The Chinese paddlefish, one of world’s largest fish, has gone extinct

The Chinese paddlefish and its close relatives have been around for at least 200 million years. The species, reaching up to 23 feet in length, survived unimaginable changes and upheavals, such as the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs and marine reptiles like plesiosaurs that it swam alongside. In its time, flowering plants evolved, and came to populate the shores of its ancestral home, the Yangtze River, in modern-day China

Much later, bamboo came on the scene, and well after that, giant pandas. In the last few thousand years, a blink in evolutionary time, the land filled with people, and China became the most populous country on Earth. In the muddy waters of the Yangtze, the paddlefish lived as it had for eons, using its special sword-like snout to sense electrical activity to find prey, such as crustaceans and fish

But there’s one phenomenon this ancient species, sometimes called the “panda of the Yangtze,” could not survive—humans. A new paper published in the Science of the Total Environment concludes that the species has gone extinct, mainly due to overfishing and dam construction

It’s “a reprehensible and an irreparable loss,” says study leader Qiwei Wei of the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences, who’s been looking for the animal for decades

Chinese paddlefish (Psephurus gladius) had a long sword-like rostrum, a snout-like structure packed with cells to detect electrical activity in prey animals such as crustaceans

It’s very sad,” adds Zeb Hogan, a fish biologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, and a National Geographic Explorer who wasn’t involved in the study. “It’s the definitive loss of a very unique and extraordinary animal, with no hope of recovery

Hogan says the paddlefish’s extinction should serve as a wake-up call to protect other freshwater species. Large fish, in which he specializes, are especially at risk: Most of the biggest freshwater animals are threatened with extinction, he says

This is the first of these very large freshwater fish to go and many are at risk—the concern is that more will go extinct, but the hope is that we can reverse their decline before it’s too late,” Hogan says

Long goodbye

But what really did it in, the scientists conclude, were dams—specifically the Gezhouba Dam, built on the main stem of the Yangtze, a little over a thousand miles from the sea. This dam, which was constructed without a fish ladder or bypass, cut off the paddlefish from their only spawning grounds upstream, which had only been discovered in the late 1970

Populations of the fish continued to dwindle after the 1981 dam construction, but nobody had yet figured out how dire the situation was, says Ivan Jaric, a co-author and biologist at Czechia’s Institute of Hydrobiology and the University of South Bohemia. As is often the case, there can be a significant lag between major disturbances and their impact. The researchers estimate the fish had become functionally extinct by 1993, meaning there were not enough fish to meaningfully reproduce

LARGEST FRESHWATER ANIMALS FACE EXTINCTION

The critically endangered Chinese giant salamander, photographed here at the Atlanta Zoo, is the biggest amphibian in the world

Still, sightings continued and several individuals were captured in a series of failed attempts to start a captive-breeding population. In 2002, in Nanjing, a female was captured and urgent efforts were made to save her—but she died a month later

In 2003, Wei and colleagues attached a tracking tag to a Chinese paddlefish that was accidentally captured near Yibin, in south-central China. They released it to see where it might go, but within hours lost all signals from the tag. That was the last of the species ever seen alive