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Cycle 5 (2015 Deadline)

History and diversification of floodplain forest bird communities in Amazonia: towards an integrated conservation plan

PI: Camila Ribas (, Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazonia (INPA), Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation, and co-PI Alexandre Aleixo, Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi (MPEG)
U.S. Partner: Joel Cracraft, American Museum of Natural History
Project Dates: December 2016 - November 2019

Project Overview:

The research proposed here is crucial, given that Amazonian countries are focusing on building hydroelectric dams, which will impose a significant impact to the biota specialized in flooded habitats through habitat loss, fragmentation, and changes in sediment dynamics. This biota has a unique, complex, and still poorly known history, as wetlands probably dominated western Amazonia for a large portion of the Neogene, and significant changes on the drainage pattern have occurred since then. Although birds are one of the best-known groups of vertebrates, flooded habitat bird assemblages are still poorly known and have been very little explored using molecular techniques. Based on the dynamic history of flooded habitats (with their frequent cycles of building and erosion due to sedimentary processes), bird species from these habitats were assumed to have high dispersal ability and consequently to lack genetic structure. However, recent studies of phenotypic and genomic variation have shown that this is not the case. Substantial cryptic diversity and endemism have been found within some of these taxa, which indicates that patterns and processes underlying these patterns are not well understood. Within the context of the developmental plans for energy generation, this constitutes a major threat to a significant portion of Amazonian biodiversity that is little known. Dr. Ribas and her colleagues will generate a multidisciplinary dataset, including genomic, ecologic, and spatial biotic and abiotic data that will be integrated to (1) advance our knowledge on the evolution of Amazonian flooded habitats and their biota and (2) provide information that can be used for assessing the impact of proposed hydroelectric dams and for identifying areas of conservation priority. This will be accomplished in collaboration with the NSF-funded project led by Dr. Cracraft, which aims to reconstruct the history and evolution of the Amazonian biota and its environment, focusing mainly on the upland forest biota, and will provide background information on methods and analysis, as well as complementary data.

Hydroelectric energy generation is considered a source of clean and renewable energy, but current environmental impact assessments ignore the long-term irreversible impacts that dams have on Amazonian flooded habitats. There are 121 established, and 303 planned, dams for the Amazon region, most of them in Brazil. In the Amazonian lowlands, 51 dams already exist and 130 more are planned. Among the ten largest planned dams, three are built or nearing completion: Santo Antônio and Jirau (Madeira River) and Belo Monte (Xingu River). The remaining seven are still in planning stages, reinforcing the need for immediate attention to the impacts of these projects. Most planned dams in the Amazonian lowlands will adopt the “run of the river” system, in which large extensions of flooded habitat are kept permanently flooded, submerging river islands and disrupting the hydrologic cycle. The resulting loss of species in flooded habitats may impact the upland biota as well, as taxa from both habitats are interconnected by ecological processes, and thus have important consequences for large portions of Amazonian protected areas and indigenous lands, affecting availability of resources for both the ecosystem and traditional and indigenous communities. To assess the impact of planned dams on the Amazonian biota it is essential to understand the history and distribution of flooded habitats’ biological diversity, as well as the importance of the hydrological cycle in developing and maintaining this diversity. For this, an interdisciplinary framework is necessary that considers the evolution of the current landscape and its possible responses to the dams. Dr. Ribas has assembled a multidisciplinary team that will study population genomics, ecological affinities, biological diversification, and species distribution patterns for flooded habitat birds and relate these patterns to spatial distribution and chronology of flooded habitats, sediment dynamics responsible for building or erosion of flooded substrates, and hydrology of the most threatened Amazonian basins. As a result, they expect to produce and disseminate data and integrative analytical methods that will inform environmental impact assessments related to planning and execution of developmental projects taking place in the future and especially over the coming decade in Brazil.

5-009 Toucan5-009 Sample Analysis
The team conducted field expeditions to gather samples from a number of species.Following data collection, the team organized and collated collected samples (photo courtesy of Dr. Ribas).

