Baiji Dolphin Profile
The river dolphin known as the Goddess of the Yangtze was said to offer protection and spread peace and prosperity.
Ironically, there’s little that symbolizes the empty virtue of mythology and the need for real, concrete efforts in conservation better than the case of the Baiji dolphin also often reffered to as the Yangtze river dolphin.
The freshwater dolphin native to the Yangtze river system in China is thought to be the first species of dolphin to be driven to extinction due to human impact.
Baiji Dolphin Facts Overview
|Location:||1,700 kilometre stretch of the Yangtze river system in China|
|Size:||Up to 8.8 ft (2.7 m)|
|Weight:||Up to 230 kg (507 lb)|
|Color:||Pale blue/gray with a white belly|
|No. of Species:
||Critically endangered, likely extinct|
This small, freshwater dolphin that is also sometimes called the Chinese river dolphin, the Han river dolphin, or Yangtze dolphin – hasn’t been spotted in over two decades.
The relentless exploitation and destruction of its habitat have likely caused the end of a 20-million-year lineage of intelligent, social river dolphins its example should ring alarm bells for all of those species who are experiencing a similar trajectory.
We knew so little about them, but the cause of their decline is undeniable. Here are some of the things that we’ve lost with the demise of the Baiji.
Interesting Baiji Dolphin Facts
1. They were mostly blind
River dolphins are a strange bunch. They’ve evolved to live in a very difficult environment relative to their marine cousins and this has brought them some interesting adaptations.
For one thing, the water is a lot cloudier. As such, river species have lost most of their sight – it’s just not much use in the murk of the river.
They’ve also evolved to handle life in water with low salinity – something that can be as difficult as living in saltwater.
Females are larger than males; the opposite is generally true in marine dolphins. And river dolphins have a mobile neck, giving them better flexibility than their seafaring equivalents.
They’re smaller, reflecting a habitat with less space in it, and their language and hearing are very complex. They’re even well-equipped to hearing outside of the water.
2. They slept while floating
Sleeping in the ocean is tricky for air-breathing animals, but these dolphins are able to float at the surface with their blowholes exposed, and have been seen closing their eyes to snooze there.
Unlike some other dolphin species, they don’t need to keep moving, and will sleep motionless throughout much of the night. 1
3. They had an extra chamber in their stomach
This three-chambered stomach appears to be unique among cetacean species, and is one of the characteristics that led to the Baiji being classified in its own family.
Researchers never managed to figure out the significance of this adaptation, but it did appear to be distinctly different. The forestomach in all river dolphins is missing, but most have two chambers in the main stomach – Baiji have three.
Understanding the purpose of these adaptations is more than just a matter of curiosity. Conservationists are tasked with coming up with novel and imaginative ways to look after species, so anything that could give clues to an animal’s diet or behaviour can be invaluable to its protection.
Sadly, in this instance, the relevant details for this animal were too elusive. 2
4. They were playful
All dolphins show remarkable intelligence and sociality in the wild, and the Baiji was no different. They were seen chasing one another, swimming belly-up in the shallows and even jumping out of the water; all behaviours that were attributed to play.
In captivity, they were happy to play with rubber balls and toys. 3
5. They had deep voices
As compensation for their loss of vision, the river dolphins all have sophisticated echolocation abilities. The melon on their heads is well-developed to send out and receive short, sharp clicks that penetrate the suspended sediment and paint a picture of their dark environment.
These clicks are very similar in quality to the bottlenose dolphin and used for the same purpose, but the Baiji sends out lower-frequency equivalents. This seems counter-intuitive because with sonar, high frequency is generally better in shallow waters, and lower frequencies penetrate deeper.
But while imaging is better with high frequencies, detection improves at lower frequencies, suggesting that the river dolphins adapted to a more congested environment with more obstacles to scatter the sound.
The sonar of river dolphins is also quieter than that of their open ocean cousins, which has proven to be a significant handicap in an environment that has become so polluted by the noise of human development. 4
6. They were highly regarded
The legend of the Baiji comes from a myth of a beautiful young girl who escaped from a boat when her stepfather was taking her across the river to sell her. A storm sank the boat, and the girl turned into the river dolphin, traditionally called the Goddess of the Yangtze.
The animals were said to be infused with human suffering and death, and they became a symbol of peace, protection and prosperity; virtues that the dolphins themselves were tragically not afforded by the communities in modern times. 5
7. Nobody has seen one in over 20 years
In 2006, an extensive survey took place up the Yangtze, trying to find these rare and endangered dolphins. None came up, and while there have been witness reports, no photos or sonar recordings have been able to corroborate them.
A new survey was planned to take place, but there’s no news yet. It seems that, while listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, the species is likely to have gone extinct.
More recently in 2016, a publisher named Song Qi claims to have witnessed a baiji during a 7 day search of the river.
“No other creature could jump out of the Yangtze like that. All the eyewitnesses – which include fishermen – felt certain that it was a baiji.”
8. It’s our fault
This species of dolphin was hunted for its meat and skin, and a handbag factory was even set up to process them. But even after direct persecution stopped, overfishing in the river drowned Baiji in huge numbers and wiped out their feeding grounds.
While this might seem like a distant and helpless scenario for many of us on the other side of the planet, the same story is playing out in our rivers and oceans everywhere. A third of river fish species may be facing extinction, and as bad as it’s getting in the oceans, freshwater biodiversity is dropping at twice the rate.
Our lack of concern for those who live in our waters is compounded by our lack of knowledge about them and how to protect them. Reducing our reliance on animal products both helps the animals directly and reduces factors such as agricultural run-off that toxifies and alters the chemistry in their delicate habitats.
We all need to take steps to raise awareness and lead by example when it comes to preventing the species we have left from following in the footsteps of the Goddess of the Yangtze. 8
Baiji Dolphin Fact-File Summary
Fact Sources & References
- Wolfgang Gewalt et al. (1994), “Comparative studies on the behaviour of Inia Geoffrensis and Lipotes Vexillifer in articial environments“, Aquatic Mammals.
- ZHOU, K. (2002), “Marine mammal research and conservation in China“, Fisheries Science.
- Chen, P., & Wang, D. (1988), “The Chinese river dolphin, Lipotes vexillifer“, Endeavour.
- Akamatsu, T., Wang, D., Nakamura, K., & Wang, K. (1998), “Echolocation range of captive and free-ranging baiji (Lipotes vexillifer), finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides), and bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)“, The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.
- Matt Stanfield (2017), “Deicide on the Long River: The Story of the Baiji“, Remembrance Day For Lost Species.
- China Daily (2002), “Rescue Plan Prepared for Yangtze River Dolphins“, China.org.cn.
- Shami Sivasubramanian (2016), “An ‘extinct’ dolphin has been spotted in the Yangtze river“, SBS.
- WWF (2021), “One third of freshwater fish threatened with extinction, new report warns“, WWF.