Home Science In Aussie first, ‘Speckles’ the dolphin shows off extremely rare skin

In Aussie first, ‘Speckles’ the dolphin shows off extremely rare skin

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In Aussie first, 'Speckles’ the dolphin shows off extremely rare skin

Animal scientists have had a career-making moment, capturing on film a dolphin with such a rare skin condition that only five other recorded examples exist.

Named Speckles by University of the Sunshine Coast (UniSc), the common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) sported black and white pigment splatters as impressive as a Jackson Pollock original, as it breached the waters in Hervey Bay, off the coast of Queensland, Australia.

“It’s an exciting discovery, as to date, there are no documented sightings of any atypically coloured dolphins in Australian waters,” said study co-supervisor Alexis Levengood, a behavioural ecologist at UniSC.

The coloring, which resembles a dark car parked too long beneath a tree full of birds, is actually an example of piebaldism – ‘pie’ as in magpie and ‘bald’ as in bald patch. It’s the first sighting of a dolphin sporting this unique coloring in Australian waters, and only the second that has been photographed in the Southern Hemisphere (the other was across the globe, near Brazil).

The patchy skin coloration was visible all the way down Speckles’ body

“Piebaldism is similar to albinism and leucism, where the animals typically have white skin, feathers or fur, whereas piebaldism is a partial-loss of pigmentation so the individuals show this patchy coloration,” said Levengood, who added that it’s a condition that’s still rare but more likely to be seen in another large marine mammal.

“There have, however, been a few sightings of atypical whales,” Levengood said. “One of these is a well-known albino humpback whale called ‘Migaloo,’ first observed in Byron Bay [Australia] in the early 1990s and whose all white status was confirmed from a sighting in Hervey Bay one year later.”

While scientists are not yet sure of the sex of the animal, it was identified as an adult and looked otherwise healthy – albeit with a healed shark bite on one side. It was also swimming alongside some less flamboyant bottlenose dolphins, suggesting that they weren’t too bothered by their showy pod pal.

“It was swimming with a group of five other dolphins,” said lead author Georgina Hume from UniSC. “Speckles leapt out of the water three times in an upright, vertical position, while the rest of the group traveled in a ‘porpoising’ movement. This allowed us to get a very clear look at its underside which had many white areas, along with white stripes across its dorsal and lateral sides.”

The extremely rare patchy skin coloration of Speckles
The extremely rare patchy skin coloration of Speckles

Georgina Hume/University of the Sunshine Coast

Now, the search is on to find Speckles again, and the team hopes it can achieve the very challenging task of getting a genetic sample to assess what mutation has caused the dolphin’s dramatic dermal decor. The scientists, however, are confident that this piebaldism is not a sign of sickness.

“The clear identification of near-symmetrical white patches and the overall ‘healthy’ appearance of Speckles helped eliminate the possibility that these patches are due to potential disease or stranding-related sunburn,” Hume said.

The research was published in the journal Aquatic Mammals.

Source: University of the Sunshine Coast

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