The Burrunan dolphin was thought to be one of the two recognised species of bottlenose dolphin, but examination of their skulls, external characteristics and DNA from old and current samples revealed unique characteristics which classified it as a separate species. It is the third time since the late 19th century that a new dolphin species has been recognised.
The species was formally named Tursiops australis by the researcher who discovered the species, Kate Charlton-Robb of Monash University. The dolphin's common name, Burrunan, is an Aboriginal name in the Boonwurrung, Woiwurrung and Taungurung languages, meaning "large sea fish of the porpoise kind".
Only two populations of the Burrunan dolphin have been identified, one in Port Phillip Bay and the other in the Gippsland Lakes. Their combined population has been estimated as about 150 dolphins (100 in Port Phillip and 50 in Gippsland).