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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 - September 2018

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).
During the last quarter of 2016, Dr. Norris and team undertook three field expeditions to map nesting beaches and the distribution of river turtles along 150 km of rivers. They extended the 2015 nesting beach survey area to include beaches that are farther from human settlements (originally surveyed in 2011 and 2012). This expansion of activities was facilitated by continued training and capacity building of four local field assistants. The training meant that during the final months (November and December 2016) the field assistants were gathering data independently without the full-time participation of project principal investigators. The data collected on nest sites and nest site selection prior to the filling of the reservoir will enable the researchers to evaluate the effect of water level rises caused by the hydroelectric development on the turtle nesting sites. The data from the boat surveys will enable them to monitor the distribution of adult turtles before and after the dam construction. When analyzed and following integration of the results from previous years, the information generated from these data will be used to engage with a variety of stakeholders (local associations, schools, and the hydroelectric company) during Year 2 of this PEER project, as per the original project timeline.

On the outreach side, the team conducted research presentations at two events, both at the local university (Federal University of Amapa). From August 5 to 9, 2016, a poster highlighting results from the 2015 nesting beach surveys was presented during an event for graduate students of the Department of Biological Sciences. Following this a technical talk was presented at the symposium of the post-graduate Biodiversity Conservation course. Again this talk presented results from the 2015 nesting beach surveys to an audience of graduate and post-graduate students and professionals working for biodiversity conservation in the region.

As noted in an earlier update summary, Dr. Norris continues to face several challenges associated with human resources, equipment availability, and a combination of the two factors. Specifically, several undergraduate, Master’s and PhD students, and postdoctoral researchers were involved at various points in the project’s first year. However, for various reasons, by the end of August 2016 the project had only three inexperienced undergrad students working part-time (a maximum of 20 hours per month). To address this issue, Dr. Norris is recruiting new Master’s students, with the selection to be made in January-February 2017. He is also writing two articles resulting from the Year 1 data gathering activities and hopes that their publication, expected in 2017, will increase the research profile of the project and attract new researchers and students. On the equipment side, due to difficulties such as increased costs and bureaucratic and administrative barriers, it has proven unfeasible so far to pay for and import the telemetry equipment into Brazil. To help resolve this problem while the procurement issues are being figured out on the Brazilian side in order to spend the Year 1 equipment budget, the telemetry equipment funding for Year 2 plus data storage and administrative charges (a total of U.S.$ 55,200.00) was transferred to SUNY-ESF (the U.S. collaborating institution) in July 2016. The money has been received by SUNY-ESF and is available to spend. Following the 2016 nesting season (October 2016 - January 2017), Dr. Norris and his colleagues plan to evaluate the data collected and determine the best options (equipment and timing of captures) for meeting the project objectives. In addition, captures of turtles are required for the placement of telemetry equipment. There is an interaction between the two previously mentioned problems, in that with a lack of researchers to supervise turtle captures the PI is unable to ensure ethical due diligence during turtle captures. Effectively, even if the team had the telemetry equipment it would not be possible to capture turtles for placing the equipment. Therefore, Dr. Norris is also continuing to advertise for a PhD student to conduct the telemetry research and capture turtles to obtain data on population demographics.

In 2017 the PI and his team will continue their ongoing boat census of turtles and present preliminary findings at a project event with the participation of local residents, individuals affected by the dam, and protected area managers. They also continue to develop lesson plans for engagement with local schools.

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