New dolphin species discovered in decades-old box in the Smithsonian
Dolphin skull (Photo: James Di Loreto, Smithsonian)

The Smithsonian isn't merely a museum, it also serves as a research institute. Boxes and boxes of remains, archives of artwork and libraries of rare books are stacked in warehouses and line shelves in the research centers. The teams of scientists and other experts comb their way through the inventory of history, cataloguing as they go.


This is inevitably how a new species of dolphin was discovered. According to the Washington Post, Alexandra Boersma and Nicholas D. Pyenson were making their way through dusty old boxes when they discovered a 25 million-year-old river dolphin.

"There's all this stuff that no one has ever had time to go through," Boersma explained. "Some of it has been sitting there for decades. No one has gotten around to describing it."

The two named the species Arktocara yakataga. "The name Arktocara derives from the combination of arktos from Greek and cara from Latin, which together signify 'the face of the North,' reads their published findings in PeerJ. Boersma told the Post that the creature has a "beautiful, cute little skull."

There are currently only three or four species of river dolphin, one of which might be extinct already. Three of the species are close relatives of each other. While, the fourth has always remained largely different. But the new discovery of Arktocara yakataga shows remarkably similar characteristics of the South Asian river dolphin Platanist, the lone species that is not like the others. They remain the two species that are the most like ocean based dolphins. These river species are more likely to swim on their sides and use sound waves to "see" through dark, muddy waters in rivers. The new species is the oldest known member of the Platanistoidea family and existed around the time whales were beginning to split into the ancestral groups that led to what we see today. That helps scientists prove that Platanista is an ancient lineage.

Due to pollution, fishing nets and development, the rivers where the Platanista live in Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan are becoming hostile homes. As a result, the Platanista is endangered.

The remains were discovered in 1951 by United States Geological Survey (USGS) geologist Donald J. Miller. The dolphin was found while he was mapping what was then the Yakataga District of Alaska, according to the study.

"It was striking and really kind of bizarre that this huge group of marine dolphins that were up in the arctic and all over the world has dwindled to this one species that’s stuck in freshwater systems in Asia," said Boersma.

Some whales live in the arctic today and are thought to be descended from whales that lived during the time the time Arktocara yakataga was around.

"It would be interesting to know what whales started out in the arctic," Boersma told the Post. "It would give us a better sense of how whales first adapted to those new climates, and maybe give us a sense of how well they might adapt in the future, now that climate is changing so rapidly."