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The Ecological Role of the Vaquita, Phocoena sinus, in the Ecosystem of the Northern Gulf of California

Abstract

From an ecosystem management perspective, analysis of the functional roles of species is a challenge. It is valuable to determine which species are irreplaceable within a given community based on their contribution to the system’s organization. This study relates the emergent functional and structural indices of biological groups estimated from a trophic model of the Northern Gulf of California to identify the roles of these groups in the ecosystem context, with a particular focus on the role of the vaquita, an endemic porpoise in critically endangered status. The simulation of removing each group allowed the analysis of the removal’s functional effect on the ecosystem’s global attributes and organization (based on Ulanowicz’s ascendency concept). Groups from lower trophic levels (TL) were more related to complexity indicators, suggesting their contribution to the organization and structure of energy flows in the food web. Groups from intermediate TL had higher values of structural indexes, indicating their function in the control of flows throughout the network. The vaquita along with other marine mammals, aquatic birds, and some species of fish with a high TL contribute in a similar way to the order (for example, ascendency/capacity-of-development ratio) of the system, showing a relatively high value of ascendency (contribution of the group to the organization inherent to the ecosystem) and the change in ecosystem ascendency when they were removed. The vaquita, like marine and coastal birds, plays a small role in the ecosystem. But like them, it does contribute substantially to ecosystem organization. This study thus provides information potentially useful for management in understanding the species’ role and in reducing uncertainty in decision-making.

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Acknowledgments

The authors are thankful for the support received from projects WWF (KH88), SEP-CONACyT (104974, 155900), and SIP-IPN (20121417, 20121444) as well as from the Instituto Politécnico Nacional through the EDI and COFAA programs. FES thanks the Programa de Formación de Investigadores (PIFI) and the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACyT) for the scholarship provided.

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Correspondence to Marjorie Riofrío-Lazo.

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Authors Contributions

MR designed methods, analyzed data and wrote the paper. FA conceived and designed study, analyzed data and reviewed drafts. MZ designed study, analyzed data and reviewed drafts. FE analyzed data. All the authors participated in the interpretation and discussion of the results.

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Riofrío-Lazo, M., Arreguín-Sánchez, F., Zetina-Rejón, M. et al. The Ecological Role of the Vaquita, Phocoena sinus, in the Ecosystem of the Northern Gulf of California. Ecosystems 16, 416–433 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-012-9618-z

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-012-9618-z

Keywords

  • vaquita
  • Northern Gulf of California
  • role of groups
  • emergent network indices
  • trophic ecosystem model
  • ecosystem order
  • ecosystem functioning
  • energy flows