Amazon turtles imperilled by dams, mercury pollution and illegal trade

For as long as people have lived in the Amazon, turtles have likely been on the menu. But what was once low-impact subsistence hunting escalated dramatically after the arrival of Europeans. From the 1700s onward, demand for turtle eggs and meat skyrocketed. And the eggs weren’t just for eating: estimates suggest that more than 200 million eggs were harvested for both consumption and oil, fuelling lamps across Europe for two centuries.

This overexploitation led to such dramatic population declines that the Brazilian government eventually stepped in, launching the ambitious Amazon Turtle Program in 1979 — an on-going initiative that has so far protected 70 million turtle hatchlings across the Brazilian Amazon, with the intent of conserving vulnerable species.

But while that program continues to work toward a sustainable future for turtle populations —and for the people who still see chelonians as an important source of protein — three more recent threats loom over Amazonian turtle species: the illegal wildlife trade, widespread hydropower dam construction, and mercury contamination.

Read the full article on Mongabay

The Giant Amazon River Turtle (Podocnemis expansa) is the largest species of neotropical freshwater turtle, and is found throughout the Amazon basin. Overexploited for centuries, the species is making a comeback thanks to conservation initiatives. Photo courtesy of Camila FerraraThe Giant Amazon River Turtle (Podocnemis expansa) is the largest species of neotropical freshwater turtle, and is found throughout the Amazon basin. Overexploited for centuries, the species is making a comeback thanks to conservation initiatives. Photo courtesy of Camila Ferrara

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Amazonian catfish’s 5,000-mile migration endangered by dams

singular Amazonian catfish is capable of an amazing feat: hidden from human eyes, the species travels vast distances over its lifetime, making a round trip covering more than 8,000 kilometers (nearly 5,000 miles), to return to its natal breeding grounds, a new study confirms.

But even as this record-setting feat — the longest freshwater migration in the world — is scientifically confirmed, the species is threatened by hundreds of planned Amazonian dams.

Brachyplatystoma rousseauxii is a commercially valuable catfish species and an apex predator, growing to 3 meters (more than 9 feet) long. Understanding the migratory patterns of the fish, whose range spans six Amazonian countries, “is paramount for designing adequate conservation and management strategies, especially in view of the current and proposed hydroelectric development throughout the Amazon basin,” the researchers write in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Observations in the 1990s concerning the size distribution of catfish caught along the length of the Amazon River first led researchers to suggest that long-distance homing migration might be taking place, explained study lead author Fabrice Duponchelle of France’s Institute of Research for Development. Subsequent genetic analyses were consistent with that hypothesis, but still didn’t offer definitive proof.

Intrigued by the possibility that catfish might be homing over such vast distances, Duponchelle employed an innovative technique in the new study to get conclusive evidence: chemical analysis of the otolith, a type of ear bone.

As otoliths grow, their chemical composition changes to reflect the background levels of particular chemical elements found in the environment. Like tree rings, the layers of bone relate to their age: the center, innermost layer of otolith is the oldest, and reflects life as a hatchling; the outer edge is the most recent, and reflects the last stage of the fish’s life.

Read the full article, originally published on Mongabay, here

The giant Amazonian catfish is a valuable commercial species, an apex predator, and the world's long distance freshwater fish migration record holder. Photo courtesy of the USGS Columbia Environmental Research CenterThe giant Amazonian catfish is a valuable commercial species, an apex predator, and the world’s long distance freshwater fish migration record holder. Photo courtesy of the USGS Columbia Environmental Research Center.

Orangutan reintroductions could risk population survival, study warns

An estimated 1,500 orangutans now live in rescue and rehabilitation centers located across Sumatra and Borneo. As habitat loss due to deforestation and forest fires continues, these institutions are struggling to keep up with demand.

Release into the wild is the ultimate, urgent, goal for most of these animals, but a new study warns that there could be serious genetic implications for the offspring of reintroduced animals — and orangutan populations in general — if those rescued from one region are released into a different region.

The study, led by primatologist Graham Banes, examined the genetic consequences when orangutans from different, divergent, subspecies interbreed. Borneo’s three recognized subspecies — from three distinct regions — are thought to have diverged from each other 176,000 years ago, meaning that hybridization between them may result in negative genetic effects. If hybrid offspring reproduce, combinations of genes that were beneficial for one lineage can be disrupted, resulting in poor health and reduced reproductive success, the researcher said. These effects, known as “outbreeding depression,” could threaten the survival of individuals and populations in the long-term.

Read the full article on Mongabay.

A Bornean orangutan in a rehabilitation center in Sabah. Photo by Rhett A. ButlerA Bornean orangutan in a rehabilitation center in Sabah. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Dams threaten future of Amazonian biodiversity major new study warns

Amazonia’s surge in hydropower development threatens numerous species with extinction, and puts unique habitats at risk, warns a recent study.

