An endangered dolphin whose blowhole was deformed or became injured has learned to breathe through its mouth.

Biologists studying a pod of Hector's dolphins off the coast of New Zealand were surprised to see the adult dolphin surfacing in an unusual way compared to other members of its group.

The dolphin was found to adapt easily to its breathing difficulties and over a three year period of observations. Photo / Supplied by Dr Steve Dawson
The dolphin was found to adapt easily to its breathing difficulties and over a three year period of observations. Photo / Supplied by Dr Steve Dawson

Rather than breathing out of its blowhole like the rest of its species, the creature emerged from the water at a steep angle with its head higher than normal.

This allowed it to take gulps of air as it broke the surface of the water before diving beneath the waves again.

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Scientists said it appeared to be completely health. Photo / Supplied by Dr Steve Dawson
Scientists said it appeared to be completely health. Photo / Supplied by Dr Steve Dawson

It is one of the only known examples of a dolphin learning to breathe through its mouth.

Writing in the journal Marine Mammal Science, Professor Stephen Dawson, a marine biologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, and his colleagues said: 'In every surfacing we observed, the dolphin approached the surface at a steep angle, with its head emerging higher than normal from the water surface.

"The blowhole did not open widely as is normal.

"While the blowhole appeared closed throughout each surfacing event, in surfacings seen at close range, a small puff of spray was visible from both blowhole and mouth as these cleared the surface at the beginning of the surfacing sequence."

The researchers believe the dolphin may have suffered an injury that stopped it from opening its blowhole properly or suffered from some sort of developmental problem.

The only damage they could see to the animal's blowhole was a small lesion on one side.

The dolphin could be heard taking gulps of air whenever it surfaced with its mouth open. Photo / Supplied by Dr Steve Dawson
The dolphin could be heard taking gulps of air whenever it surfaced with its mouth open. Photo / Supplied by Dr Steve Dawson