Vaquitas are one of the most endangered marine species on the planet, with only 18 individuals known to remain in the world. These rare cetaceans (aquatic mammals) are found exclusively in the northern Gulf of California, off of Mexico’s west coast. The vaquita is well adapted to its very specific habitat, able to tolerate temperature fluctuations from 14 to 26 degrees Celsius. It is thought that its dorsal fin is used to help regulate its body temperature in warmer waters.
Vaquitas are the smallest members of the porpoise family—and of all cetaceans—weighing between 60 to 120 pounds as fully-grown adults. Female vaquitas tend to grow slightly larger than males, reaching a length of around 4.9 feet, compared to the male average of 4.6 feet. Although they do visually resemble dolphins, their closest relatives, vaquitas have chunkier bodies and rounded heads with no snouts.
They are sometimes referred to as ‘sea pandas’ due to their distinctive facial markings that include darker rings around their eyes and curved black lips that resemble a smile. Their skin is usually a dark grey to black colour on their back, which fades into a paler grey on their underside. Newborn vaquitas tend to have a darker colouring that fades over time.
Known for their elusive nature, vaquitas tend to shy away from boats and human activity. These expert and graceful swimmers come up to the surface to breathe through blowholes, but when they do, they are very quick and quiet, making them more difficult to spot than their larger cetacean relatives. When they are seen, especially in shallower waters, they can often be mistaken for dolphins, due to the appearance of their triangular-shaped dorsal fin that sticks out of the water.
These hard-to-spot creatures are usually seen alone or in pairs, though often with a calf. However, this may be down to their dwindling numbers, as they have previously been spotted in groups of up to 8 to 10.
Vaquitas communicate using echolocation (or sonar) by emitting high-frequency clicks. These clicking sounds reflect off of objects and let them know where they are, which comes in handy when they’re navigating murky, shallow, or darker waters with reduced visibility, or when they are locating prey. As vaquitas are difficult to find, researchers use echolocation to determine their population estimates by monitoring their distinctive clicks using underwater headphones.
Vaquitas are recognised for the important role they play in maintaining the balance of the marine ecosystem in the Gulf of California. They’re an essential part of the food chain, as both a predator and prey. Vaquitas are predominately carnivores, with their diet consisting mainly of various fish and squid species, as well as crustaceans. They’re preyed upon by top predators including sharks and killer whales.
Vaquitas face a dire threat to their existence. Their population has plummeted due to fishing practices, and with so few left on the planet, the species is on the brink of extinction. Although their predators are believed to contribute to the waning of vaquita populations, predation plays a vital role in the delicate food web. That’s why it’s important that we reduce other threats to the species—to avoid any disruption to this natural ecosystem. Conservationists are rallying to protect vaquitas and their precious habitat. Urgent action is needed to prevent their extinction.
Protecting vaquitas not only safeguards a remarkable marine species but also contributes to the health and resilience of our valuable marine ecosystems. Learn more about this scarce species to gain a deeper appreciation of the crucial role they play on our planet.
What is a vaquita’s scientific name?
The scientific name for a vaquita is Phocoenidae sinus, which roughly translates to ‘porpoise of the gulf’.
The term vaquita means ‘little cow’ in Spanish.
Are vaquitas endangered?
Yes, according to the ICUN Red List, vaquitas are critically endangered, which is only one step above being extinct in the wild. Sadly, their adult population continues to decline.
Where do vaquitas live?
Vaquitas live in a very specific area of the ocean, around where the Colorado River empties into the Gulf of California in Mexico. Vaquitas tend to occupy the shallower areas, where the water is less than 50 metres deep. This gives them easier access to food sources.
The vaquita habitat only spans an area of about 2000 square kilometres, although most vaquitas are now detected in an even smaller 12x25-kilometre area, which has now been named the Zero Tolerance Area. All fishing activities were made illegal in this area in 2020.
Vaquitas face severe threats to their survival, which have contributed to a population decline of almost 95% between 1997 and 2016. This diminishing species is confronted with various significant challenges, including fishing practices, inbreeding, and threats to their habitat.
Adult female vaquitas have a relatively low birth rate of just one offspring per year. The average female will produce between five to seven offspring in their lifetime, meaning that while it will be a challenge, there is some hope of repopulating this marvellous species. We must prioritise safeguarding the vaquita and reducing the threats that they face.
The biggest threat to the survival of vaquitas is fishing. More specifically, illegal fishing practices. Illegal fishing for the totoaba fish, which is also endangered, poses a threat to vaquitas. Totoaba fishing involves the use of gillnets, which are hung vertically to trap fish by their gills. Unfortunately, these nets can also accidentally entrap and drown vaquitas. This accidental trapping is called bycatching.
