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New Species of Dolphin Discovered Hidden in Drawer

Sometimes, paleontologists go to extreme lengths to discover new, extinct species; combing through delicate fossilized remains in remote corners of the world, for instance. Other times, they simply have to look in a drawer at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History–which is precisely where researchers recently realized that a long overlooked skull belongs to a never-before-discovered species of dolphin.

The dolphin skull had been languishing in a drawer at the Museum’s fossil room for over 60 years, since the time it had was found in Yakutat, Alaska, in 1951. But recently the nine inch skull caught the eye of researchers who were combing through some of the 143 million specimens at the institution.

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Upon examination they discovered that the dolphin–Akrtocara yakataga–belonged to what is now an entirely new genus and species of the creature, and lived around 25 million years ago in waters around the Arctic. It was probably about seven and a half foot long, and had a flexible neck that sets it apart for any modern day chinless dolphin.

But what’s even more bizarre, is that upon comparing the skull with that of living dolphins, the team discovered that Akrtocara yakataga does have one living relative. The South Asian river dolphin is notable for swimming on its side, being unable to see, and for using echolocation in order to navigate. It’s also particularly notable in this case because rivers of Southern Asia are rather far removed from the Arctic.

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As Smithsonian researcher Alexandra Boersma said to PBS:

Considering the only living dolphin in this group is restricted to freshwater systems in Southeast Asia, to find a relative all the way up in Alaska 25 million years ago is mind-boggling.

What this suggests is that the South Asian river dolphin, whose population is dwindling due to pollution, fishing and habitat loss, may be the last in a long evolutionary lineage of dolphins, that stretch back as far–or further–than Akrtocara yakataga.

As Boersma said to the Times:

One of the great things about the Smithsonian,” Ms. Boersma said, “is that the collections are so vast. We were just walking around to see if anything was interesting. And then, wow!

A whole new genus in a drawer.