River dolphins, giant otters, turtles, fish, birds and monkeys will all have their habitats altered by hydroelectric dams, with some species likely to be completely wiped out, says an international team of biologists that looked at all impacts associated with 191 existing Amazon dams, as well as the 246 dams being planned or under construction.

What’s more, the researchers identified a network of negative interactions between dam construction, mining, climate change, human migration, and biodiversity and ecosystem services which illustrates how impacts can cascade in multiple, devastating ways.

In environmental terms, the most obvious and direct impact of dams reported by the study are on water flow and connectivity. Nutrients that flow downstream from the Andes are interrupted by dams; flood pulses that form a vital part of many species’ lifecycles are modified by the reservoirs and flow patterns that dams create and control; habitat complexity is lost; and species such as river dolphins become isolated in the stretches of river between hydropower developments, which leaves smaller sub-populations vulnerable to decline.

To read the full article, orginally published on Mongabay, click here.

River turtles in Colombia. Turtles, dolphins and otters are among the aquatic species threatened by dam construction, but risks extend to birds, bats and terrestrial animals too. Photo by Rhett A. ButlerRiver turtles in Colombia. Turtles, dolphins and otters are among the aquatic species threatened by dam construction, but risks extend to birds, bats and terrestrial animals too. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

 

Keeping Amazon fish connected is key to their conservation

Imagine a fish isolated in an Amazonian lake — part of the vast freshwater ecosystem of the Amazon basin, an ever-changing network of rivers, lakes and floodplains that extends to 1 million square kilometers (386,102 square miles).

Now imagine that isolated fish as water levels rise during the wet season, and floodplains vanish beneath up to 15 meters (49 feet) of water. The fish — once restricted by the lake’s edge — swims freely into the flooded forest and mingles with others of its kind from elsewhere.

For thousands of years, isolated fish populations across the Amazon have likewise played a game of musical chairs: intermixing between flooding water bodies, migrating short and vast distances between lakes and along river channels, and then as the waters receded, forming new lake and river populations.

This connectivity — with the genetic mixing it affords — is vital for healthy fish populations, but is extremely vulnerable to changes in the annual “flood pulse” that inundates forests.

Read the rest of the article on Mongabay.

A South American Leaf Fish (Monocirrhus polyacanthus). More than 2,000 fish species live in the Amazon, the highest fish biodiversity in the world. That diversity has been greatly enriched due to the periodic isolation and intermixing of freshwater species that occurs across the region. Photo © Rhett A. Butler/MongabayA South American Leaf Fish (Monocirrhus polyacanthus). More than 2,000 fish species live in the Amazon, the highest fish biodiversity in the world. That diversity has been greatly enriched due to the periodic isolation and intermixing of freshwater species that occurs across the region. Photo © Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

Eavesdropping on Cameroon’s poachers to save endangered primates

Researchers are using acoustic monitoring to tune into gunshots and track a most deadly predator – Africa’s wildlife poachers.

Cameroon’s Korup National Park is home to elephants, chimpanzees, red colobus monkeys, drill, and a myriad of noisy species, whose squawks, squeals and howls fill the forest air. For more than two years, twelve acoustic monitors were deployed there and recorded every sound covering a 54 square kilometer (21 square mile) area of protected tropical forest.

They were tuned to listen around the clock for just one sound: gunshots.

“Our ultimate goal is to improve the effectiveness of anti-poaching patrols in African tropical forest protected areas,” Joshua Linder, one of the lead scientists working on the acoustic monitoring project, told Mongabay.

Read the full article on Mongabay.

Palm oil’s new frontier: averting a Great Ape catastrophe in Cameroon

  • Cameroon, with its vast bio-diverse forests and key great ape habitat, is being eyed as a prime site for oil palm production, making it a center of agro-industry development in Africa. Conservationists hope to avoid mistakes made in Asia.
  • Conservationists in Africa are working to implement oil palm standards that will limit deforestation, protect biodiversity, limit carbon emissions, and benefit smallholders, while also supporting economic growth and job creation.
  • A key to Africa’s sustainable oil palm production is the implementation of mutually agreed upon industry-wide, and possibly nationwide, sustainable standards for siting and development of plantations.
  • Standards being tested are: the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that identifies High Conservation Value areas; a system favored by WWF using integrated land-use planning / smallholders; and Zero Deforestation (ZD) favored by Greenpeace.
A baby gorilla. As an agro-industrial boom looks set to hit Africa, Critically Endangered gorillas are under threat. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
A baby gorilla. As an agro-industrial oil palm production boom looks set to hit Africa, Critically Endangered gorillas are under threat. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
 Read the full article, published on Mongabay, here.