 years in a storehouse of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History appears to be the remnant of an undiscovered species of an ancient dolphin that lived millions of years ago.

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The surprise discovery was made by researchers Nicholas Pyenson and Alexandra Boersma, who stumbled upon a small skull from Alaska that had been kept in the museum since 1951. It turned out that the nine-inch fossil has never been properly scrutinized, and that it belonged to a completely unknown species.

Researchers have named the species Arktocara yakataga and described it in a scientific paper published in PeerJ on Tuesday.

​Arktocara yakataga lived in the subarctic region some 25 million years ago and is a distant relative to Platanista gangetica, a contemporary river dolphin found in South Asia, including in the Ganges and the Indus rivers.

According to Pyenson, the mammal is “tremendously bizarre,” as it is completely blind, swims on its side and uses echolocation to navigate.

There were times when such dolphins were not rare, he said, but now “all the other twigs of the tree are dead, and this is the only one that’s survived,” Pyenson said of P. gangetica.

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In addition, P. gangetica’s habitat is heavily polluted, pushing the dolphin onto the endangered species list. In most estimates, only some 2,000 members of the species remain alive.

Pyenson hopes that their findings will help to preserve Platanista gangetica, as it could explain why they had been “supplanted by ocean dolphins,” which prevail now.

“Knowing more about the history could help us to better be able to make priorities in modern times,” he said, adding that the research could also shed light on the evolution of other dolphin species.

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