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.

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

Ethics, sustainability, and Amazon hydropower: mission impossible?

Latin America’s largest electrical company operates 45 hydroelectric dams, and is responsible for 34 percent of Brazil’s generating capacity. The company, Eletrobras, makes laudable claims about its corporate values, including a commitment to sustainability, and to “operating through a well-balanced environmental, social and ethical responsibility.”

But with grave concerns raised about the environmental and social impacts of hydroelectric dams in the Amazon, and with Eletrobras itself a key actor in the hugely controversial Belo Monte dam, how sustainable are dam-building companies really being? Are the business decisions they make driven by a genuine commitment to sustainability? And, perhaps more importantly, how can we pragmatically assess the true motivations behind those decisions?

Ethical analysis may hold the answers, according to a recent study published in Sustainability. An international team of researchers suggest it is possible to pinpoint what lies behind a company’s decision-making process through a rigorous ethical analysis.

Read the full article, published in May 2016 on Mongabay, here.

Imperiled Amazon freshwater ecosystems urgently need basin-wide study, management

My latest piece for Mongabay looks at some of the threats facing the Amazon’s freshwater ecosystems, and at how a fragmented protected area network and policy framework – based on terrestrial ecosystems – is failing to protect the connectivity of the freshwater world. As multiple impacts interact with each other the functioning of the whole ecosystem is under threat. You can read the full article here.cropped-p1030605.jpg

Damming the Amazon: new hydropower projects put river dolphins at risk

A little while ago I wrote about the plight of Amazon river dolphins in the face of dam-building across the region. Here’s the opening few lines, but to read the whole piece please follow the link to the original on Mongabay. A National Geographic photographer kindly let us use some of his pictures, so it is worth a look!

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A dam-building boom is underway in the Amazon. More than 400 hydroelectric dams are in operation, being built, or planned for the river’s headwaters and basin. Scientists know that tropical dams disrupt water flow and nutrient deposition, with negative consequences for aquatic animals, especially migratory species. But little detailed knowledge exists as to the impacts of dams on specific species, or as to the best mitigations to prevent harm.

A recent study that tries to fill in that knowledge gap zeroes in on Brazil’s river dolphins. It found that as many as 26 dams could negatively impact dolphin populations and their prey.

The research, led by Dr Claryana Araújo of the Federal University of Goiás, Brazil, focused on two freshwater species: the Amazon River Dolphin, or boto (Inia geoffrensis), which is sometimes famously pink; and the Tucuxi (Sotalia fluviatilis).

The river dolphins of South America are charismatic emblems of rainforest biodiversity, and have captured the public imagination. Swimming in rivers, lagoons, and among submerged tree trunks in flooded forests to chase down prey, they can be found as far inland as the upper reaches of Amazonian tributaries, more than 2,600 kilometers (1,615 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean.

To continue reading, click here.