Monday, August 22, 2011

The Unique Vaquita

The vaquita holds the distinction of being both the smallest and rarest marine mammal in the world. Also referred to as the desert porpoise or gulf porpoise, the vaquita (Spanish for “little cow”) lives only in the northern half of the Gulf of California, the small wedge of ocean between mainland Mexico and Baja, California.

Vaquitas are less than five feet long and weigh about 100lbs as adults. They are smaller but similar in appearance to the better known harbor porpoise, with their most distinctive feature being the dark circles around their eyes and dark coloration around their mouths. They live in much shallower and warmer water than other porpoises and appear to swim and feed leisurely on a variety of small fish and squid.

Illustration: William Shepard
Vaquitas are critically endangered. From 1997 to 2008 the vaquita population dropped from an estimated 500 animals to fewer than 200. Though they have no natural enemies in their isolated habitat and have never been actively hunted, vaquitas are extremely prone to becoming entangled in gillnets used for commercial fishing. Conservationists and government agencies from Mexico, the United States and Canada are currently working together to establish vaquita sanctuaries and limit commercial fishing to save this unique animal from extinction.

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