First river dolphin species in 100 years discovered in Brazil

River dolphins are some of the rarest creatures in the world. With only four species ever before discovered, of which one is already “functionally extinct”, and no new discoveries made since 1918, the revelation of a new species in Brazil has justly made headlines. But it seems that this new family is just as endangered as its relatives… 

Scientists working at the Federal University of Amazonas in Manaus, Brazil, believe they have discovered a new species of river dolphin in the Araguaia river basin. After undertaking close analysis and DNA testing, the team found that a group of dolphins separated by a narrow canal and series of rapids, was a different species to the recognized Amazon river dolphin. The temporarily named “Araguaian boto” or “boto-do-Araguaia”, displayed stark genetic differences to its cousins, constituting “strong evidence that individuals from the Araguaia River represent a distinct biological group”. According to The Independent, the scientists’ research, published in the journal Plos One, suggests that the species most likely separated from other dolphin species more than two million years ago.

Studies of mitochondrial DNA showed that these two species shared no lineage. “The groups that we see, the haplotypes, are much more closely related to each other than they are to groups elsewhere. For this to happen, the groups must have been isolated from each other for a long time.”  said Dr Hrbek of the University. “The divergence we observed is larger than the divergences observed between other dolphin species”.

During observations of the area, which spanned 12 weeks, 120 dolphins were spotted. BBC News reported that the researchers estimate that there are about 1,000 of these creatures living in the river that flows northward for more than 2,600km to join the Amazon.

Sadly, this number is not enough to protect the species and researchers are now concerned about the future of the dolphin suggesting the new species should be categorised as Vulnerable on the Red List. Their study claims that human development is a problem:

“Since the 1960s the Araguaia river basin has been experiencing significant anthropogenic pressure via agricultural and ranching activities, and the construction of hydroelectric dams,” the authors write in their study.

“The dolphins are at the top of the line, they eat a lot of fish,” said Dr Hrbek. “They rob fishing nets so the fishermen tend to not like them, people shoot them.”

Let’s hope that these creatures do not suffer the same fate as its Chinese cousin the Yangtze river dolphin or baiji, which is believed to have gone extinct in about 2006 after a survey recorded no sightings.

Sources include: The Independent; BBC News

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