11 Facts About the Vaquita, The World's Most Endangered Porpoise

VaquitaCPR
VaquitaCPR

The vaquita is the rarest marine mammal in the world, and critically endangered, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Scientists estimate there are just 30 of the porpoises left in the world—and some recently said there may be as few as 12. Either number is likely too few for the vaquita to successfully reproduce and replenish its population. Here are 11 things to know before this species disappears forever.

1. SCIENTISTS FIRST IDENTIFIED THE VAQUITA IN 1958.

vaquita

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1950, University of California scientist Kenneth Norris found a bleached skull on a beach north of Punta San Felipe in Baja California, and a year later, his colleagues found two more. When a colleague compared the skulls to those of another porpoise at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley, California, they noticed differences striking enough to consider the finds a new species. Norris first described Phocoena sinus (gulf porpoise) in the Journal of Mammalogy in 1958.

2. ITS NAME MEANS "LITTLE COW" IN SPANISH.

The vaquita measures about 5 feet long (the females are slightly larger than the males) and weighs no more than 100 pounds. They're the smallest of all porpoises, with chunky bodies and rounded heads. Dark rings surround their eyes and mouths, which may account for their common name (vaquita means “little cow” in Spanish). Living in relatively shallow, cloudy water, they feed on a variety of fish, squid, and crustaceans.

3. SCIENTISTS CAN IDENTIFY INDIVIDUAL VAQUITAS BASED ON A SINGLE FEATURE.

Some vaquitas have individually distinctive nicks and notches on their dorsal fins, which makes it possible to identify specific individuals from high-quality photographs. Beginning in 2008, scientists created a catalog of these photos, adding new individuals and recording sightings of previously identified animals. Photo ID catalogs serve as a tool to help track an individual, revealing its life history, social organization, movements, and habitat use. Researchers use them with many marine animals that have distinctive markings. Individual manta rays, for example, can be identified by the spot patterns on their undersides.

4. THE VAQUITA IS FOUND IN ONLY ONE PLACE IN THE WORLD.

researchers try to spot the elusive vaquita in the Gulf of California
VaquitaCPR

Vaquitas live only in the northern Gulf of California, the body of water between Baja California and mainland Mexico. They're homebodies, staying within the northernmost part of the Gulf, and have the smallest range of any cetacean (the taxonomic order including whales, dolphins, and porpoises). Vaquitas reproduce only once every two years, while most porpoises have a calf every year. They're most closely related to porpoises in South America, but the species diverged from these relatives at least 2.5 million years ago.

5. UP TO 15 PERCENT OF VAQUITAS DIED IN FISHING NETS EVERY YEAR.

For decades, fishermen after shrimp and finfish such as corvina and sierra unintentionally entangled and drowned vaquitas in their gillnets; these long, curtain-like nets float in the water, snagging the gills of fish and shrimp that swim into them. A study showed that boats from a single fishing port in the upper Gulf accounted for the fatal bycatch of 39 to 84 vaquitas each year—an annual death sentence for 7 to 15 percent of the total population.

By the 1980s, the problem had become so bad that the vaquita was listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1985 and a year later as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Some good news came when UNESCO declared the upper Gulf of California a Biosphere Preserve in 1995, but it didn't do much good—just a year later, the IUCN changed the vaquita's status to critically endangered.

6. FISHING NETS MEANT TO BE VAQUITA-PROOF COULDN'T COMPETE WITH ILLEGAL FISHING …

In 2006, scientists and conservationists began developing gear that could catch fish and shrimp without harming vaquitas, including smaller nets dragged behind boats that the porpoises could avoid. Some fishermen in the Gulf agreed to test the gear. The initial results looked promising, and those efforts may well have eventually succeeded, but a bigger threat loomed: illegal fishing for totoaba, a large fish that had also been critically endangered for two decades. A single dried swim bladder of a totoaba can fetch as much as $50,000 in China, where they are given as gifts, eaten, or used in traditional medicine. People fishing illegally for totoaba continue to use gillnets, outweighing any benefit the safer, vaquita-proof nets might have had.

7. … SO THE FIRST OFFICIAL POPULATION ESTIMATE, IN 1997, WAS BAD NEWS.

