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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 2020

Project Website:                       Project Blog:

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).
Under a no-cost extension during the last half of 2019, Dr. Norris reports that his team’s focus continued to be data sharing and dissemination, including publication of another scientific article and presentations of their research findings at international events. At the same time they continued field-based activities, with successful installation, testing, and activation of the river level monitoring system during the 2019/2020 turtle nesting season. With this monitoring system active since November 30, 2019, the researchers were able to avoid the most serious nest flooding impacts. Together with the local communities, they took preventive actions so that no eggs were submerged in 2019, in contrast to the devastating losses suffered during the previous year’s nesting season. The new technology provided real time and reliable data that helped avoid the flooding and loss of hundreds of eggs and save more than 200 hatchlings.

Dr. Norris has also recently contributed a "Green List" Assessment of the turtle species Podocnemis unifilis for inclusion and evaluation by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This was carried out in collaboration with Dr. Molly Grace at the University of Oxford (UK). A Green List assessment is an optimistic vision of species conservation that presents a road map on how to preserve a species and facilitate its recovery.

The PI and his team plan a workshop in March 2020 to develop sustainable alternatives for the conservation of river turtles in Amapá State and around its national forest (FLONA). Based on the success of the workshops they held in 2018, the researchers have been invited to coordinate the State action plan for river turtle conservation. The workshop will enable them to continue disseminating their results, sharing best practices, and establishing a secure future for the species and the local peoples.

Recent Publications

Quintana, I., D. Norris, A. Valerio, F.G. Becker, J.P. Gibbs, and F. Michalski. 2019. Nest removal by humans creates an evolutionary trap for Amazonian freshwater turtles. J Zool, 309: 94-105. doi:10.1111/jzo.12689

Norris, D., F. Michalski, and J.P. Gibbs. 2018. 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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