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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER)
Cycle 4 (2015 Deadline)

Where is my Turtle? Quantifying biodiversity impacts of hydroelectric expansion and river use changes in the Brazilian Amazon

PI: Darren Norris (, University of Amapá
U.S. Partner: James Gibbs, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry  (SUNY-ESF)
Project Dates: October 2015 - June 2019

Project Website:

Project Overview

4-123 Turtles' first swim
Turtle hatchlings take their first swim!
Semi-aquatic species are impacted by hydroelectric developments and river use changes, and to engage multiple stakeholders (from children to local landowners to electricity companies) Dr. Norris and his colleagues chose to focus on conservation of the river turtle Podocnemis unifilis within a unique socioeconomic development scenario (Amapa State). P. unifilis represent provisioning (food, source of income) and cultural services for Amazon populations (Vogt 2008), and unlike charismatic mammal species like the Giant Otter (Michalski et al. 2012), river turtles do not generate negative perceptions in local human populations (Norris & Michalski 2013). Additionally, river turtles depend on both terrestrial (nesting) and aquatic (feeding/reproduction) environments, which provides multiple opportunities for achieving engagement, research, and biodiversity conservation objectives. In sum, river turtles are thus ideal biodiversity conservation “flagship” species that deliver important ecosystem services and elicit strong affinity in people for the conservation of wild species and their habitats. However, no previous study has robustly quantified a P. unifilis population. A variety of approaches have been used but none incorporate detectability. As such, previous studies only provided estimates of minimum or maximum numbers, which are not suitable for comparison (Norris et al. 2011) and are not associated with population parameters required to inform conservation actions. By integrating data from multiple techniques this project team aims to provide a robust assessment of P. unifilis movements and demographics.

The participation and integration of local schools, regional post-graduate courses, lecturers, researchers, students, and local people from riverine communities will transfer knowledge and help to create new practices and innovative educational techniques. Conservation solutions will be generated by integrating multiple stakeholders as research participants in an advanced and robust biodiversity conservation program in the most completely protected state of the Brazilian Amazon. This project will also contribute directly to six National Biodiversity Conservation targets in Brazil.

Summary of Recent Activities

4-123 Students take part in a survey
Team members survey the river (photo courtesy of Dr. Norris).
Data collection and analysis continued through January 2018 with the monitoring of hatchlings and evaluation of the success of the community-based river turtle nest protection activities previously launched under the project. Dr. Norris and his team recorded the birth of 802 hatchlings, and comparisons from years prior to the protection activities showed significant improvements in hatchling success. In this third year of the project, the focus is increasingly shifting to data sharing and dissemination. The team started the year’s activities with an event organized to present their research findings to the local communities, including residents of FLONA and Porto Grande town, the Bom Sucesso Community Association, the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), and the Association of Commercial Fishermen. Dr. Norris also made two presentations at the Brazilian Zoology Congress, which was held February 25 to March 2, 2018, in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil. In addition, he, his colleague Fernanda Michalski, and U.S. partner James Gibbs published their first joint journal article on the project, which is available online: “Beyond harm’s reach? Submersion of river turtle nesting areas and implications for restoration actions after Amazon hydropower development” (PeerJ 6:e4228 ).

After long delays involving the selection and procurement of telemetry devices, the equipment was successfully purchased during the first quarter of 2018. In the next phase, the PI and his team will catch turtles and attach the telemetry equipment. With water levels still rising with the seasonal rains, they anticipate starting these activities early July, when water levels start to drop. In addition, they will work on restoration of nesting beaches in cooperation with the Instituto do Meio Ambiente e de Ordenamento Territorial do Amapá. Proposals for such activity were submitted in December 2017 but the team is still awaiting feedback and decisions from the department responsible. Other activities include presentation of lessons at schools in Porto Grande. Given the need for extended data collection and analysis now that the telemetry devices are available, a no-cost extension has been issued on this project through June 2019.

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