Summary of Recent Activities 

During the first quarter of 2019, Dr. Ribas reports that she and her group participated in a bird sampling and monitoring expedition to the mid-Branco river in Roraima (Mucajaí). They collected 99 samples and deposited them in the Collection of Genetic Resources and the Collection of Birds at INPA. In addition, they have received the results of the last plate of DNA samples they sent for sequencing, and the PI’s students are now incorporating these new data into their datasets and continuing analysis. One manuscript was accepted by the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution and the team is working on revisions prior to publication. Earlier this year the team published one paper on the past dynamics of Terra-Firme/Várzea transitions in western Amazonia (Pupim et al. 2019, Quaternary Science Reviews), and are working on another integrating the ages of várzea development and the demographic history of floodplain bird populations. The group’s chapter on “The origin and evolution of Amazonian species diversity” was accepted for inclusion in the book Neotropical Diversification, to be published by Springer, and it is currently under final review for publication. Two more of the team’s chapters have also been accepted for this book, one about the White Sand Vegetation areas, which have an evolutionary relationship to seasonally flooded areas studied in the PEER funded project, and one on the Tapajós River floodplains as barriers to the herpetofauna.

The researchers have been exploring the possibility of using a Landsat mosaic built by the Amazon Research Team from the University of Turku, Finland, to help mapping habitats in the floodplains. One PhD student working on the PEER project is currently on an internship in Turku working in collaboration with Dr. Hanna Tuomisto. They are defining habitat affinities for the species for which Dr. Ribas and her colleagues are generating genomic data. This effort will help both understanding habitat use and predicting the effect of damming of the main Amazonian rivers for the different species. The PI has also acquired vegetation cover data from this same Landsat mosaic for the localities at which she is working with acoustic monitoring in the Madeira river dams, and this will help with the possibility of comparing habitat similarity among studied sites before the dams were built (before 2014). In the meantime, all species lists for the Madeira river dams subproject are complete, and the PI and her team are working on the first manuscript that will evaluate the differences in species composition and habitat use in localities that were flooded by the Santo Antônio dam and localities not affected by the dam. As mentioned above, they obtained the data on reflectance characterizing vegetation cover before the dams were built and are incorporating this in the analyses. They have also analyzed data on acoustic monitoring obtained at the Xingu River, above and below the Belo Monte dam, and presented the results in a meeting organized by the Instituto Socioambiental in Belém February 18-19, 2019. Dr. Ribas and her colleagues will continue working with this NGO in preparation for another meeting in Brasilia in late May to evaluate these impacts further.

In the coming months, the team will be joined by new postdoc Dr. Juliana Menger, who will work on patterns of bird species composition and diversity beginning in May 2019. They are also preparing a proposal for another postdoc to work directly on the transfer of project results to conservation planning. In addition, Dr. Ribas and her group will continue analyzing genomic and soundscape data, and they expect to have one thesis and one dissertation defended this semester. The PI will also present her PEER results at an upcoming meeting of the International Biogeography Society, to be held in Quito, Ecuador, in August 2019. In this last stage of the project, they plan to work more directly in making their results available for decision makers involved in the main current projects regarding Amazonian dams:
  • Santo Antônio dam on the Madeira River: produce reports about the real impact of the dam on the avifauna, something that has been done recently for sediment trapping by a collaborating research group (Rivera et al. 2019, Decline of fine suspended sediments in the Madeira River Basin [2003-2017], Water)
  • Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River: collaborate on efforts to understand the impacts of the reduction in water level and river discharge in the communities associated to seasonally flooded environments
  • Bem Querer dam on the Branco River: provide information to partners in ICMBio/Roraima on evaluating Environmental Impact Studies currently under preparation by EPE/Ministério de Minas e Energia and continue working on the Negro and Branco River avifauna in recently funded projects
Dr. Ribas is also in contact with Dr. Jorge Perez-Emán, a researcher and professor from the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Dr. Perez-Emán has been studying avian populations from the Orinoco river basin which complement our studies of Amazon basin populations. He has access to unique and important samples as well as vast knowledge about these birds. Although PEER funds cannot be used to support travel by a researcher from a non-PEER-eligible country, they are discussing other funding options that might facilitate his visit.

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