Jun 15
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Endangered Species of the Week: Hector’s dolphin

Photo of Hector's dolphin pod

Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori)

Species: Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori)

Status: Endangered (EN)

Interesting Fact: Hector’s dolphin produces high-frequency clicks, but unlike many other dolphins it does not whistle.

Found only in New Zealand, Hector’s dolphin is one of the smallest and rarest of all marine dolphins. This species is generally light grey with darker stripes, and has a black tail, flippers and rounded dorsal fin. Females tend to be slightly larger than males. Hector’s dolphin usually occurs in small groups of up to ten individuals, but these may sometimes join together into larger aggregations. This small dolphin is found in shallow coastal waters where it feeds on fish and squid. It has one of the most restricted distributions of any cetacean, occurring mostly around the South Island of New Zealand, with a subspecies, Maui’s dolphin, found only off the west coast of the North Island.

The major threat to Hector’s dolphin comes from accidental capture in gillnets. Its coastal habitat also makes it vulnerable to other human impacts, including pollution, boat strikes and habitat modification. The South Island population of Hector’s dolphin numbers just over 7,000 individuals, but Maui’s dolphin is down to only around 55 adults, and is classified as Critically Endangered. The New Zealand government has created two protected areas for Hector’s dolphin, where the use of nets is restricted, and a management plan is in place which outlines measures to reduce the threats to this tiny cetacean.

 

Find out more about Hector’s dolphin at the New Zealand Department of Conservation, WWF New Zealand and the New Zealand Whale and Dolphin Trust.

See images and videos of Hector’s dolphin on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Jun 12
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ARKive’s Top Ten Whales and Dolphins

Last weekend marked World Oceans Day, a day dedicated to celebrating the beauty and bounty that our oceans provide, and raising awareness of the importance of protecting them. Here at ARKive, we’ve been inspired by the watery realm, and thought we’d honour our fellow mammals by submerging ourselves in the wonderful world of whales and dolphins.

Winged whale

Humpback whale image

An instantly recognisable species, the humpback whale is named for the distinctive ‘hump’ formed by its back as it prepares to dive. Its long flippers, another characteristic feature, can grow up to five metres in length, and contribute to this vocal cetacean’s scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, which means ‘big-winged New Englander’.

Marine misnomer

Orca image

Orcas are easily distinguishable by their striking black and white markings and their imposing, triangular dorsal fin. Interestingly, these fascinating marine mammals have a rather misleading alternative name – killer whales. While they are certainly efficient predators, they are not whales and are, in fact, the largest members of the dolphin family. Orcas usually hunt in pods, although individuals from some populations are known to deliberately beach themselves in order to snatch sea lions resting on the beach before wriggling back to sea with their prey.

Social cetacean

Dusky dolphin image

The charismatic dusky dolphin is a highly social species, sometimes being found in pods of over 1,000 individuals and frequently associating with other cetacean species. This beautiful marine mammal is said to be one of the most acrobatic of all dolphins, often making energetic leaps out of the water and performing impressive tumbles in the air.

Underwater unicorn

Narwhal image

There’s no mistaking the unique narwhal, a species famed for the hugely elongated tooth or ‘tusk’ which protrudes from its upper lip. The longest of these incredible appendages was recorded at over 2.5 metres in length, and the males use these bodily weapons in jousting bouts. The narwhal is found throughout the waters of the Arctic, as well as in the northern Atlantic Ocean, and it tends to stay close to pack ice.

Cerebral cetaceans

Bottlenose dolphin image

Quite possibly the most famous of all cetaceans, the bottlenose dolphin is much-loved by many. This extremely intelligent species is highly social, and uses a wide range of clicks and whistles to communicate with other members of its pod. Like some other species of cetacean, the bottlenose dolphin seeks out prey using echolocation, and individuals in a pod will work together as a team to round up schools of fish into tight balls upon which the dolphins can feed. When not chasing prey or performing impressive leaps, dolphins are able to rest one side of their brain at a time. This allows them to sleep while remaining conscious enough to surface and breathe.

Moby Dick

Sperm whale image

The strange-looking sperm whale can be forgiven for having such a bulbous head, given that it has the largest and heaviest brain of any living animal! And its record-breaking statistics don’t stop there – capable of diving for up to two hours at a time, the sperm whale can dive to depths of 3,000 metres, making it the deepest-diving mammal. The largest of the toothed whales, the sperm whale is famed in literature as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but sadly it is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, primarily as a result of historic and present-day hunting.

Sea scars

Risso's dolphin image

A somewhat unusual-looking mammal, Risso’s dolphin can be identified by its long, pointed flippers, bulbous, beakless head, and the conspicuous scars present all over its body. These markings are thought to be caused by bites from other individuals of its kind during playing or fighting, but some scars could be the result of squid bites.

