The Chinese paddlefish was officially declared extinct by the IUCN in July 2022. On this page you can find out all about this large, migratory fish, and the factors that contributed to its downfall…
Also known as the Chinese swordfish, the Chinese paddlefish was a large, predatory fish found in China’s Yangtze and Yellow River basins. It was a member of the paddlefish family, Polyodontidae, which now contains only one living species: the American paddlefish.
Size & Physical Description
The most distinctive feature of the Chinese paddlefish was its elongated rostrum (snout). This is a feature of all paddlefish, which are named for the paddle-like appearance of their rostrums.
The rostrum of the Chinese paddlefish was narrow and sword-like (unlike that of the American paddlefish, which is broad and more like a paddle).
The large rostrum is believed to be an adaptation to improve the fish’s electroreceptive ability. Like a shark, the Chinese paddlefish possessed the ability to sense electrical fields produced by the muscles of its prey.
A large fish, the Chinese paddlefish typically reached lengths of around 10 ft / 3m, although reports of specimens reaching lengths of 23 ft / 7 m are known. Up to one third of the fish’s total body length was taken up by the rostrum.
The dorsal and anal fins were located relatively far back on the body, giving the fish a sleek, streamlined appearance. The upper body was brown-gray in color, the undersides white. The body was smooth, and scaleless apart from the tail.
The Chinese paddlefish had protrusible jaws, which could extend forwards from the mouth in order to capture prey. The jaws contained numerous small teeth.
Family & Related Species
The Chinese paddlefish belonged to the paddlefish family, Polyodontidae. The species’ recent extinction means that only one member of the family remains: the American paddlefish Polyodon spathula.
Four other extinct paddlefish species are known from their fossils alone.
The closest living relatives of the paddlefish are 27 species of sturgeon that make up the sturgeon family, Acipenseridae.
The skeletons of both paddlefishes and sturgeons consist mainly of cartilage rather than of bone, although both members belong to the ray-finned, bony fish class, Actinopterygii. The members of both families also have electroreceptive organs.
Lifestyle & Diet
The Chinese paddlefish was anadromous, hatching in freshwater and migrating downriver to brackish* estuaries before returning upriver to spawn. Spawning fish were found to be from 8 to 12 years of age.
* Where freshwater meets saltwater.
A strong swimmer, the Chinese paddlefish was usually found swimming in the middle to lower levels of large rivers.
The Chinese paddlefish was a piscivore (fish-eater), feeding on small and medium-sized species such as anchovies, gobies and catfish. It hunted using its electroreceptive abilities.
The Chinese paddlefish became extinct due to overfishing and habitat degradation – most notably the construction of dams across its migratory route.
The species’ decline began to accelerate at the end of the 20th century, and the Chinese paddlefish was last reported in the Yellow river basin in the ‘60’s.
In the Yangtze basin, annual catches of 25 tonnes of Chinese paddlefish continued into the ‘70’s, highlighting the speed of the species’ decline.
In 1981, the construction of the Gezhouba Dam in the middle reaches of the Yangtze prevented the paddlefish from migrating to the river’s upper reaches to spawn.
Although the Chinese paddlefish’s decline had already begun, the construction of the Gezhouba Dam and others is seen as being one of the main causes of the fish’s eventual extinction.
Unsuccessful attempts were made to breed the species in captivity, and the last living Chinese paddlefish was recorded in 2003.
An assessment made by the IUCN in 2019 failed to find any living individuals, and in July 2022 the Chinese paddlefish was officially declared extinct.