The Yangtze finless porpoise — also known as the narrow-ridged finless porpoise, scientifically known as Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis — is a remarkable species that has adapted to life in freshwater habitats, playing a vital role in maintaining the delicate balance of the Yangtze River ecosystem.
As the only freshwater porpoise in the world, the Yangtze finless porpoise has captured the attention of scientists and conservationists alike.
Unique Characteristics of the Yangtze Finless Porpoise
The finless porpoise, as its name suggests, lacks a dorsal fin, distinguishing it from its marine (ocean-dwelling) relatives. Instead, it possesses a narrow ridge along its back, covered in wartlike tubercles.
With a streamlined body, the porpoise can reach lengths of up to 6.5 feet (2 meters) and weigh up to 220 pounds (100 kilograms). Its bulbous head and lack of a beak further contribute to its distinctive appearance.
Yangtze Finless Porpoise: Habitat and Distribution
The Yangtze finless porpoise is primarily found in the Yangtze River, which stretches more than 3,900 miles (6,300 kilometers) through China. However, its distribution has become increasingly fragmented due to various factors.
The porpoise is now confined to specific sections of the river, such as the areas between Ezhou and Nanjing, and from Yichang to Jingzhour. It is also found in Poyang and Dongting Lakes, which are connected to the Yangtze River.
Population Decline: A Race Against Time
Despite its significance as a unique freshwater cetacean, the river dolphins faces a bleak future. The species has experienced a rapid decline in population over the past few decades.
In 1991, the population was estimated to be over 2,500 individuals, but by 2006, it had plummeted to just 1,800. By 2012 the population had decreased even further, with researchers recording only 505 individuals in the main part of the river.
These alarming figures have led to the classification of the Yangtze finless porpoise as "critically endangered" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
Threats to the Yangtze Finless Porpoise
There isn't a singular threat, but rather a combination of factors contributing to the rapid decline of the Yangtze finless porpoise population.
One of the primary threats is reckless fishing practices. These freshwater cetaceans often become entangled in fishing gear, such as gillnets, leading to injury or death. Water development projects and vessel strikes further threaten the survival of the Yangtze finless porpoise.
Three of the most significant risks threats to the species' habitat are noise from increased shipping traffic, dredging of the river, and plain, old environmental pollution.
The Tragic Tale of the Baiji Dolphin
The fate of the Yangtze finless porpoise serves as a stark reminder of the tragic loss of its close relative, the Baiji dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer). Once inhabiting the Yangtze River, the Baiji dolphin was declared functionally extinct in 2006, becoming the first dolphin species to be wiped out entirely due to human activity.
The extinction of the Baiji dolphin serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the urgent need to protect the remaining populations of the Yangtze finless porpoise before the entire species goes extinct.