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.

15 Animal Names That Can Be Used As Verbs

iStock.com/fotojagodka
iStock.com/fotojagodka

People can go fishing, rabbit on incessantly, dog one another, and horse around. But because of their usefulness in completing burdensome work, horse has also been used in (originally naval) slang since the mid-19th century to mean “to work to the point of exhaustion”—or, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “to drive or urge at work unfairly or tyrannically.” But horses aren’t the only animals whose names can be “verbed.” From turtles to tigers, you can drop any one of these 15 creatures into your everyday conversation.

1. Bulldog

No one is entirely sure why bulldogs are called bulldogs, with different theories pointing to everything from their bull-like stature to their bullish faces to the fact that they might once have been bred to bait bulls. Whatever the origin, the bulldog’s strength and its robust, resilient behavior means that you can use its name as a verb meaning “to attack roughly,” or “to wrestle to the ground.”

2. Tiger

A tiger
iStock.com/konmesa

If you tiger, then you walk to and fro, like a tiger pacing in a cage. If you tiger something, then you paint or mark it with contrasting stripes.

3. Spider

Jumping spider
iStock.com/elthar2007

As well as being used simply to mean “to creep” or “to move like a spider,” if you ensnare or entrap something, or else cover it in a cobweb-like pattern, then you spider it.

4. Cat

British shorthair cat with expressive orange eyes
iStock.com/Leesle

Because the cathead is the horizontal beam at the bow of a ship that’s used to raise an anchor, the word cat has a number of nautical uses as a verb, including “to lift an anchor from the water,” “to secure an anchor,” and “to draw an anchor through the water.” But because shooting the cat was 19th century slang for being sick from drinking too much, you can also use cat to mean “to vomit.”

5. Vulture

White-backed vulture
iStock.com/EcoPic

Vultures’ grim feeding habits and their remarkable flying ability have given the word two meanings as a verb in English. Feel free to use it to mean “to eat voraciously” or “to tear at your food,” or else “to descend steadily through the air.”

6. Owl

Owl in flight
iStock.com/WhitcombeRD

Owling (as well as being a short-lived social media craze) was once the name given to the crime of smuggling sheep and wool from England to the continent—a crime so-called because the nefarious “owlers” carried out their crimes at night. That might not be the most useful of words these days of course, so feel free to also use owl to mean “to act wisely, despite not knowing anything.”

7. Shark

It’s easy to presume that the use of shark as a verb to mean “to act like a predator” (which is the same shark as in loanshark, incidentally) derives from the deadly sea creatures. In fact, it might be the opposite: Both meanings of the word shark date back to the late 16th century, but it’s possible that the verb shark is the older of the two. If so, it’s possible that it comes from the earlier word shirk (in the sense of using deceit or trickery to avoid work) or else a northeastern French word, cherquier, which was often used in a phrase that essentially meant “to sponge of others” or “to act as a parasite.” So how did sea-dwelling sharks come to be called sharks? It’s possible the deceitful sharks gave their name to the menacing creatures, or else the two could be completely unrelated—and, thanks to a sea battle off the Yucatan peninsula in 1569, shark could in fact be a Mayan word.

8. Monkey

Chimpanzee looking surprised
iStock.com/photomaru

As well as meaning “to play the fool” or “to behave playfully”—as in “monkeying around”—monkey, like ape, can also be used to mean “to mimic” or “to copy someone’s movements or actions.”

9. Turtle

If a boat “turns turtle,” then it capsizes and flips over, so that it looks like a turtle’s domed shell floating atop the water. Because of that, to turtle something is to turn it upside down.

10. Snail

Burgundy snail
iStock.com/AlexRaths

For obvious reasons, snail has been used to mean “to move slowly” since the late 16th century, but because of the snail’s coiled shell, you can also use snail to mean “to draw or carve a spiral,” or “to roll into a spiral shape.”

11. Porcupine

Porcupine walking
iStock.com/ser-y-star

When your hair stands on end, feel free to say that it porcupined.

12. Canary

Canary birds take their name from the Canary Islands, which, somewhat confusingly, take their name from canis, the Latin word for “dog.” But in the 16th and 17th centuries, the canary was also the name of an energetic dance inspired by a traditional dance performed by the natives of the Canary Islands. And because of that, you can also use the word canary as a verb meaning “to dance in a lively fashion.”

13. Earwig

Earwig
iStock.com/Mr_Fu

Earwigs are so-called because they were once (thankfully erroneously) thought to crawl inside people’s ears as they slept. Through association with someone whispering clandestinely into someone’s ear, in the late 18th century eavesdroppers and people who seeked to secretly influence others became known as earwiggers—and so to earwig is to do precisely that.

14. Pig

Cute pig leaning on railing of his cot
iStock.com/Fotosmurf03

Pig has been used to mean “to give birth” since as far back as the 15th century in English (a fairly uncomplimentary allusion to a pregnant sow delivering a litter of piglets). But slightly less depreciatively, the living habits of pigs mean that it can also be used to mean “to huddle together,” or else “to live or sleep in crowded or dirty conditions.”

15. Dingo

A dingo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

Because of their stereotypically sneaky behavior, to dingo on someone meant “to let down” or “to betray” them in 1930s Australian slang, while to dingo meant simply “to shirk” or “to back out of something at the last minute.”

This list first ran in 2016.

Photographer's Up-Close Images of Animal Eyes Will Have You Seeing Wildlife in a Whole New Way

A parrot eye
A parrot eye
Suren Manvelyan

Few people ever get close enough to a hippo, hyena, or crocodile to snap a photo of one, let alone get a detailed shot of their eyes. Yet that is exactly what theoretical physicist-turned-photographer Suren Manvelyan, of Armenia, has done. His macro photography series of animal eyes, spotted by My Modern Met, offers a rare look at the animal world, amplified.

Some of Manvelyan's eye photos—like that of the camel, which has three eyelids—look like strange landscapes on some distant, alien planet. The smallest details have been captured in his photos, from the kaleidoscopic irises of the chinchilla and chimpanzee to the shimmery edges of a raven's eye. If the photos weren't labeled, it might be difficult to tell what you were looking at.

"It is very beautiful and astounding," Manvelyan told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "The surface resembles the surface of other planets, with craters, rivers, and valleys. It looks like something from another world. Every time I photograph the eye, I feel myself traveling through the cosmos."

Manvelyan keeps his photography techniques secret, but he says he sometimes spends an hour with an animal just waiting to capture the right moment. To date, he has photographed both domestic animals (like a husky dog and Siamese cat) as well as exotic ones (including a variety of tropical birds and lizards). Check out some of his shots below, and visit his website to see more photos from this series.

Eye of a caiman lizard
A caiman lizard's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A camel's eye
A camel's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A chinchilla eye
A chinchilla's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A raven's eye
A raven's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A husky dog's eye
A husky dog's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A horse eye
A horse eye
Suren Manvelyan

A chimpanzee eye
Eye of a chimpanzee
Suren Manvelyan

A tokay gecko's eye
A tokay gecko's eye
Suren Manvelyan

[h/t My Modern Met]

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