Yangtze River dolphin declared extinct
Wednesday 8 August 2007
An international team of scientists have concluded that the Yangtze River dolphin or baiji is now extinct following comprehensive surveys of its habitat. This represents the first extinction of a large vertebrate for more than fifty years and the only species of cetacean (whale, dolphin or porpoise) ever to be driven to extinction by human activity. The paper, lead-authored by Dr Sam Turvey of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), is published in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters.
Dr Turvey commented, “The loss of such a unique and charismatic species is a shocking tragedy. The Yangtze River dolphin was a remarkable mammal that separated from all other species over twenty million years ago. This extinction represents the disappearance of a complete branch of the evolutionary tree of life and emphasises that we have yet to take full responsibility in our role as guardians of the planet.”
The paper details the recent surveying work that was undertaken in the final efforts to prevent the extinction of the species. An intensive six week survey was undertaken at the end of 2006, which covered the entire historical range of the species in the main channel of the Yangtze River in eastern China. If any dolphins were found it was planned that they would be translocated to a nearby oxbow lake where a captive breeding programme would be undertaken. Unfortunately, not a single individual was found and the expert international scientists involved in the project have been forced to concede that the species has become extinct. It is believed that the main factor responsible for the disappearance of the baiji was the accidental death of large numbers of dolphins in fishing gear, rather than active persecution.
At the start of 2007, ZSL launched its EDGE programme, a conservation programme focused on the world’s most Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered species. EDGE has assessed all of the world’s mammals in terms of how closely or distantly related each species was to its nearest relatives, and how endangered it was. The programme calculated the Yangtze River dolphin to be the Number 1 EDGE mammal.
Dr Turvey added, “The baiji’s extinction also highlights the need for new conservation initiatives in China’s increasingly threatened Yangtze ecosystem, which is also home to endangered freshwater porpoises, seven-metre long fish, giant salamanders and white Siberian cranes.”
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Notes to editors
- The Institute of Zoology (IoZ) is the research division of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). It is a government-funded research institute specialising in scientific issues relevant to the conservation of animal species and their habitats. Website: Institute of Zoology
- Founded in 1826, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is an international scientific, conservation and educational charity: our key role is the conservation of animals and their habitats. ZSL owns and operates ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, carries out scientific research at the Institute of Zoology and is actively involved in field conservation in over 40 countries worldwide. www.zsl.org
- The paper’s authors are from the following institutes: Institute of Zoology (Zoological Society of London), Institute of Hydrobiology (Chinese Academy of Sciences), NOAA Fisheries (Southwest Fisheries Science Center USA), NRIFE (Fisheries Research Agency Japan), Baiji.org Foundation, Chinese Academy of Sciences Graduate School, Okapi Wildlife Associates (Canada), Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute (USA), University of Hawaii, University of Washington
- The EDGE programme is a Zoological Society of London (ZSL) project working to conserve the world's most Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) species by implementing the research and conservation actions needed to secure their future. ZSL researchers work closely with scientists from countries in which EDGE species occur. The programme also aims to train students from developing countries to monitor and protect threatened species. More information about EDGE can be found at www.zsl.org/edge . The Yangtze River dolphin or baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) was the only living member of the Lipotidae, an ancient mammal family thought to have separated from other cetaceans (marine mammals including whales, dolphins and porpoises) 20-40 million years ago.
- The baiji was a white freshwater dolphin with a very long, narrow beak and low dorsal fin. It tended to live in groups of three or four and feeds on freshwater fish. It has a special place in Chinese culture, as it was once revered as a river goddess or the reincarnation of a drowned princess.
Contact: Alice Henchley Tel: 0207 449 6361