Accidentally drowning in gill nets used by fishers have dwindled the population of the world’s most endangered cetacean: the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a rare species of porpoise found in the Gulf of California. A team of scientists estimates there are now less than 100 vaquita and the species is in great danger of extinction.
The vaquita is closely related to the harbour porpoise, which serves as a unique model of this highly endangered species for research into sensory perception, physiology, and immune function – all essential factors in understanding how we may help save vaquita from the threats of fisheries.
Our team has been working with veterinarians and professional experts from across North America to conduct detailed auditory evaluations on our rescued harbour porpoises Jack and Daisy. We have started to catalogue a library of diseases that porpoise are susceptible to based on information from our stranded animals.
When rescued harbour porpoise, Levi, was released last year, we were able to track his movement, diving behaviour and habitat use with a satellite-linked tag, which has also contributed to the body of knowledge that may help to better understand the vaquita.
Jack and Daisy are involved in important new training, including “speed swims” which will help us start designing studies into how porpoises move and maneuver. Jack and Daisy have also helped us evaluate methods for detecting porpoise movement patterns and identification in the wild.
Our Pacific white-sided dolphins have also contributed to cutting edge research involving fishing gear detection and avoidance. As our animal husbandry team prepares to include Jack and Daisy in similar research, we hope this will further inform scientists on how the vaquita uses echolocation to navigate their habitat.
Reproductive physiology research is vital to understanding a population’s ability to recover. Jack and Daisy are ideally positioned in helping us evaluate reproduction. We hope to contribute our learning to help the international teams working to save the vaquita.