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Journal of Marine Biology
Volume 2012, Article ID 718935, 11 pages
Review Article

River Cetaceans and Habitat Change: Generalist Resilience or Specialist Vulnerability?

1Ocean Giants Program, Wildlife Conservation Society, 2300 Southern Boulevard, Bronx, NY 10460, USA
2Okapi Wildlife Associates, 27 Chandler Lane, Hudson, QC, Canada J0P 1H0

Received 5 February 2012; Revised 13 March 2012; Accepted 14 March 2012

Academic Editor: E.C.M. (Chris) Parsons

Copyright © 2012 Brian D. Smith and Randall R. Reeves. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


River dolphins are among the world’s most threatened mammals, and indeed the baiji (Lipotes vexillifer), a species endemic to China's Yangtze River, is likely extinct. Exploitation for products such as meat, oil, and skins has been a lesser feature in the population histories of river dolphins compared to most large mammals. Habitat factors are therefore of particular interest and concern. In this paper we attempt to describe the population-level responses of river dolphins to habitat transformation. We find circumstantial but compelling evidence supporting the view that, at a local scale, river dolphins are opportunists (generalists) capable of adapting to a wide range of habitat conditions while, at a river basin scale, they are more appropriately viewed as vulnerable specialists. The same evidence implies that the distributional responses of river dolphins to basinwide ecological change can be informative about their extinction risk, while their local behaviour patterns may provide important insights about critical ecological attributes. Empirical studies are needed on the ecology of river cetaceans, both to inform conservation efforts on behalf of these threatened animals and to help address broader concerns related to biodiversity conservation and the sustainability of human use in several of the world's largest river systems.