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New species of ancient dolphin discovered in New Zealand

Dr. Gabriel Aguirre and Professor Ewan Fordyce from Department of Geology at the University of Otago in New Zealand announced their discovery of a new ancient fossil dolphin species in the Jan. 22, 2014, edition of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Professor Ewan Fordyce examines the Papahu skull.
R. E. Fordyce.

This new species, Papahu taitapu, is the only dolphin ever found that dates to the Early Miocene times. The fossils are between 19 and 22 million years old and were found in near Cape Farewell. The head and a jaw are all that has been extracted from the rock strata thus far.

The animals were about six feet long, had teeth, are considered to be a member of the now extinct species of shark-toothed dolphins, and had echolocation like modern dolphins. Examination of the skull and ear bones indicated the existence of the same space where the brain regions of modern dolphins house the echolocation sensory apparatus. This discovery suggests that the ancient dolphin had already evolved the capacity to hunt prey with echolocation like modern dolphins and could also suggest the ability to communicate with other members of its species.

Papahu taitapu cohabited the waters of a shallow sea around what is now New Zealand and shared the territory with ancient penguins and baleen whales. The waters of the ocean are thought to have been murky from algae due to the higher temperatures in the region at the time. This condition may have led to the development of echolocation as a means to find prey in Papahu taitapu.

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