White whale

Beluga whale image

Although it is also known as the white whale, the beluga whale is actually born with dark grey to bluish- or brownish-grey colouration, only achieving the striking white hue as it matures. It is one of just a few cetaceans with a flexible neck, and it is capable of pursing its lips to suck up prey. The beluga whale is sometimes referred to as the sea canary because of the high-pitched twittering noises it produces.

On the brink

Baiji image

The baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, is a very shy and graceful freshwater dolphin species with a very long, narrow, slightly upturned beak and small eyes placed high on the face. Sadly, it is thought that the Critically Endangered baiji could actually now be extinct. In 1999, only four individuals of its kind were observed, and an intensive search of its range in 2006 resulted in none being seen. The major threats to the baiji are considered to be illegal fishing using electricity, and being caught as bycatch in fishing nets.

Ocean giant

Blue whale image

We couldn’t possibly finish this round-up of ten incredible cetaceans without including the biggest of them all – the blue whale! The biggest animal to have ever lived, the blue whale has a heart the size of a small car and is capable of eating more than 4 tonnes of krill per day during the summer months. Whereas some cetacean species communicate using a series of high-pitched clicks and whistles, the blue whale produces a variety of low-frequency sounds, which may also serve the purpose of sensing the environment and detecting prey.

Is your favourite whale or dolphin not featured here? Then why not comment below to let us know what it is and why you love it!

If you’re looking for a fun challenge, check out ARKive’s ocean-themed scavenger hunt – there may well be a few cetaceans hidden in there!

Find out more about whale and dolphin conservation:

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Jun 10
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In the News: Mexico takes a positive step towards saving world’s rarest marine mammal

The Mexican government has approved an important measure which aims to protect the vaquita, a porpoise species thought to be the world’s rarest and most threatened marine mammal.

Vaquita image

The vaquita is classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List

Critically Endangered

The vaquita is the smallest porpoise species in the world, reaching a maximum length of just 1.5 metres, and is the only cetacean endemic to Mexico, being found only in the upper Gulf of California.

Sadly, it also has the unfortunate distinction of being the most threatened marine mammal. Classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the vaquita is struggling for survival as a result of becoming entangled in gill nets and trawl nets cast by commercial and artisanal fisheries to catch shrimps and fish, including sharks. It is estimated that between 39 and 84 vaquitas drown as bycatch every year, which is a worryingly high number given that, in 2007, only an estimated 150 individuals of this species remained.

Positive action

Fortunately, according to WWF-Mexico, positive action is now being taken to promote sustainable fisheries in the vaquita’s range, in measures which will benefit the species as well as fishermen and their families. A new regulation will establish shrimping standards in Mexico, and will define the types of fishing gear permitted in different zones of the country.

Vaquita image

Drowning in fishing nets is the main threat to the vaquita

An official norm

The new regulation, known as an ‘official norm’, has come into play as a result of a WWF petition to Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto. Signed by an impressive 38,000 people from 127 countries, the petition requested that measures be established to protect the vaquita whilst also ensuring that fishermen can continue to earn a living through sustainable fishing.

With this norm, drift gillnets – one of the nets used in artisanal shrimping operations in which vaquitas die incidentally – will be gradually substituted, during a three year period, for selective fishing gears that do not kill this porpoise, but that allow fishers to keep earning their livelihoods,” said Omar Vidal, WWF-Mexico’s Director General.

The effective application of the norm requires the participation and commitment of local fishermen. The optimal use of the net requires the development of particular skills; therefore, the support of the government and other organizations through training and temporary compensation programs will be essential along the fisher’s learning curve.”

This positive action represents a major opportunity to promote sustainable fisheries in the Gulf of California region, whilst simultaneously protecting an endemic threatened species.

View more photos of the vaquita on ARKive.

To learn more about protecting our marine environment, visit the World Oceans Day page or take part in ARKive’s ocean-themed virtual scavenger hunt.

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

May 24
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ARKive’s Top Ten Animals of the North American Plains

Many of you will have been as excited as we were to see Discovery’s latest series – ‘North America’ – burst onto our screens last week in a dazzling spectacle starring the world’s most accomplished performer: nature. The incredible footage of captivating landscapes and an impressive array of wildlife inspired us to delve further into North America’s natural history, so we’re bringing you a collection of some of the fascinating species that live in one of the continent’s most iconic ecosystems – the Great Plains.

With the Interior Lowland to the east and the Rocky Mountains to the west, the Great Plains stretch across ten US states, including Colorado, Wyoming and Oklahoma, and up into parts of Canada, covering an area of approximately 2.9 million square kilometres. Roughly equivalent to a third of the United States, this broad expanse of flat land encompasses grassland, steppe and prairie habitats which were once covered with grasses and beautiful wild flowers. The Great Plains have undergone a big transformation over the years, with settlers bringing agriculture to the area, but they are still home to some interesting wildlife.

