Earth is not just losing some of its rarest species — but some of the weirdest.
We don’t have to go to Europa or Titan to find strange creatures lurking in the water. With a snout that looks like an alien probe, a huge gulping mouth, and ironically tiny eyes, the Chinese paddlefish could have easily qualified as an extraterrestrial life form to anyone who didn’t know that it lived on our planet. The unfortunate thing is that one hasn’t been found in the wild since 2003 (and something 23 feet long should be pretty easy to see). Now the behemoth fish is this year’s first species to be declared extinct.
Not only was the Chinese paddlefish fascinating, but the Yangtze River creature that earned the Mandarin nickname xiang yu or “elephant fish” (from that impressive nose) was also one of the largest freshwater fish species ever. Furthermore, it was a living fossil like the coelacanth.
“The Chinese paddlefish, Psephurus gladius, was one of only two extant members of a relict lineage that was most diverse and widespread 34–75 million years ago,” said Hui Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences in Wuhan, China, in a study recently published in Science of the Total Environment.
The paddlefish started disappearing in the late 1970s as a result of overfishing and habitat loss. When the Gezhouba Dam was built in 1981, it trapped any fish below it and prevented them from swimming upstream to spawn. Making it onto the list of China’s most threatened animals in 1989 hardly helped. Zhang and his research team believe it became functionally extinct, or unable to breed in its natural habitat, around 1993. Based on the number of sightings from 1981 through 2003, they estimate that it went extinct sometime between 2005 and 2010. Exhaustive surveys of China’s rivers yielded nothing for years.
“It is likely that the lack of reproduction was among the major causes of extinction,” Zhang and his colleagues said. “As no individuals exist in captivity, and no living tissues are conserved for potential resurrection, the fish should be considered extinct according to the IUCN Red List criteria.”
The paddlefish might have been saved if someone had taken action when it became functionally extinct. This loss is a wake-up call for Chinese scientists to keep an eye on other endangered Yangtze River species, such as the Yangtze River dolphin and Chinese alligator. Hopefully, these Earthly “aliens” still have a chance to survive.