Eagle Eye View of the rio Xingu

Late last week, the Academy’s Curator of Fishes, Mark Sabaj Pérez, send along this fascinating video from where he is currently doing research in Brazil.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Academy and Brazilian biologists are collaborating on an inventory of the fishes, crustaceans and mollusks of the lower rio Xingu, a large tributary of the rio Amazonas. An international team is currently in the field for expedition three, led by Mark Sabaj Pérez, Academy Curator of Fishes. The aerial footage shows the team at work sampling in the Xingu near the mouth of the rio Iriri. The lower Xingu is not a singular river channel, but a reticular maze of channels that wind around rocky formations. The Xingu is a clear water river and the rocky formations support a diverse and abundant aquatic fauna, much like a coral reef.

For more information on the iXingu Project, visit the project website or join the project’s Facebook group.

Academy Curator Emeritus of Ichthyology John Lundberg notes about the video, “the people in the water are hand fishing for armored catfishes on the rocks.  Off the second boat you can see the air lines going out into deep water to the local divers way down collecting other catfishes.” Lundberg joined Sabaj Pérez in Brazil this week.

Read more about the research currently being done in Brazil: The following story was adapted from an article that ran in the 2013 Exel, Drexel University’s award-winning research magazine. To see the full article and images, visit Exel online.

Race Against Time

Dam Threatens Fish in Brazil

Brazil’s Xingu River is about to be fundamentally altered by a massive dam project. Academy researchers are in Brazil now working to inventory the species of that river before the dam goes online—and before the fish that live there are pushed to the brink of extinction.

When completed in 2014, the Belo Monte Dam in Pará, Brazil, will become the third-largest hydroelectric dam in the world, with a staggering capacity of 11,233 megawatts—more than five times that generated by the iconic Hoover Dam. Belo Monte is in many ways a symbol of Brazil’s rising economic might, and proponents of the $16 billion project say the power created there will go a long way toward helping the growing nation meet its ever-increasing demand for what many perceive as “clean energy.”

But no dam is built without an environmental price, and with the clock ticking until the project is completed, Academy researchers are working to record the stunning biodiversity of the Xingu River before the river’s flow is changed forever, before the people who inhabit the Xingu basin are chased from their homes, and before the fish that currently thrive in the river’s fast-moving rapids are tested for their very survival—if not globally, then at least locally.

Dr. John Lundberg, Academy curator emeritus of ichthyology, and Dr. Mark Sabaj Pérez, Academy collection manager of ichthyology, along with colleagues at Texas A&M University recently were awarded a three-year, $526,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to inventory and identify the fishes, crustaceans, and mollusks of the Xingu, with the specific goal of ensuring science has a full understanding of those species—and the unique habitats that harbor them—before Belo Monte changes the river forever. They will be working with a team of Brazilian researchers on the project, and made the first project-funded trip to the Xingu basin in September. But with construction already underway and the dam set to go online in 2014, time is running out.

“We’re archiving the diversity of this region and this stretch of river with the expectation that it’s going to be changed dramatically once the dam is constructed,” says Sabaj Pérez, who made his first trip to the Xingu last year. “The idea here is to be able to compare what existed before the dam and what will become after the dam is built.”

Environmental groups have been warning about the potentially crushing impact of the project for decades now, and over the years the project has been halted several times precisely because of those concerns. But by all indications, the project is now moving forward.

By some estimates, the Belo Monte project—a project that is so large it actually includes two dams and several dikes large enough to be considered dams in their own right—will flood an estimated 500-square km of land, much of which is already deforested. As many as 40,000 people—including some indigenous peoples in the valley—could be driven from their homes.

“There will be huge social implications for the people who live in this region,” Lundberg explains. “A lot of this project will impact the land of indigenous people.”

Though the exact scope of the dam’s impact is currently unknown, what is known is that the river’s flow will be changed, and so too will the habitat for hundreds of fish species. That means the Academy project—which will include at least two more expeditions over the next three years—is of the utmost importance.

Brazilian and American ichthyologists—including Lundberg and Sabaj Pérez—have described 21 new species of fishes from the Xingu in just the past five years. Researchers also know the Xingu’s lower reaches are home to at least 26 species that live nowhere else on Earth. Lundberg and Sabaj Pérez say they would expect to identify anywhere from 10 to 20 new species during their three-year project.

Whether or not those species will survive long after the dam is completed, however, remains to be seen. As has been proven elsewhere, dam projects often obliterate native fish populations. Such a scenario can’t be ruled out for the Xingu. But at the very least, says Sabaj Pérez, the Academy project will make sure all of the Xingu’s fishes are put on the record, allowing scientists to study them in the future and help to bring greater understanding of the unique Xingu ecosystem.

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