Scientists have a hard time making precise estimates of the number of rare and cryptic (hard to find) species such as the vaquita. These porpoises prove particularly challenging, as they tend to avoid motorized boats, travel alone or in pairs, and are barely noticeable when they surface to take slow breaths. They're so shy that some locals say they've never seen one.

In 1997, scientists from the U.S. and Mexico spent days aboard a 170-foot ship motoring in a grid pattern over water up to 165 feet deep, trying to spot and count vaquitas. They estimated the total population was 567, which probably already reflected a significant decline due to intense fishing activity and less water emptying into the Gulf from the Colorado River, which was siphoned upstream by farms and towns. The IUCN ran models using fisheries data, the 1997 population number, and other counts, and estimated that, in the early 20th century, the vaquita population may have been 5000.

8. IN 2005, THE MEXICAN GOVERNMENT BANNED GILLNETS TO PROTECT VAQUITAS.

Directors of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Mexico Maria Jose Villanueva (L), Jorge Richards (C) and Enrique Sanjurjo speak about the serious situation of the vaquita marina (Phocoena sinus) during a press conference in Mexico City on May 15, 201
Pedro Pardo, AFP/Getty Images

The alarming 1997 count spurred scientists to form the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA in Spanish), operating with an environmental division of the Mexican government. Mexico established a Vaquita Refuge in 2005 and, after many years of urging by the members of CIRVA to permanently ban gillnets, recently prohibited all gillnet fishing in the porpoise's range—but just for two years. Mexico also provided compensation equivalent to millions of dollars to local people in the fishing industry left high and dry by the ban.

Conservation groups such as Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society patrol the Gulf for illegal fishing, but the totoaba trade continues. The black market money is just too good, says Andy Read, a marine biologist at Duke University and member of CIRVA. "From the perspective of the fishermen, what they could make legally fishing versus illegally fishing for totoaba, there is enormous incentive," Read tells Mental Floss. And, as a recent CIRVA report notes, "laws and enforcement are simply too weak to deter or prevent illegal fishing."

9. DESPITE THESE EFFORTS, THE VAQUITA POPULATION CONTINUED TO PLUMMET.

In 2008, CIRVA scientists conducted another ship-based visual survey, scanning the water for vaquitas with high-powered binoculars that could see as far as 3 miles. (Vaquitas tend to stay at least a half-mile away from boats.) They estimated the vaquita population at 245. In 2011, they tried another count, this time relying not on sightings of vaquitas, but a more accurate measure: passive acoustic monitoring devices in the water that detect sounds made by the animals. Vaquitas and other porpoises navigate by echolocation, producing distinctive clicks and whistles. "The devices look for a particular frequency," Read explains. "Nothing else makes sound in the same range, and vaquitas are acoustically very active."

For the next four years, they acoustically monitored Gulf waters—and were dismayed to see the vaquita population drop by 34 percent per year. Another CIRVA survey in 2015 combined visual and passive acoustic data collected simultaneously and made a dismal finding: Only 59 vaquita remained. The population had plummeted by 92 percent since 1997.

10. IN 2017, SCIENTISTS ATTEMPTED TO KEEP VAQUITAS IN A SEA PEN.

temporary sea pen for vaquitas in gulf of california
VaquitaCPR

In 2017, CIRVA scientists desperate to find a solution recommended a controversial plan: Capture vaquitas, keep them in net pens in the Gulf, and hope they would reproduce.

They had no idea whether it would work. No vaquita had ever been kept in captivity, no one knew how the animals would respond, and the effort would only pay off in the unlikely event that gillnet fishing in the Gulf completely stopped. Still, they formed an international team called VaquitaCPR to give it a try. The group subsequently built a high-tech "floating sea enclosure," which they anchored in the Gulf not too far from the beach where the first vaquita skulls were discovered.

In October 2017, VaquitaCPR scientists managed to capture two of the animals. The first, a young female, showed signs of stress—including increased heart rate and respiration rate—so they immediately released her. The second, a mature female, was transported in a stretcher placed inside a box partially filled with sea water to one of the pens and initially seemed to handle the experience well. Then she began swimming frantically and crashing into the sides of the net before finally going limp. The team released her, but she panicked, swimming at the net again. Veterinarians on the team jumped into the water, realized she wasn't breathing, and attempted to resuscitate her. Three hours later, they declared the animal dead, likely due to cardiac arrest.

