The baiji, a species of river dolphin native to the Yangtze River, has been declared "functionally extinct" after a six-week expedition set up to find one of the animals failed, according to an AP report and the expedition's official website. Another story about the expedition appeared in the Wall Street Journal last week (in syndication here). Scientists put the blame on overfishing and shipping traffic.
River dolphins are amazing creatures. First, they look awesome. Second, they inhabit this curious little niche--relatives of ocean-going dolphins that evolved to life on the lazy river. Third, according to scientists, baiji are "shy and nearly blind." Finally, around the world they inspire some cool legends, often sexual in nature. According to the WSJ, the baiji is featured in an old Chinese "love story, where it turned into a beautiful woman like a mermaid." The pink river dolphins of the Amazon have inspired folk tales in which the dolphins turn into men at night, seduce human women, and impregnate them. (Interesting gender differences between those myths.)
Enough fun, though. I was really sad to read this news. Such a great, interesting animal gone forever because of what people do. Even if one or a few individuals turn up over the next few decades, the baiji is effectively lost. There are certainly not enough to constitute a sustainable population.