Paleontologists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History found something extraordinary among the items of their own collection: a dolphin fossil revealing a new species, never identified before. The discovery took everyone by surprise, as they are both shocked and thrilled.
The dolphin fossil is actually the skull, and it was first found by geologist Donald J. Miller in Alaska, in 1951. Researchers Alexandra Boersma and Nicholas Pyenson announced the recent discovery on August 16. Further investigation revealed that the skull belonged to an ancestor of nowadays river dolphins, and that used to live in the ocean. The scientific name of the fossil is Arktocara yakataga, and experts say it must have lived in our oceans about 25 million years ago.
Researchers provide us with an explanation on why the new species was given this name:
“Arktocara is derived from the Latin for “the face of the north,” while yakataga is the indigenous Tlingit people’s name for the region where the fossil was found.”
Today, there are river dolphins in Asian rivers, such as Indus and Ganges, and, sadly, they are an endangered species. The dolphin fossil shows that the mammal must have had a longer snout, just like their living relatives. Researchers also believed that the Arktocara yakataga was a sociable individual, living in pods. It is not sure yet for the specialists why did the translation from oceans to rivers happen.
Specialist Pyenson comments on the natural environment of the ancient dolphin:
“It’s not always a sure bet that cetaceans die where they live, but we think it’s fair to say that Arktocara was likely a coastal and ocean-going species.”
Statistics show that there are about 2,000 river dolphins living in their natural environment. The dolphins in India and their ancestor are considered subspecies of Platanista.
The dolphin fossil at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is nine inches long, and it is believed to be one of the oldest treasures in their collections. The researchers also made available a 3D graphic of the dolphin fossil.
Researchers are quite enthusiastic about their findings. They think that the more material they have to study on these species and their evolution, the more likely is for them to come up with new solutions in order to save the endangered species that are still alive.
The discovery at the at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History was published in Peerj.
Image source: Wikipedia