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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 - March 2020

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 gathering continued on the project during the second quarter of 2018, with three field expeditions to map the distribution of river turtles along 150 km of rivers. With the purchase of the telemetry equipment, Dr. Norris has dedicated a significant amount of time to recruiting additional personnel to carry out the field activities, including capturing turtles, installing telemetry units, and monitoring the river turtles. As of July 2018, however, the PI Dr. Norris reports that the focus on the project is increasingly shifting according to plan to data sharing and dissemination, including publication of two more scientific publications demonstrating the value of community-based management for biodiversity conservation in the Brazilian Amazon. He and his team are also continuing their discussions with schools and school teachers to develop lesson plans and integrate their results into school curricula.

With the purchase of some PEER-funded telemetry equipment finally completed after long delays to identify appropriate models, Dr. Norris dedicated a significant amount of time to recruiting additional personnel to carry out the field activities, including capturing turtles, installing telemetry units, and monitoring the river turtles. The PI and his team have faced some technical challenges with the telemetry devices, as there is still no ideal technology available to meet an original key objective on the project, which was to deliver near real-time data to various stakeholders (environmental managers, schoolchildren, etc.). Limiting factors include limited battery life of the available devices, the fact that the species being studied spend much of their time underwater, and the remote geographic location of the study area, which has poor Argos satellite coverage and lacks Wi-Fi connectivity. Therefore, Dr. Norris indicated that he would like to modify his plans and instead of purchasing more telemetry devices to focus instead on using the equipment already bought to facilitate community-based monitoring of river turtle nests and rivers. The equipment purchased will continue to be installed in cooperation with the local communities, who will be responsible for monitoring rivers and river turtle nesting beaches, collecting data, and disseminating the results. The effectiveness of the community-based monitoring will be quantified by comparison with the previous years of data collected. Together with the local community and applying the expertise and input of the U.S. partner Dr. James Gibbs, the PEER team will work to ensure effective and integrated monitoring of river use and sources of biodiversity degradation (litter, plastic, hunting, fire, etc.) around the river turtle nesting beaches along 150 km of rivers.

At the end of the project, the PI plans to convene a four-day international workshop to develop sustainable alternatives for the conservation of river turtles around the FLONA. The expected output of the workshop would be a five-year roadmap for sustainable turtle conservation in the region. The anticipated outcome would be strengthening of local and regional collaborations, including integration with ICMBIO and local communities. In addition, the project team will be designing and installing a network of water level sensors around some of their turtle habitat study sites as a means of providing early warning in case flooding threatens nests and hatchlings. A no-cost extension has been issued through March 2020 to allow for this recalibration and completion of planned activities.

A joint article by the PI, colleague Dr. Fernanda Michalski, and U.S. partner Dr. Gibbs 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 ).

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