Vaquita… that’s a type of Mexican food, right?
No, that’s a taquito
. A vaquita, or Phocoena sinus
, as the scientist
s prefer to call it, is the world’s smallest living cetacean
. It is also one of the most endangered
in the world; in 1996, the IUCN
placed the vaquita on its Critically Endangered
list. What is known about the vaquita as a species
is collated from data collected from less than fifty individuals.
So, if I can’t eat it, then what does it eat?
Although little is known about the species as a whole, the contents of one vaquita’s stomach turned out the remains of grunts, gulf croakers, and squid, leading scientists to believe that its diet consists of… well, fish and squid.
Okay, but what does it look like?
As the world’s smallest cetacean, the vaquita weighs in at about 120 pounds and resembles the common porpoise. Females measure up to about five feet (1.5m) in length, and males measure up to about four and a half feet (1.4m). They are a light grey, with a lighter underside than top. There is darker coloring around each eye and around the mouth, and a dark grey stripe running from chin to pectoral fin.
They are very shy, avoiding boats, and not particularly active. When they surface to breathe, they barely disturb the surface, then don’t surface again for a long time.
Female vaquita probably reach sexual maturity when they grow to about four and a half feet (1.3m), giving birth to one calf in late March or early April.
So what about its habitat? Where does it live?
Found only in the northern end of the Gulf of California in Mexico, most vaquita sightings occur in shallow water (33-92’/10-28m) within about 16 miles (25km) of shore. It is estimated that the number of individuals remaining numbers somewhere in the mid hundreds, and they are usually seen in groups of one to five, although groups of up to ten have also been recorded.
So why is it endangered?
The major culprit in the vaquita’s decline is unintended. They are known to die in fishing nets that have been set for fish, sharks, and rays, and have also been known to be caught and killed in commercial shrimp trawls. Pesticide pollution and reduced water flow from the Colorado River into the Gulf of California are also suspected of playing roles in their decline.