The Baiji white dolphin inhabited the Yangtze river in China not too long ago. This extinct creature’s legend is rooted in Chinese folklore. As the story goes:
A beautiful young girl lived along the Yangtze river with her stepfather. This stepfather was a shady character — greedy and selfish as can be.
One day, he took his stepdaughter out by boat with the intent to sell her at the local market. Along their journey down the river, this creepy stepfather suddenly decided that he had become quite infatuated with the young lady.
As the stepfather attempted to take advantage of the girl, she dove into the welcoming arms of the Yangtze river. Shortly after, a massive storm consumed the area and sank the boat — taking with it the evil stepfather.
When the storm had cleared, a magnificent white dolphin was seen swimming in the river. The locals realized that this must be the incarnation of the girl! Thus, they decided to call the dolphin The Goddess of the Yangtze. From then on, she was considered the protector of fishermen.
Like all dolphins, Baiji white dolphins were pescatarian. Their long beaks were ideal for sifting through the muddy river bottoms for food. A baiji’s most common meal usually consisted of carp, copperfish, or yellow catfish.
Although Baiji dolphins had poor eyesight, they adapted an alternative tool for identifying their prey — echolocation. Using echolocation, the dolphin sent out sounds and listened for echos to see which objects were present. This also told them precisely where they were located. This same method is also used by other members of the cetacea family (dolphins and whales), as well as bats and a few birds.
In pursuit of prey, they dove in short spurts, for about 10-20 seconds at a time. That’s all the time the creature needed to capture its prey — which was immediately swallowed hole.
Baiji white dolphins are not closely related to any extant dolphin species. They were a subspecies that diverged about 16 million years ago from 2 South American species: La Plata dolphins and the Amazonian river dolphin. It was 1 of only 5 freshwater dolphins in the world.
This dolphin had yet another nickname, and that was “white-flag dolphin”. The reason for this was due to the shape of its dorsal fin, which resembled a white flag, gliding across the waters’ surface.The pale blue-grey coloration of this dolphin’s dorsal (back) side faded to white on its ventral side (aka, its belly).
It’s beak was long and narrow, with a slight upturn towards the tip. Inside of the beak sat between 30 and 36 dagger-like teeth — perfect for chomping fish.
Unlike most of its dolphin cousins who have 2 stomachs, Baiji white dolphins only had 1. Instead, their single stomach held 3 separate chambers. In addition, the Baiji dolphin had much smaller eyes than oceanic dolphin species.
Another unique feature to this species was that the females were typically longer than males. While males grew up to 7’7”, females could reach about 8’2” in length. In fact, the largest recorded female got up to 8’10” long!
Their hydrodynamic bodies and powerful tails propelled Baiji dolphins through the water as fast as 37 mph. Although, these speeds were typically reserved for moments when the animal was faced with danger. It generally cruised the river at a nice and easy pace of 19-25 mph.
As social animals, Baiji white dolphins usually formed pods of up to 10 members. Based on observation, it’s obvious that Baiji dolphins developed deep and loyal bonds with the members of their pods.
Baiji white dolphins used clicking and whistling sounds to communicate with their pod mates. These sounds transferred through the water and reverberated the message to its receiver — a communication technique referred to as sonar. Sonar was used to express emotions, communicate the presence of danger, and organize social gatherings.
Accounts from observers consistently describe the Baiji as being shy and avoiding human contact. Most Baiji activity took place during the day, while the night was designated as a time for rest. They would seek areas with calmer currents at the night, where they could wind down in peace.
Baiji mothers endured a gestation period of about 10-11 months, which ended in the birth of a single calf. It wouldn’t be until about 2 years later until a mother would give birth again.
Newborn calves were barely shy of 3 feet long on average, and would nurse for between 8 and 20 months. By the time males were 4 years old, they were sexually mature — females took a bit more time for this, maturing around age 6. Baiji white dolphins are estimated to have had a lifespan of about 24 years in the wild.
During the peak of the Baiji dolphins’ population, its range extended across about 1,100 miles of the Yangtze river in China. It was also found in the Poyang and Dongting lakes, as well as the Qiantang river to the south.
Currently, about 6% of the world’s population is living and working along the Yangtze river catchment area! So needless to say, human interference has put a strain on the river’s natural inhabitants.
As industrialization began to increase along the Yangtze, so did the demand for fishing, transportation, and hydroelectricity. The combination of pollutants, overfishing, and obstructions in the waters resulted in a sharp decline in the dolphin’s population.
In 2007, an expedition set out to record how many Baiji white dolphins remained in the Yangtze river — only 13 individuals were identified. It wasn’t until 2001, when a Conservation Action Plan (approved by the Chinese government) was created in efforts of protecting the animal. Unfortunately, these efforts were too little, too late.
Again in 2006, a group of researchers teamed up to take the count of Baiji white dolphins. Participants joined from 2 organizations: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Fisheries Research Agency in Japan. Together, they spent 6 weeks searching for signs of the dolphin in the Yangtze — but to no avail. Sadly, it was declared “possibly extinct” at this point, and the last confirmed sighting remains in 2002.
The extinction of the Baiji white dolphin holds particular significance for a couple of reasons. For one, because it was the first well-documented cetacean extinction that was directly caused by human interference. On top of this, it was the first aquatic megafaunal (of larger size) vertebrate that was reported extinct in over 50 years. Previous to that were the extinctions of the Japanese sea lion and the Caribbean monk seal, which both occurred in the 1950’s.