The significance of the Yangtse dolphin extinction

Various species are going extinct all the time. What’s so special about the Yangtse river dolphin?

There are lots of species of dolphins – why does the loss of this one matter?

Ecosystems are potentially like houses of cards. The Yangtze has lost its top predator. That shows clearly that the ecosystem is in a state of collapse. It has implications not only for the welfare of other river creatures but also for human welfare and survival. One tenth of the world’s population live in the Yangtze basin and it is human activity – shipping and fishing – that appears to have destroyed the baiji.

As extinctions go, how important is the loss of the baiji?

Very. It is the first large animal to go extinct for 50 years since the disappearance of the Caribbean monk seal, which lived in remote areas of the Caribbean and was last seen in 1952. They had been hunted since the time of Columbus for food and oil. Like many other species, they were destroyed by us.

Is that all?

No. The baiji separated from all other species so many millions of years ago, and had become so distinct, that it qualified as a mammal family in its own right. It is only the fourth entire mammal family to disappear since the time of Columbus, when Europeans began their colonisa-tion of the world. Dr Turvey described it as the “disappearance of a complete branch of the tree of life”.

What were the other major extinctions of the past 500 years?

The three previous mammal families gone from the face of the Earth are the giant lemurs of Madagascar, eliminated in the 17th century, the island shrews of the West Indies, probably wiped out by rats that accompanied Colombus, and the Tasmanian tiger, the last known specimen of which died in captivity in 1936. (The most famous creature to have become extinct in the past 500 years, the dodo, was a bird.)

So there you go. If there was ever an event highlighting the dangers of procrastination, this is it.  

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