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Australian snubfin dolphin

Adult Australian snubfin dolphin off Townsville. Photo: Guido Parra

Adult Australian snubfin dolphin off Townsville. Photo: Guido Parra

Common name: Australian snubfin dolphin

Scientific name: Orcaella heinsohni

Legislative name: Orcaella brevirostris

Family: Delphinidae (dolphins)

Conservation status: The Australian snubfin dolphin is listed as Vulnerable in Queensland (Nature Conservation Act 1992). This dolphin was assumed to be the Irrawaddy River dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) until 2005 when genetic tests proved that it was a separate species. It is currently only known from Australia and its status in Queensland waters is very poorly known. It is ranked as a critical priority under the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection Back on Track species prioritisation framework.


The Australian snubfin dolphin is a relatively small cetacean (dolphin and whale order). Adults average 2 metres in length (maximum male - 2.75 m, maximum female - 2.32 m). It has a blunt, rounded head and no beak. There are 12-19 small, conical teeth on each side of both jaws. The blowhole is left of the midline. It has an obvious, flexible, neck, and neck creases may be present.

The flippers are large and broad, with a gently curved leading edge. The dorsal (back) fin is small and triangular with a bluntly rounded tip, and barely concave rear margin. It is situated behind the midpoint of the body. The flukes (tail fins) are notched and have a shallow concave trailing edge. The colour is generally pale to dark brown with the ventral (underside) surface lighter in colour. This species is often confused with the dugong, which lacks a dorsal fin and has a more full-bodied shape.

Habitat and distribution

The Australian snubfin dolphin has been recorded across northern Australia (Qld, NT, WA) where it inhabits riverine, estuarine and coastal waters, but the distribution has been poorly documented.

Life history and behaviour

The Australian snubfin dolphin is usually seen in groups of 5 to 6 animals, but groups of up to 15 animals have been observed. When undisturbed they typically make short dives, surfacing quietly at 30-60 second intervals. They can submerge for up to 12 minutes when disturbed. Tail-slapping and partial jumps have been observed, but they do not leap clear of the water or bow-ride. Vocalisation (sounds/language) includes broadband clicks, pulsed sounds and whistles.

Social sexual activity in Australian snubfin dolphins is seen year round with a peak during the winter months. Calves are also seen year round but numbers tend to peak in winter months.

The Australian snubfin dolphin is a generalist feeder, taking food from the bottom of ocean and the water column. Its diet consists primarily of fish, but includes cephalopods (such as squid and octopus) and crustaceans (such as prawns and crabs).

Threatening processes

There are a number of threats to the Australian snubfin dolphin in Queensland. These include incidental capture from netting, especially gill nets and ghost nets, poor water quality, urban development, acoustic noise pollution, and disturbance from and collisions with boats and jet skis that lead to injuries or interference with the dolphin’s natural behaviour.

Recovery actions

  • Implement sustainable fisheries management to minimise accidental capture in fishing gear;
  • Take steps to limit and eventually eliminate deaths due to netting;
  • Minimise the amount of pollutants and sediment output into coastal waters through appropriate catchment management;
  • Establish a baseline estimate of population size and conduct regular population monitoring throughout range to detect possible change in numbers;
  • Conduct further research to establish life history parameters, habitat requirements, and level of genetic interchange between populations.
  • Provide education on the impacts of boating activities on the dolphin.

What can you do to help this species?

You can help this species by:

  • Do not approach dolphins too closely with your boat as species such as the Australian snubfin dolphin may be sensitive to harassment and unfamiliar noise, and boats may disturb their natural behaviour;
  • Remember that rubbish you throw away, or chemicals you discard, may find their way into drainage systems that run into the ocean. Such pollutants can affect the health of coastal mammals directly, or indirectly through accumulation of poisonous substances in their prey;
  • Do not dump your pet cat's waste into drains. Cat faeces can contain the parasite Toxoplasmosis gondii which has caused the death of inshore dolphins.

Related information

Bannister, JL, Kemper, CM and Warneke, RM, 1996, The Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans, ANCA, Canberra.

Beasley, I, Robertson, KM and Arnold, P 2005, Description of a new dolphin, the Australian snubfin dolphin Orcaella heinsohni sp. n. (Cetacea, Delphinidae), Marine Mammal Science 21 (3), 365-400.

Corkeron, P 1997, The status of cetaceans in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, in Wachenfeld, D, Oliver J and Davis K (eds), State of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area Workshop, Workshop Series No. 23, GBRMPA.

Marsh, H 1990, The Distribution and Abundance of Cetaceans in the Great Barrier Reef Region with Notes on Whale Sharks, Report to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Parra, GJ 2006 Resource partitioning in sympatric delphinids: Space use and habitat preferences of Australian snubfin and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, Journal of Animal Ecology 75, 862-874.

Parra, GJ, Corkeron, PJ and Marsh, H 2006, Population sizes, site fidelity and residence patterns of Australian snubfin and Indo-pacific humpback dolphins: Implication for Conservation, Biological Conservation 129, 167-180.

Paterson, RA and Van Dyck, SM 1998, Irrawaddy dolphins Orcaella brevirostris from southern Queensland. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 42, 554.

Last updated
31 August 2015