Lights Out for the River Dolphin

This was not unexpected, but still has huge significance:

The rare Chinese river dolphin has gone extinct, according to scientists who could not find a single one of the animals during a six-week search on China‘s Yangtze River.

The small, nearly blind white dolphin, also known as the baiji, was nicknamed “the goddess of the Yangtze.”

China river dolphin or baiji photo

“It’s possible that we missed one or two animals [during the search], but we can say the baiji is functionally extinct,” August Pfluger, a Swiss economist-turned-naturalist who financed the expedition, said in a telephone interview from Wuhan, China.

“If there are any baiji left in the river, they won’t have any chance of survival.”

If Pfluger’s team is correct, the baiji will be the first large aquatic mammal to have gone extinct since hunting and overfishing killed off the Caribbean monk seal in the 1950s.

According to this story, the Yangtze was home to a number of unique species — many of them threatened with extinction, too:

This is no ordinary extinction of the kind that occurs frequently in a world of millions of still-evolving species. The Yangtze freshwater dolphin was a remarkable creature that separated from all other species so many millions of years ago, and had become so distinct, that it qualified as a mammal family in its own right. It is the first large vertebrate to have become extinct for 50 years and only the fourth entire mammal family to disappear since the time of Columbus, when Europeans began their colonisation of the world.

The three previous mammal families gone from the face of the Earth are the giant lemurs of Madagascar, which were eliminated in the 17th century, the island shrews of the West Indies, probably wiped out by the rats that accompanied Colombus on his voyage, and the Tasmanian tiger, the last known specimen of which died in captivity in 1936. (The most famous creature to have become extinct in the past 500 years, the Dodo, was a bird.)

Sam Turvey, conservation biologist at the Zoological Society of London, who led the expedition to find the Yangtze dolphin and is chief author of the paper, said: “The loss of such a unique and charismatic species is a shocking tragedy. This extinction represents the disappearance of a complete branch of the evolutionary tree of life and emphasises we have yet to take full responsibility in our role as guardians of the planet.”

Several other species are “just hanging on” in the Yangtze and could disappear within a few years unless action is taken now, Dr Turvey warned. They include the Chinese alligator, the finless porpoise and the Chinese paddlefish, which grows up to 7m long but has not been seen since 2003.

Reuters says “the last confirmed baiji sighting was 2002, although there have been a handful of unconfirmed sightings since then. The last baiji in captivity died in 2002.”

One thought on “Lights Out for the River Dolphin

  1. It is even sadder that the scientists doing the survey were trying to find dolphins for a conservation program. If such a program had taken off 10 years ago, the Baiji may still have stood a chance of survival.

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