VaquitaCPR
VaquitaCPR

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

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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.

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Potato-Based Pet Food Could Be Linked to Heart Disease in Dogs
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If you have a pup at home, you may want to check the ingredients listed on that bag of dog food in your cupboard. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has warned that potato-based pet foods might be linked to heart disease in dogs, Time reports.

Foods containing lentils, peas, and other legume seeds are also a potential risk, the agency’s Center for Veterinary Medicine announced.

“We are concerned about reports of canine heart disease, known as dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), in dogs that ate certain pet foods containing peas, lentils, other legumes or potatoes as their main ingredients,” Martine Hartogensis of the veterinary center said in a statement. “These reports are highly unusual as they are occurring in breeds not typically genetically prone to the disease.”

Recent cases of heart disease have been reported in various breeds—including golden and Labrador retrievers, miniature schnauzers, a whippet, a shih tzu, and a bulldog—and it was determined that all of the dogs had eaten food containing potatoes, peas, or lentils.

While heart disease is common in large dogs like Great Danes and Saint Bernards, it’s less common in small and medium-sized breeds (with the exception of cocker spaniels). If caught early enough, a dog’s heart function may improve with veterinary treatment and dietary changes, the FDA notes. While the department is still investigating the potential link, it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid foods containing these ingredients until further notice.

As shown by the recent romaine lettuce scare linked to E. coli, the FDA is unable to request a food recall unless a specific manufacturer or supplier can be identified as the source of contamination. Instead, public notices are generally issued to warn consumers about a certain food while the agency continues its probe.

[h/t Time]

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10 Science-Backed Tips for Getting a Cat to Like You
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Like so many other humans, you might find cats to be mysterious creatures. But believe it or not, it’s not that hard to make friends with a feline, if you know what to do. Here are some tips on how to effectively buddy up with a kitty, drawn from scientific studies and my own experience as a researcher and cat behavioral consultant.

1. LET THE CAT CALL THE SHOTS.

When we see cats, we really want to pet them—but according to two Swiss studies, the best approach is to let kitty make the first move.

Research done in 51 Swiss homes with cats has shown that when humans sit back and wait—and focus on something else, like a good book—a cat is more likely to approach, and less likely to withdraw when people respond. (This preference explains why so many kitties are attracted to people with allergies—because allergic people are usually trying to not pet them.) Another study found that interactions last longer and are more positive when the kitty both initiates the activity and decides when it ends. Play a little hard to get, and you might find that they can’t get enough of you.

2. APPROACH A CAT THE WAY THEY GREET EACH OTHER (SORT OF).

person extending finger to cat's nose
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Felines who are friendly with each other greet each other nose to nose. You can mimic that behavior by offering a non-threatening finger tip at their nose level, a few inches away. Don’t hover, just bend down and gently extend your hand. Many cats will walk up and sniff your finger, and may even rub into it. Now that's a successful greeting.

3. PET CATS WHERE THEY LIKE IT MOST …

They're very sensitive to touch, and generally, they tend to like being petted in some places more than others. A small 2002 study demonstrated that cats showed more positive responses—like purring, blinking, and kneading their paws—to petting on the forehead area and the cheeks. They were more likely to react negatively—by hissing, swatting, or swishing their tails—when petted in the tail area. A more recent study validated these findings with a larger sample size—and many owners can testify to these preferences.

Of course, every animal is an individual, but these studies give us a good starting point, especially if you're meeting a cat for the first time.

4. … AND IF YOU GET NEGATIVE FEEDBACK, GIVE THE CAT SOME SPACE.

There are plenty of signs that a cat doesn't like your actions. These can range from the overt—such as hissing and biting—to the more subtle: flattening their ears, looking at your hand, or twitching their tails. When you get one of those signals, it’s time to back off.

Many of the owners I work with to correct behavioral issues don't retreat when they should, partially because they enjoy the experience of petting their cat so much that they fail to recognize that kitty isn’t enjoying it too. You can’t force a feline to like being handled (this is especially true of feral cats), but when they learn that you’ll respect their terms, the more likely they will be to trust you—and come back for more attention when they're ready.