There is a high demand for the totoaba fish, as their swim bladders are highly sought after in traditional Chinese medicine markets for their perceived medicinal properties. This demand is a key driver of these illegal fishing practices, which end up killing vaquitas.
It is estimated that in 1993, 39 vaquitas were killed as a result of bycatch with one fishing method and 84 with another. These numbers caused a 7% and 15% decline respectively in the vaquita population of that time. Both of these numbers are far higher than today’s existing population of just 18.
The use of other non-selective fishing methods, such as shrimp trawlers, can also trap and endanger vaquitas.
The Mexican government is launching initiatives to protect vaquitas, including a ban on the use of gillnets. In 2008, Mexico launched PACE-VAQUITA, which encouraged fishers to swap their gillnets for fishing gear that won’t endanger them.
With such a small population of vaquitas remaining, there is an increased risk of inbreeding, which occurs when closely related individuals mate. Inbreeding can result in reduced genetic diversity, making the population more susceptible to diseases and genetic abnormalities.
Male vaquitas don’t mate with a single female. Instead, they have a multi-mating system in which males will attempt to impregnate as many females as they can. While this is beneficial because it increases the chances of a female falling pregnant, it can also contribute to higher chances of inbreeding.
The increased incidence of disease naturally leads to an increased likelihood of vaquita fatality. The increased genetic abnormalities can cause further health issues, as well as decreased fertility rates, meaning that some adult vaquitas won’t be able to reproduce and contribute to the population. Inbreeding, therefore, hastens the decline of the vaquita species.
Threats to habitat
Vaquitas have a very restricted habitat. They only live in the shallow waters of the Gulf of California. If this habitat experiences any changes, it can have a significant impact on the vaquita population.
The upper Gulf of California faces habitat degradation due to several factors, including pollution, habitat loss, and changes in water flow. This pollution comes from human-related activities, including the use of pesticides. In addition, changes in water flow can be attributed to local infrastructure projects, such as dams. These changes can alter the quality and suitability of the vaquita’s habitat. As they already live in such a restricted area, they’re far more vulnerable to these local changes.
It’s also thought that active sonar transmitters in the ocean may be confusing vaquitas, disrupting their mating and feeding habits.
Climate change poses a threat to the safety of vaquitas. Changes in oceanic conditions and temperature patterns not only alter their habitat but impact the distribution of their prey. Any changes in the availability of prey can disrupt vaquitas’ feeding patterns and overall health, potentially leading to decreased reproduction and survival rates.
Addressing these threats requires comprehensive conservation efforts, including effective enforcement of existing fishing regulations, community involvement, and habitat restoration.
What do vaquitas eat?
Vaquitas are carnivores, with diets that consist mainly of fish and squid species that are found in their local habitat. They are known to consume small fish such as croakers, grunts, and herrings, as well as some other small marine organisms.
How many vaquitas are left in the world?
Tragically, there are only about 18 vaquitas left in the world. They are a critically endangered species with decreasing adult populations.
How much does a vaquita weigh?
An adult vaquita can weigh anywhere between 60 to 120 pounds. Newborn calves typically weigh around 17 pounds.
How big are vaquitas?
Adult vaquitas are four to five feet long. Male vaquitas are usually smaller than female vaquitas. An average male will reach 4.6 feet at full maturity, while females can be up to 4.9 feet long.
Why are vaquitas endangered?
Vaquitas are a critically endangered species due to a number of pressing threats that their species is facing.
The most significant threat is illegal fishing practices. The local fishing industry is targeting the endangered totoaba fish. Vaquitas unfortunately become caught in the gillnets used to catch totoaba fishes, leading to fatalities.
As the population continues to decrease, inbreeding becomes more of an issue. With fewer vaquitas available to breed with, it can result in the breeding of closely related vaquitas. This causes low genetic diversity, making the species more vulnerable to disease and genetic abnormalities.
Changes to the vaquita’s very restricted habitat can affect their availability of food, as well as their living conditions. Pollution, climate change, habitat loss, and changes in water flow caused by the building of infrastructure can all impact their habitat and threaten their chances of survival. With such a limited range, vaquitas are more vulnerable to changes in their habitat and are less able to adapt.
How long do vaquitas live?
Vaquitas can live for around 20 years, according to researchers. They become sexually mature between three and six years old.
Sadly, due to the threats that they face every day, most of them don’t make it to 20 years.
Are vaquitas extinct?
Vaquitas aren’t yet extinct, but unfortunately, they are extremely close to extinction. They are critically endangered, with less than 20 vaquitas known to exist in the world.
In 2017, efforts were made to capture vaquitas to encourage reproduction, but it was observed that they didn’t do well in captivity. The first captured female was released due to an increase in heart and respiratory rates, while the second unfortunately died of cardiac arrest.
How can you help?
IFAW is dedicated to creating a better future for marine animals. Consider donating to help us protect wildlife around the world.