Australia’s bizarre spitting snubfin dolphin


Bec Crew


Bec Crew

Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
By Bec Crew 14 November 2014
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The snubfin dolphin is one of only three known species of dolphin endemic to Australia.

LOOK AT THIS happy little guy. He looks like he’s made entirely of plasticine! This is the incredibly charming snubfin dolphin (Orcaella heinsohni), a rare and little-studied species found all along Australia’s tropical north coast.

With those beady eyes and squiggly line of a mouth framed by its beakless, melon-shaped head, the snubfin dolphin – or ‘snubby’, as it’s been nicknamed – is basically a cartoon. But this is not a cartoon you want to invite to dinner. Snubfin dolphins have probably never had the opportunity to sit at a real dinner table, but if you insist on going through with it, you’d better pick up one of those huge barrels filled with sawdust at your next wine-tasting event, because these guys like to spit.

Social groups of six or more of these dolphins hunt together, chasing fish up to the surface of the water and herding them into place by spitting jets of water at them. They’re one of only a few species of dolphin in the world known to employ this kind of cooperative hunting strategy.

Snubfin dolphin spitting is “bizarre”

“It’s a bizarre kind of technique,” says WWF-Australia’s marine and coasts manager, Lydia Gibson. “Some spit water high into the air and [others] straight along the surface of the water. It’s a fascinating behaviour, but we still know so little about them and about exactly how they do it.”

The snubfin dolphin is one of just three known species of dolphin that are endemic to Australia. Interestingly, one other native species, the Australian humpback dolphin (Sousa sahulensis) shares roughly the same small range as the snubfin dolphin. The other, the Burrunan dolphin (Tursiops australis) is found off the coast of Victoria and northern Tasmania.

While we’re far from figuring out the exact range of either species, they’re both found throughout the waters that separate the north Australian coast from southern New Guinea, but scientists suspect that populations of snubfin dolphins might have also made their way up along the south and west coasts of West Papua.

Australia might be home to an array of more than 45 species of whale, dolphin and porpoise, but we’re still just getting used to the idea of having our very own dolphin species. The snubfin dolphin was confirmed as a separate species in 2005, when it was split off from its close relative, the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), and the Australian humpback dolphin was confirmed as its own species just a few months ago.