The Most Endangered Marine Animal You’ve Never Heard Of

This small sea mammal is on the brink of extinction – their population is estimated to be between 6 and 22 individuals.

A pair of vaquitas. Image credits: NOAA Fisheries West Coast/CCsearch, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The shallow waters along the Gulf of California are the only places in the world where vaquitas exist. Since their discovery in 1958, their numbers have drastically dropped.

The name “vaquita” literally means little cow in Spanish. Vaquitas are likened to porpoises – sometimes they are confused with dolphins, but vaquitas are smaller and have a chunkier body. They can easily be distinguished from other species by a rather adorable dark ring around their eyes and patches on their lips that form a narrow line from their mouth to their fins. Their small body is mostly grey, which can reach a maximum of 140-150 centimeters (4.6-4.9 feet) on average. Their diet consists mostly of a variety of fish, crabs, and squids.

Because of their shy nature not much is known about the social behaviour or the reproductive cycles of vaquitas.

The dark rings around their eyes make them easily distinguishable. Image credits: Seminars on Science / CCsearch, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Although the dam built in the Colorado River is a huge threat to their natural habitat, the main reason for their critically endangered status is due to accidental entanglement – vaquitas are frequently caught and drowned in gillnets used by individuals who are fishing illegally in the area. When caught in a fishing net, vaquitas can’t swim to the surface to breathe and they drown in only a matter of minutes. In spite of regulations, including the partial ban on gillnets and the establishment of a gillnet-free zone, illegal fishing remains a widespread activity in the Gulf of California.

A vaquita caught in a gillnet. Image credits: NOAA Fisheries West Coast/CCsearch, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you are interested about helping the vaquitas visit the website of iVIVA Vaquita!, which is a group of researchers, educators and conservationists who aim to save the vaquitas from extinction.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4


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