American bison

American bison image

North America’s largest mammal, and one of the continent’s most iconic species, the American bison once helped shape the Great Plains, influencing grass composition and the availability of habitat for a multitude of other species as it roamed across the grasslands in vast herds. However, while it historically had the widest natural range of any North American herbivore, the American bison is now restricted to small wildlife refuges and a few national parks, free-roaming over less than one percent of its original range. As a result of changes in land use, this tough species, with its characteristic towering shoulder hump and short, up-curving horns, is now no longer migratory, although it does still move in response to the availability of food.

Black-tailed prairie dog

Black-tailed prairie dog image

The highly social black-tailed prairie dog is actually not a dog at all but is, in fact, a species of stout, ground-dwelling squirrel. It is named for the dog-like ‘yip’ that it uses to communicate with other members of its extensive colony. Black-tailed prairie dog colonies, known as ‘towns’, have a complex structure and can contain from hundreds to millions of individuals which share an elaborate network of burrows; the largest recorded colony covered an area of 65,000 square kilometres! These huge underground tunnel systems are useful to the ecosystem in which they are found, as they aerate the soil and enable water to reach several feet below the surface of the plains.

Western diamond-backed rattlesnake

Western diamond-backed rattlesnake image

A species frequently associated with the arid southern United States, the western diamond-backed rattlesnake can be found on the grassy plains, as well as in woodland and deserts. As implied by its name, this species has a striking skin pattern, but its most distinctive feature is the tail rattle. This is formed of loosely connected segments of dead keratin, which produce a rattling sound as they knock together when the tail is vibrated. The western diamond-backed rattlesnake is highly venomous, dispatching its prey within seconds, and the toxic venom also plays a part in digesting its victims.

Coyote

Coyote image

The coyote, one of North America’s most resourceful and adaptable predators, is known for its piercing nocturnal howl, which can be heard across the plains at night. Understandably, given its appearance, this canine species is often confused with the red wolf and the grey wolf, as well as the domestic dog. Interestingly, coyotes have been recorded to form unlikely hunting partnerships with American badgers, with the coyote locating rodents with its acute sense of smell and the badger excavating the burrow to flush out the prey.

Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly image

The striking monarch butterfly is perhaps one of the best-known butterfly species, and is renowned for its spectacular, long-distance annual migrations. This species is well suited to its environment, with the bright orange, black and white colouration on the upper parts of the wing serving as a warning to predators that it is poisonous, and the duller orange undersurface enabling the monarch butterfly to camouflage itself against tree bark when at rest.

Burrowing owl

Burrowing owl image

The burrowing owl is unique among owls in that it nests underground. This unusual owl species usually inhabits holes made by mammals such as prairie dogs, but will occasionally excavate its own nesting site. Another intriguing aspect of the burrowing owl is its method of finding prey; it deposits mammal dung around its burrow, which acts as attractive bait for the beetles it feeds on.

Black-footed ferret

Black-footed ferret image

The black-footed ferret is the only ferret native to North America, and has a fascinating conservation story. Once common throughout the Great Plains, this species was believed to be extinct in the 1970s, until a small wild population was discovered in 1981. The last remaining 18 black-footed ferrets were taken into captivity for captive breeding purposes in the mid-1980s, and by 1987 it was considered to be extinct in the wild. However, although still one of the world’s rarest mammals, thanks to conservation efforts the black-footed ferret now exists in populations in eight western states of the USA, as well as in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Lesser prairie-chicken

Lesser prairie-chicken image

Perhaps a less well-known species of the Great Plains, the lesser prairie-chicken is actually a medium-sized grouse, despite its name. Male lesser prairie-chickens have rather conspicuous bright yellow eye combs above the eye, and dull red ‘air sacs’ on the side of the neck which are inflated during their elaborate courtship displays. This species has what is known as a ‘lekking’ system, where the male performs a display in an area called a ‘lek’ and the female selects a mate. Lesser prairie-chickens can look rather comical during courtship displays, as they erect a tuft of elongated feathers on each side of the neck and make short jumps into the air.

Ornate box turtle

Ornate box turtle image

The ornate box turtle gets its name from its patterned shell, the two parts of which can be completely closed thanks to a special hinge, enabling the turtle to completely withdraw its head and feet into a protective ‘box’. There are two subspecies of the ornate box turtle, with one inhabiting plains and gently rolling open grasslands and the other tending to prefer more arid habitats including semi-desert and desert. Male and female ornate box turtles can be distinguished by the colour of their eyes; male ornate box turtles have red eyes, and females have yellowish-brown eyes.

Pronghorn

Pronghorn image

Although it looks much like an antelope, the pronghorn actually belongs to its own unique family, and is endemic to North America. The distinctive horns for which this species is named are interesting in that they consist of a keratin sheath on a bony core, like those seen in bovids, but are forked and have an outer layer which is shed annually, as in deer species. The pronghorn also has the distinction of being the fastest terrestrial mammal in the Americas, renowned for reaching top speeds of up to 86 kilometres per hour.

