They may not be as well known as humpback whales, but humpback dolphins nonetheless have their fans. Playing in (and leaping from) the coastal waters around Africa, India and Australia, only two species of the humpback dolphin genus are formally recognized: the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific humpbacks. But now, researchers are pushing authorities to recognize four species of the charismatic creatures, which would improve the conservation efforts of these vulnerable animals.

Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the American Museum of Natural History and other institutions propose the Indo-Pacific species be split into three: the Indo-Pacific humpback, which inhabits the western half of the Indian Ocean; the Chinese white dolphin, which was previously acknowledged as a distinct species but not officially listed as such, and resides in the waters of Southeast Asia; and a completely new, as-yet unnamed species that lives off the coasts of northern Australia.

Scientists had not known that the unnamed species existed, because its physical traits are similar to the other proposed Indo-Pacific species. The dolphins’ DNA, however, proves otherwise. The researchers arrived at this conclusion, published in the November 2013 issue of Molecular Ecology, after examining 235 tissue samples and 180 skulls from humpback dolphins around the globe to define genetic and morphological distinctions among the species.

The scientists hope their discoveries will push governments to take action to protect the dolphins’ unique biodiversity, says Howard Rosenbaum, director of WCS–Ocean Giants. Specifically, by splitting the Indo-Pacific mammals into three species, scientists and policy makers will be better able to assess the dolphins’ conservation status. Specific laws are usually applied to species according to their status, so more appropriate protective measures tailored to each species can be implemented, says Martin Mendez, the WCS’s assistant director of Latin America and the Caribbean Program. Currently, the conservation status of the Atlantic humpback dolphin is “vulnerable” and the Indo-Pacific Chinese white dolphin is “near threatened” on International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

The scientists are now writing a formal proposal for the recognition of the new species, which must be accepted by the International Whaling Commission and the Society for Marine Mammalogy before the new designations can take effect.

—Julianne Chiaet