Australia’s false killer whales confirmed as a distinct species, as scientists hope discovery will lead to stronger protections

Working off Australia’s remote northern coastline, Charles Darwin University (CDU) marine scientist Carol Palmer has gotten to know false killer whales as one of the country’s most charismatic dolphins.

“False killer whales are the most fantastic because they actually come over to the boat to say ‘hello’, and they check you out,” she said.

Now, working with Indigenous ranger groups from the Northern Territory’s Cobourg Peninsula to the Kimberley, she has gathered enough DNA samples to prove that Northern Australia’s false killer whales are a distinct endemic species not found anywhere else.

Dr Palmer said she had made the discovery by collecting small skin samples from the animals, in a process they barely noticed.

“To use a pole or a crossbow to get just a small skin sample, it’s really really easy, because they’re coming over to us,” she said.

a woman with short blonde hair on a boat looking at the ocean
Carol Palmer has been studying false killer whales for decades.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

And she said the new findings could have an impact on their protection.

“We now know we have a unique coastal population of false killer whales, and that means we are now at the point where we can actually try to update their conservation status.

“In Hawaii, where they’ve studied false killer whales for 20 years, they’ve got two populations of 250 and 500 animals, and I think we will find that is the case here for us.

“Under American legislation they’re classified as endangered.”

A False Killer Whale plays in the waters off Groote Eylandt
Researchers made the discovery by collecting small skin samples from the dolphins.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

Globally, the large black and gray dolphins are classified as near-threatened.

However, they will not have an Australian conservation status because of the insufficient information available up until now.

“We will be able to reclassify the false killer whales, and this is the first time,” Dr. Palmer said.

“Apart from the US, we are the only other country that has identified this now.”

False killer whale
It is hoped that the discovery will lead to an upgrade in conservation status. (Flickr: Blue Dolphin Marine Tours)

‘The worst plastics pollution I’ve seen’

Dr Palmer said she hoped her research would encourage the federal, state and territory governments to better protect the animals’ habitats from the many threats that faced them.

“We’re seeing a lot of scars that could be coming from a range of fishing and boats,” she said.

“And any major underwater drilling and gas development in our oceans here, it’s a real worry.”

An aerial view of ocean, sand and rock formations on the coastline of an island.
Researchers monitored false killer whales off the remote Wessel Islands in Arnhem Land. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Her team has been particularly dismayed by the amount of marine garbage they have encountered during their research, much of it from Asia.

“In the remote locations, particularly the Wessel Islands, I think it has the most plastics and ghost net pollution I have ever seen,” she said.

“It is really expensive to manage that, and none of it has been managed yet.

“The other side of it is the microplastics into the fish and then into our marine megafauna.

“Along with climate change, with sea level rise and sea temperature rise, that’s something we need to get onto straight away.”

Plastic waste washed up on a beach.
Dr Palmer has previously called the Wessel Islands “the most littered place in the Northern Territory”.(Supplied: Charles Darwin University)

Federal government promises more protection

The Australian Marine Conservation Society’s NT campaigner Adele Pedder is calling on the federal government to respond to the research by toughening ocean protection off Northern Australia.

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