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Otago researchers identify fossil dolphin - Aureia rerehua

The Aureia rerehua fossil (Taken from Otago Univerity Website)

In a recent discovery by University of Otago researchers, a fossil dolphin with a distinctive

feeding method has been formally identified and named. The paper, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, introduces us to Aureia rerehua.

Lead researcher Shane Meekin, a Master of Science graduate from the Department of Geology at Otago, shared insights about this fascinating find. Discovered in a quarry in the Hakataramea Valley, Aureia has been a part of Otago’s Geology Museum, nestled among other prehistoric treasures. This was made possible through the dedicated work of the late Emeritus Professor R. Ewan Fordyce, his colleagues, and alumni.

What sets Aureia apart are its widely splayed teeth, believed to have clasped around fish in a unique manner, reminiscent of a wide basket. This feeding method is quite unusual as compared to other ancient dolphins in the area that typically used their teeth for striking prey.

Mr. Meekin elaborates on this, saying, “When observing dolphin teeth, one might naturally assume that the large teeth at the front and center of the mouth are the primary tools for catching prey. This is how related dolphins seemed to hunt. However, Aureia seems to have adopted a completely different approach, using these teeth in a more delicate manner.”

Aureia was relatively small in size, with a weak skull and a flexible neck, making it adept at hunting in shallow waters. Its name, Aureia rerehua, is derived from the Māori word ‘aurei’, which means cloak pins and resembles its teeth, and ‘rerehua’, meaning beautiful, reflecting its exquisite preservation.

The discovery of Aureia also sheds light on the rich diversity of fossil dolphins in the Hakataramea Valley. “This reveals that seemingly similar animals can coexist if they explore different ecological niches,” Mr. Meekin notes. “It further suggests that early prehistoric dolphins employed a variety of feeding strategies to exploit different niches, explaining why numerous types of extinct dolphins have been unearthed from fossil sites like the Hakataramea Valley.”

Interestingly, Hakataramea is situated near our very own Waitaki Whitestone geopark, New Zealand’s first UNESCO geopark. This geopark owes its existence to the abundance of fossils in the area, making it a hotspot for paleontological discoveries like Aureia rerehua.

The full research article can be found here:

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