Researchers Stumble Across Unique Dolphin That Breathes Through Its Mouth

A regular Hector's dolphin with its characteristic Mickey Mouse ear-shaped dorsal fin. Nickolay Stanev/Shutterstock

Robin Andrews 31 Aug 2016, 20:55

Hector’s dolphin has a problem – at least, one of them does. Cephalorhynchus hectori, as these aquatic explorers are technically called, are the only endemic cetaceans to New Zealand, and it appears one of them has a bit of a broken blowhole.

Discovered in the waters off Christchurch in 2014, researchers found that it was unable to use what is essentially its head nostril to breathe. Unsurprisingly, most dolphins would die without the ability to take in air, but this particular adult C. hectori can stick its head out of the water at a steep angle and breathe through its mouth.

This is the first recorded incidence of a dolphin being able to breathe in this way. Dolphins in general have long been acknowledged as incredibly intelligent creatures with social hierarchies and complex vocalizations, and this clever little survival characteristic is another piece of evidence beautifully showcasing this.

The team – led by Professor Stephen Dawson, a marine conservation biologist and expert on Hector’s dolphin at the University of Otago – points out that “in all other respects the ‘mouth-breathing’ dolphin seemed normal, and appeared to be in good physical condition,” so it’s not clear what’s wrong with its blowhole. Perhaps it suffered an internal injury, or a foreign object got sucked in and remains lodged there.

The novel dolphin in action. New Scientist via YouTube

As noted in the journal Marine Mammal Science, captive dolphins have previously been seen to blow bubbles from their mouth as a recreational activity within their squad. However, these bubbles weren’t created by inhaling and exhaling through the mouth. Instead, these were bubbles captured within water vortexes around them.

Either way, this sign of higher cognitive reasoning is good news for conservationists – as of 2011, Hector’s dolphin, the smallest marine dolphin in the world, had seen its population reduced to around 7,000 from far higher figures a few decades ago. As is almost always the case, human activity is to blame, with overzealous fishing practices causing many of these dolphins to become entangled in near-shore nets.

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