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Baiji or Chinese River Dolphin

(Lipotes vexillifer)

This is the Baiji, also called the Yangtze River Dolphin or Chinese River Dolphin. This dolphin is so well built for efficient living in fresh but murky river water it has survived almost unchanged for 25 million years. But, because of human impacts, fewer than 100 survive today, making this wonderful creature the most endangered cetacean species in the world. While Baiji give birth in April and May, after about 11 months of gestation, no one knows how many Baiji are being born into the dwindling population, but it's not enough. (Photo courtesy of the Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences)
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This is Qi Qi ("chee chee"), who was brought to the Wuhan Institute of Hydrobiology in 1980 after being injured by fishhooks. The combination of Qi Qi's individual ability to thrive in captivity and the care given by anxious Chinese scientists helped him to survive 22 years. He died in July 2002 at the age of 25. Much of what is known about the species, one of the world's four freshwater dolphin species, was learned from Qi Qi. As the impending extinction of his species became clear three female dolphins were captured over several years, to attempt a breeding program with Qi Qi. They all died quickly, apparently unable or unwilling to adapt to the stress of captivity. Efforts to make a "semi-natural reserve" or sanctuary in a river bow, where a few Baiji could be isolated and protected, failed because the remaining Baiji had grown far too wary to be captured. One that was caught and placed in the reserve died entangled in a net. (Photo courtesy of the Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences)
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Why are the Baiji's eyes so small and the jaw so long? Because the Yangtze River's waters are murky and dark, so vision isn't very useful to find other dolphins and prey. Instead, by locating small fish with echolocation, the efficient mouth, lined with small, sharp teeth, makes catching them easy! Qi Qi showed scientists that the Baiji always eats by swallowing the fish headfirst. When you see the spines and fins of some fish this makes great sense. (Photo courtesy of the Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences)
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River dolphins like the Baiji hunt in places where the river's flow is different, such as in eddies formed near joining flows, or on sand bars and mud banks. Actually, the fish they are hunting probably prefer such habitats, which attract the dolphins. This Baiji can flex his body even more than this while swimming slowly, to maneuver quickly and tightly to catch small fish. Groups of up to 15 individuals could be seen years ago, but as they are hard to distinguish and follow, the actual behaviors or motives of groups were very hard to determine. Some individuals and groups move long distances up and down the river, although they may be searching for diminishing resources or avoiding people and nets. (Photo courtesy of the Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences)
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There are so few dolphins left that seeing ten together is a very rare sight, and nothing is known about their social structure. Their lives in the wild are increasingly stressful. Baiji face growing problems with industrial waste, boat propellers, fishing net entanglements, dams, and probably reduced prey resources from degradation of habitat. "Rolling hook" fishing gear is particularly deadly to the Baiji, but so necessary to provide food for the human population that the use cannot be stopped. The Baiji is a "living fossil", nearly unchanged since the Miocene Era. In spite of extraordinary efforts to save the Baiji from becoming extinct, and legal protection since 1949, human impacts are now expected to wipe out the Baiji in two more decades, after 25 million years of successful living in the region. (Photo courtesy of the Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences)
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