After that, Read and many other scientists say they were heartbroken, but still felt that the risk of extinction outweighed those of capture. Others disagreed.

"Porpoises generally, like most cetaceans, do not fare well in captivity," Will McCallum of Greenpeace tells Mental Floss. "The population was already drastically depleted, and any capture or rounding up adds extra stress to the remaining animals. The likelihood of vaquita surviving, breeding and being released was slim."

Efforts continue to enforce the gillnet ban and remove gillnets in the reserve, but they may be too little, too late. "We should have been perfectly able to save the vaquita,” McCallum says. "We know where they are and what needed to happen to save them in the wild."

11. SCIENTISTS HAVE SAMPLED AND PRESERVED VAQUITA CELLS.

Some hope remains, though; cell samples taken by the VaquitaCPR team from the two captured vaquitas have been successfully cultured in the lab and frozen for use in future research. Scientists also plan to use the cells to sequence the vaquita genome.

Chimpanzees Bond by Watching Movies Together, Too

Windzepher/iStock via Getty Images
Windzepher/iStock via Getty Images

Scientists at the Wolfgang Kohler Primate Research Center in Germany recently discovered that, like humans, chimpanzees bond when they watch movies together, the BBC reports.

In the study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers stationed pairs of chimpanzees in front of screens that showed a video of a family of chimps playing with a young chimp. They found that afterward, the chimps would spend more time grooming and interacting with each other—or simply being in the same part of the room—than they would without having watched the video.

They gave the chimps fruit juice to keep them calm and occupied while they viewed the video, and they chose a subject that chimps have previously proven to be most interested in: other chimps. They also used eye trackers to ensure the chimps were actually watching the video. If you’ve ever watched a movie with friends, you might notice similarities between the chimps’ experience and your own. Drinks (and snacks) also keep us calm and occupied while we watch, and we like to watch movies about other humans. Since this study only showed that chimps bond over programs about their own species, we don’t know if it would work the same way if they watched something completely unrelated to them, like humans do—say, The Lion King.

Bonding through shared experiences was thought to be one of the traits that make us uniquely human, and some researchers have argued that other species don’t have the psychological mechanisms to realize that they’re even sharing an experience with another. This study suggests that social activities for apes don’t just serve utilitarian purposes like traveling together for safety, and that they’re capable of a more human-like social closeness.

The part that is uniquely human about this study is the fact that they were studying the effect of a screen, as opposed to something less man-made. The chimps in question have participated in other studies, so they may be more accustomed to that technology than wild apes. But the study demonstrates that we’re not the only species capable of social interaction for the sake of social interaction.

[h/t BBC]

10 Facts You Should Know About Mosquitoes

tskstock/iStock via Getty Images
tskstock/iStock via Getty Images

Between the itching and the welts and the fears of mosquito-borne viruses, it's easy to forget that mosquitoes are a wonder of evolution, and that maybe they don't get a fair shake from us. Of more than 3000 known species, only 80 actually bite people, and at least one eats other mosquitoes for us. They grow from egg to adult in just five days, begin mating within minutes of hatching, and possess, by way of their stinging mouthparts, some of the coolest appendages in the animal kingdom.

1. Mosquitoes are excellent flyers in bad weather.

The average raindrop is 50 times heavier than the average mosquito, yet they buzz around in the rain with no problems. If a Boeing 747 got whacked with a similarly scaled-up raindrop, there would be 2375 tons of water coming down on it, and things probably wouldn’t turn out as well as they do for the mosquito. How do the insects do it?

A common urban legend said that the bugs were nimble enough to dodge the drops. A few years ago, a team of engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology watched real mosquitoes and Styrofoam dummy mosquitoes with a high-speed camera during a rainy flight to see if that’s what was really happening. They found that the bugs don’t fly fast enough to dodge the drops, but their slowness is what keeps them from getting knocked out of the sky. A mosquito’s low mass even at slow speed doesn’t provide enough of a target for a raindrop to splash on collision. Instead, the drop just deforms, and doesn’t transfer enough momentum to the mosquito to disrupt its flight.

