A rare, unusually colored bottlenose dolphin has caught the attention of Australian researchers. The unique skin pattern is attributed to piebaldism, giving the marine mammal the nickname ‘Speckles’. Researchers say Speckles is the first spotted dolphin ever seen in Australian waters.
Speckles was spotted near a research vessel in Hervey Bay, Queensland, on the afternoon of September 25, 2022. “He swam with a group of five other dolphins about 16 [kilometers] [9.9 miles] at Scarness Beach in Hervey Bay and we noticed it straight away because it was such a strange color compared to the others,” said PhD student Georgina Hume from the University of the Sunshine Coast, lead author of a paper documenting Speckles, in a statement . The group was observed foraging during the 40-minute observation period.
The researchers weren’t really looking for cetaceans with crazy patterns; they were there to study how dolphins in the area are connected when they happened upon this unusual creature.
“Speckles jumped upright, vertically, out of the water three times, while the rest of the group traveled in a ‘porpoise motion,’” Hume continued. Porpoises are associated with fast swimming, with cetaceans leaping out of the water as they race along. “This allowed us to see very clearly the underside, which had many white areas, along with white stripes across the dorsal and lateral sides.”
Speckles certainly looks unique!
Image credits: Georgina Hume
“Piebaldism is similar to albinism and leucism, where the animals typically have white skin, feathers or fur, while piebaldism is a partial loss of pigmentation, so the individuals show this patchy coloration,” explains study co-promoter, Behavioral Scientist ecologist Dr. Alexis Levengood out. .
Piebaldism occurs due to a deficiency of cells that produce the pigment melanin in certain areas of the skin. The researchers note that it is rare for such atypical colorations to occur in marine mammals; only 24 individuals have been documented in the literature, and only six have been captured on camera. It can come with a host of disadvantages, such as being more easily spotted by both predators and prey, as well as the lack of melanin potentially increasing susceptibility to sun damage and reducing heat absorption when the water gets cold.
Fortunately, Speckles was found to be a healthy size – surfacing several times close to the research vessel allowed researchers to estimate its length at around 3 meters (9.8 feet) – with a healed shark bite on the right side of its stem. . Speckles’ gender could not be determined. “The clear identification of nearly symmetrical white spots and the overall ‘healthy’ appearance of Speckles helped rule out the possibility that these spots were the result of possible illness or sunburn associated with stranding,” Hume explains.
“It’s an exciting discovery because to date there have been no documented sightings of atypically colored dolphins in Australian waters,” Levengood said. “However, there have been some sightings of atypical whales. One of these is a well-known albino humpback whale called ‘Migaloo’, which was first sighted in Byron Bay in the early 1990s and whose all-white status was confirmed by a sighting in Hervey Bay a year later.”
Unfortunately, Speckles was not sighted by researchers again in 2022 after that chance encounter, despite them trying to find him again the next day. Levengood recommended “genetic sampling of both common bottlenose dolphins and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins in and around Hervey Bay, to assess population genetics and relatedness of individuals that may influence the atypical skin pigmentation of cetaceans.”
The study was published in the journal Aquatic Mammals.