Deep Trouble in Shallow Rivers

November 15, 2010

WCS researchers see drops in wildlife numbers as climate change causes Amazonian rivers to run low.

Populations of pink and grey river dolphins, caiman, fish, and chestnut-fronted macaws have taken a dive in the Peruvian Amazon. The problem? The region’s rivers are running shallow, with the lowest water levels on record in more than a century.

Linked to climate change, the altered water flow through the Amazon basin is affecting its many denizens, from fish to fishermen. Wildlife distribution is closely intertwined with the flooding and receding rivers of the Amazon basin. Local people, dependent on bushmeat and fish, time their hunting activities accordingly.

As part of their research, WCS scientists have been working with some of these communities to learn how the extended drought has influenced their livelihoods.

“This ongoing research adds to a growing scientific consensus that no ecosystem is immune from the effects of climate change, whether in the high Arctic or Amazon basin,” said Steve Sanderson, WCS president and CEO. “Understanding how climate change affects the Amazon will allow conservationists to implement interventions to protect both people and wildlife.”   

As waterlines fall in the Samiria River, so do its oxygen levels, forcing fish to flee to the deeper Amazon River. With less fish to snap up, black caiman are turning to their less aggressive cousins, spectacled caiman, for their meals. The river’s pink dolphins are also leaving for the Amazon. There they must compete with other dolphins for food and resources. Compared with last year, about half as many of these endangered dolphins now swim in the Samiria. 

Chestnut-fronted macaws, too, may be going hungry. The scientists found that dry conditions within the 7,700-square-mile Pacaya Samiria National Reserve leave these green parrots with less fruit to forage.  

WCS has been working in the Amazon since the 1970s. In 2005, partnering with Earthwatch Institute, Operation Wallacea, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, WCS began focusing on the impacts of climate change to the region. 

This spring, some of the researchers’ findings from the Amazon’s flooded forests will appear in the new Conservation Hall exhibit at WCS’s New York Aquarium.

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