Find out more about the North American Plains:

Find out about Discovery’s new series – North America:

Find out more about North American species:

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

May 17
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Endangered Species Day 2013

With a third of the world’s amphibians, a quarter of all mammals and one in eight birds thought to be endangered, raising the public profile of these species and their plight is essential if we are to succeed in rescuing these species from the brink of extinction.  
 
Endangered Species Day, which was started by the United States Senate back in 2006, gives people the chance to learn about the importance of protecting endangered species through events and activities, and highlights the everyday actions that everybody can take to help protect the natural world. 
 

This year Endangered Species Day is on the 17th of May and here at ARKive to show our support we have decided to showcase some of the less well known endangered species.

Greater bamboo lemur 

Once widespread throughout Madagascar, the greater bamboo lemur is now restricted to just 1-4% of its historic range. The largest of the bamboo lemurs, this species was believed to be extinct for almost 50 years until it was rediscovered in 1972. The main threats to the greater bamboo lemur is habitat destruction by slash and burn agriculture, mining and illegal logging.  

Spoon-billed sandpiper

The spoon-billed sandpiper is a small, attractive bird with a distinctive spoon-shaped bill. As this species has very particular habitat requirements, only breeding in coastal areas with sand and sparse vegetation within six kilometres of the sea, habitat loss and alteration have greatly impacted upon it. Recent population surveys have shown that numbers of this species are declining rapidly. However, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust are taking action to save this species by setting up a conservation breeding programme to buy some time while the major problems are tackled.

Tonkin snub-nosed monkey 

Presumed to be extinct before its rediscovery in 1989, the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey is an unusual and distinctive-looking monkey. With its broad, flattened face, pale blue rings around the eyes and thick, pink lips, it almost has a comical appearance. The range of the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey has been greatly reduced by massive deforestation and intensive hunting. The total population of this monkey may number only around 200 to 250 individuals, and these are fragmented into small subpopulations which are unable to interbreed.

Vaquita

The vaquita is a small and slender porpoise species endemic to Mexico. In 2007 it was estimated that only about 150 vaquitas remained in the world. The main threat to this species is drowning after becoming entangled in gill nets and trawl nets, which is estimated to be claiming the lives of 39 to 84 vaquitas each year.

Chinese giant salamander

 Growing up to 1.8 metres in length, the Chinese giant salamander holds the record for being the largest salamander in the world. This fully aquatic amphibian is well adapted to its lifestyle in the mountain streams of China. As a result of habitat alteration, stream pollution and over-collection for its flesh, which is considered a delicacy in Asia, populations of the Chinese giant salamander have dropped by more than 80% since the 1960s. 
 

 

Ploughshare tortoise 

Endemic to Madagascar, the ploughshare tortoise is one of the rarest land tortoises in the world. Classified as Critically Endangered, this tortoise faces several threats, including habitat loss from bush fires and predation of eggs and young by the introduced bush pig. The primary threat to the ploughshare tortoise is illegal collection for the international pet trade, which has escalated in recent years. This situation is made worse due to this species’ slow growth rate and low breeding potential, which reduces the ability of populations to recover.
 

Coco-de-mer

A giant of the plant world, the coco-de-mer is a palm species which produces the largest and heaviest seeds of any plant in the world. Endemic to the Seychelles, the Endangered coco-de-mer has already been lost from three of the Seychelles islands in its former range. The main threat to this plant species is the collection of its seeds, which has almost stopped all natural regeneration of population’s.

Saola

The saola is an unusual, long-horned bovid which was discovered as recently as 1992. The entire range of the saola is found in a narrow area of forest on the border between Vietnam and Laos. Classified as Critically Endangered, the saola is increasingly threatened as a result of hunting, as well as habitat loss and habitat fragmentation due to the development of infrastructure within its small range.   

Titicaca water frog

Endemic to Lake Titicaca, the Titicaca water frog is the largest truly aquatic frog and can weigh up to 1 kg. While its extremely loose skin gives it a bizarre appearance, the skin is very rich in capillaries, enabling the frog to remain underwater without having to surface for air. Unfortunately, the Titicaca water frog is under great threat as a result of over-collection for human consumption.

Estuarine pipefish

Believed to be extinct in the early 1990s until being rediscovered in 1995, the estuarine pipefish is still at risk of extinction. The loss of this pipefish from the majority of its former range is thought to be due to construction of upstream dams. These developments restrict the supply of fresh water which brings with it essential nutrients required by the phytoplankton upon which the food chain depends.

 These are just a few of the species which need our help – find out more about endangered species by visiting our Endangered Species topic page.

Jemma Pealing, ARKive Researcher

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