2. Texas is the mosquito capital of America.

Of the 3000 species of mosquitoes around the world, at least 150 are found in the United States, and 85 of those call Texas home. When people say everything's bigger in Texas, you can also include the biodiversity of the state's biting, disease-carrying insects.

3. Some mosquitoes are truly dangerous to humans ...

The female mosquito, which is the one that stings and sucks blood, is an incredible transmitter of disease and, because of that, the deadliest animal in the world. Each year, the malaria parasites they transmit kill 2 million to 3 million people and infect another 200 million or more. They also spread pathogens that cause yellow fever, dengue fever, Rift Valley fever, Chikungunya and West Nile disease.

4. ... and some mosquitoes are harmless.

Not every species of mosquito sucks blood from people, and among those that do, not every one transmits disease. The blood suckers don’t even need to bite you for every meal. Males live entirely on nectar and other plant fluids, and the females’ diet is primarily plant-based, too. Most of the time, they only go after people when they’re ready to reproduce, because blood contains lipids, proteins, and other nutrients needed for the production of eggs.

5. MosquitoEs actually help the environment.

When you’re rubbing calamine lotion all over yourself, mosquitoes might not seem to serve any purpose but to annoy you, but many species play important ecological roles. The mosquitoes Aedes impiger and Aedes nigripes, which gather in thick clouds in Arctic Russia and Canada, are an important food source for migrating birds. Farther south, birds, insects, spiders, salamanders, lizards, frogs, and fish also eat different mosquito species regularly. Plants need them, too, and some, like the blunt-leaved orchid and endangered monkeyface orchid, rely on mosquitoes as their primary pollinator.

Some mosquito species are also excellent at mosquito control. Species of the genus Toxorhynchites feed on the larvae and immature stages of other mosquitoes and will sometimes even cannibalize members of their own species.

6. Mosquitoes are amazing hunters (as if we needed to tell you that).

Mosquitoes are adept at picking up on the chemicals given off by their human hosts. They can detect the carbon dioxide in our breath, the 1-octen-3-ol in our breath and sweat, and other organic substances we produce with the 70-plus types of odor and chemical receptors in their antennae. These receptors can pick up traces of chemicals from hundreds of feet away, and once the mosquito closes in, it tracks its meal chemically and also visually—and they’re fond of people wearing dark colors.

7. Mosquitoes can be picky.

If it seems like you’re always covered head to toe by bites while people who were sitting right next to you only have one or two, it’s not just paranoia; the skeeters actually are out to get you. Some people happen to give off more of the odors and compounds that mosquitoes find simply irresistible, while others emit less of those and more of the compounds that make them unattractive to mosquitoes—either by acting as repellents or by masking the compounds that mosquitoes would find attractive.

8. A female mosquito's mouth is primed for sucking blood.

A mosquito doesn’t simply sink its proboscis into your skin and start sucking. What you see sticking out of a mosquito’s face is the labium, which sheaths the mouthparts that really do all the work. The labium bends back when a mosquito bites, allowing these other parts to pass through its tip and do their thing. The sharp, pointed mandibles and maxillae, which both come in pairs, are used to pierce the skin, and the hollow hypopharynx and the labrum are used to deliver saliva and draw blood, respectively.

9. Mosquito saliva prevents blood clotting.

The saliva that gets pumped out from the hypopharynx during a bite is necessary to get around our blood’s tendency to clot. It contains a grab bag of chemicals that suppress vascular constriction, blood clotting and platelet aggregation, keeping our blood from clogging up the mosquitoes' labrum and ruining their meal.

10. Mosquitoes can explode.

Blood pressure makes a mosquito's meal easier by helping to fill its stomach faster, but urban legend says it can also lead to their doom. Story goes, you can flex a muscle close to the bite site or stretch your skin taut so the mosquito can’t pull out its proboscis and your blood pressure will fill the bug until it bursts. The consensus among entomologists seems to be that this is bunk, but there is a more complicated way of blowing the bugs up. To make a blood bomb, you’ve got to sever the mosquito’s ventral nerve cord, which transmits information about satiety. When it's cut, the cord can’t tell the mosquito’s brain that its stomach is full, so it’ll keep feeding until it reaches critical mass. At least one researcher found that mosquitoes clueless about how full they were would keep sucking even after their guts had exploded, sending showers of blood spilling out of their blown-out back end.

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