Vaquita / Gulf of California Harbor Porpoise

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Vaquita (see image notes below). © Chris Johnson – earthOCEAN, www.vaquita.tv

 

The vaquita (Phocoena sinus), also known as the Gulf of California harbor porpoise, cochito or Marsopa vaquita is the smallest cetacean. It is also one of the most endangered, with only about 250 remaining.

The word vaquita means "small cow" in Spanish. Its species name, sinus is Latin for "gulf" or "bay," referring to the vaquita's small range, which is restricted to coastal waters off the Baja Peninsula in Mexico.

Vaquitas were discovered fairly recently - the species was first identified based on skulls in 1958 and live specimens were not observed until 1985. You can read more about the vaquita's discovery here.

Description:

Vaquitas are about 4-5 feet long, and weigh about 65-120 pounds.

Vaquitas are gray, with darker gray on their back and lighter gray on their underside. They have a black eye ring, lips and chin, and pale face. Vaquitas lighten in color as they age. They also have a recognizable triangular-shaped dorsal fin.

Vaquitas are shy around vessels, and typically are found singly, in pairs or in small groups of 7-10 animals. They may stay underwater for a long time. The combination of these characteristics can make vaquitas difficult to find in the wild.

Classification:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Subphylum: Vertebrata
  • Superclass: Gnathostomata, Tetrapoda
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Subclass: Theria
  • Order: Cetartiodactyla
  • Suborder: Cetancodonta
  • Suborder: Odontoceti
  • Infraorder: Cetacea
  • Superfamily: Odontoceti
  • Family: Phocoenidae
  • Genus: Phocoena
  • Species: sinus

 

Habitat and Distribution:

Vaquitas have one of the most limited home ranges of all cetaceans. They live in the northern end of the Gulf of California, off the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, in murky, shallow waters within about 13.5 miles of shore.

Click here for a sightings map.

Feeding:

Vaquitas feed on schooling fish, crustaceans and cephalopods.

Like other odontocetes, they find their prey using echolocation, which is similar to sonar. The vaquita emits high frequency sound pulses from an organ (the melon) in its head. The sound waves bounce off objects around them and are received back into the dolphin's lower jaw, transmitted to the inner ear and interpreted to determine the size, shape, location and distance of prey.

Vaquitas are toothed whales, and use their spade-shaped teeth to capture their prey. They have 16-22 pairs of teeth in their upper jaw and 17-20 pairs in their lower jaw.

Reproduction:

Vaquitas are sexually mature at about 3-6 years of age. Vaquitas mate in April-May and calves are born in the months of February-April after a 10-11 month gestation period. Calves are about 2.5 feet long and weigh about 16.5 pounds at birth.

The maximum known lifespan of an individual vaquita was a female who lived 21 years.

Conservation:

There are an estimated 245 vaquitas remaining (according to a 2008 study), and the population may be declining by as much as 15% each year. They are listed as "critically endangered" on the IUCN Red List.

One of the biggest threats to vaquitas is entanglement or being caught as bycatch in fishing gear, with an estimated 30-85 vaquitas taken incidentally by fisheries each year (Source: NOAA).

The Mexican government began developing a Vaquita Recovery Plan in 2007, putting efforts into place to protect the vaquita, although they continue to be affected by fishing. Click here to learn how you can help vaquitas.

References and Further Information:

Image Notes: Vaquita photo © Chris Johnson – earthOCEAN, www.vaquita.tv. Photos and video taken under permit (Oficio No. DR/847/08 ) from the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP/Secretaría del Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), within a natural protected area subject to special management and decreed as such by the Mexican Government. This work was made possible thanks to the collaboration and support of the Coordinador de Investigación y Conservación de Mamíferos Marinos at the Instiuto Nacional de Ecología (INE).

 

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Your Citation
Kennedy, Jennifer. "Vaquita / Gulf of California Harbor Porpoise." ThoughtCo, Feb. 19, 2016, thoughtco.com/vaquita-facts-2291484. Kennedy, Jennifer. (2016, February 19). Vaquita / Gulf of California Harbor Porpoise. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/vaquita-facts-2291484 Kennedy, Jennifer. "Vaquita / Gulf of California Harbor Porpoise." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/vaquita-facts-2291484 (accessed February 22, 2018).