5. DON’T OVERFEED YOUR CAT.

Many think that food equals love, and that withholding food might make your kitty hate you, but a recent study of obese felines from Cornell University showed the opposite is true—at least for a period of time. About a month after 58 overweight kitties were placed on a diet, three-quarters of their owners reported that their dieting felines were more affectionate, purred more often, and were more likely to sit in their owner's lap. This adorable behavior came with some not-so-cute side effects—the cats also begged and meowed more—but by week eight, both the good and bad behavior had abated for about half the animals.

Regardless of whether a diet makes your pet cuddlier, keeping your pet on the slender side is a great way to help them stay healthy and ward off problems like diabetes, joint pain, and uncleanliness. (Overweight animals have difficulty grooming themselves—and do you really want them sitting on your lap if they can’t keep their butt clean?)

6. PLAY WITH THEM—A LOT.

woman, cat, and feather toy
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Most of the behavior problems that I've witnessed stem from boredom and a lack of routine playtime. No one thinks twice about walking their dog every day, but many people fail to recognize that felines are stealth predators who need a regular outlet for that energy. A recent study suggested that cats prefer human interaction over food, but a closer look at the data demonstrated that what really attracted them to humans was the presence of an interactive toy. One of their top choices is a wand-style toy with feathers, strings, or other prey-like attachments that evoke predatory behavior. Daily interactive play is a great way to bond with them when they’re not in the mood to cuddle—and to keep them fit. Try the Go-Cat Da Bird or any of Neko Flies interchangeable cat toys.  

7. KEEP YOUR CAT INDOORS.

A study conducted in Italy showed that felines who stayed mostly indoors (they had one hour of supervised access to a small garden each day) were more “in sync” with their owners than felines who were allowed free access to the outdoors. The indoor kitties were more active during the day, when their owners were likely to be active, and less active at night, when humans like to sleep. (Many people believe cats are nocturnal, but they are naturally crepuscular—active at dawn and dusk.)

8. SOCIALIZE CATS WHEN THEY'RE YOUNG.

Multiple studies have shown that just a few minutes a day of positive handling by humans helps kittens grow up to be friendlier and more trusting of humans. The ideal age to socialize kittens is when they're between 2 and 9 weeks old. One 2008 study found that shelter kittens that had been given a lot of "enhanced socialization"—additional attention, affection, and play—were, a year later, more affectionate with their owners and less fearful than other kittens adopted from the same shelters.

You can help socialize kittens by volunteering as a foster caretaker. Fostering ensures they get plenty of interaction with people, which will help them will be comfortable around potential adopters. You'll also be doing your local shelter a huge favor by alleviating overcrowding.

9. TAKE THE CAT'S PERSONALITY—AND YOUR OWN—INTO CONSIDERATION WHEN ADOPTING.

If you want to adopt an older animal, take some time at the shelter to get to know them first, since adopters of adult cats report that personality played a big role in their decision to take an animal home permanently and had an impact on their satisfaction with their new companion. Better yet, foster one first. Shelters can be stressful, so you'll get a better sense of what an animal is really like when they're in your home. Not all cats are socialized well when they're young, so a cat may have their own unique rules about what kinds of interactions they're okay with.

It's also key to remember that a cat's appearance isn't indicative of their personality—and it's not just black cats who get a bad rap. In 2012, I published a study with 189 participants that showed that people were likely to assign personality traits to felines based solely on their fur color. Among other things, they tended to think orange cats would be the nicest and white cats the most aloof. (Needless to say, these are inaccurate assumptions.) And it's not just the kitty's personality that matters—yours is important too. Another study I conducted in 2014 of nearly 1100 pet owners suggested that self-identified “cat people” tend to be more introverted and anxious when compared to dog people. (We’re also more prone to being open-minded and creative, so it’s not all bad.) If you’re outgoing and active, a more playful feline could be for you. If you prefer nights spent snuggling on the couch, a mellow, shy-but-sweet lovebug could be your perfect pet.

10. BE A KEEN OBSERVER OF THEIR BEHAVIOR.

Overall, use your common sense. Be a diligent and objective observer of how they respond to your actions. Feline body language can be subtle—something as small as an eye-blink can indicate contentment, while ear twitches might signal irritation—but as you learn their cues, you'll find yourself much more in tune with how they're feeling. And if you adjust your behaviors accordingly, you'll find soon enough that you've earned a cat's trust.

Mikel Delgado received her Ph.D. at UC-Berkeley in psychology studying animal behavior and human-pet relationships. She's a researcher at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and co-founder of the cat behavior consulting company Feline Minds.

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