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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 second quarter of 2019, postdoctoral fellow Dr. Juliana Menger joined the project to work on analyses of community composition on the Madeira river floodplains using soundscape data collected during previous fieldwork. A new graduate student, Bernardo Prestes, was also welcomed to the project team to work with a portion of the genomic data. Two other grad students on the project have recently been awarded fellowships to perform part of their research in labs in the United States. Leilton Luna will spend a year at the University of Michigan in collaboration with Dr. Lacey Knowles working on a manuscript on comparative population genomics. Eduardo Schultz will spend six months at the City University of New York and American Museum of Natural History collaborating with Dr. Michael Hickerson and co-PI Dr. Joel Cracraft on demographic signatures for floodplain forest birds. Eduardo recently finished his internship at the University of Turku, where he developed some indices of habitat affinity that will be important for subsequent analyses. In addition, two other students associated with the project defended their thesis and dissertation in this period. Jadson Viana defended his Master’s thesis on June 7 on the topic “Geographic distribution of birds associated to flooded Amazonian environments,” and on June 27 Thiago Orsi Laranjeiras defended his PhD dissertation entitled “Geographic patterns and conservation of birds in habitats created by rivers in Amazonia.”

Although the PI Dr. Ribas and her team have already completed most of the data collection on the project, during this past quarter they participated in two small expeditions to the periodically flooded white sand areas in the Jaú area of endemism (RDS Rio Negro), collecting 132 samples to complement previous sampling efforts. In July, a group of researchers including the PI, co-PI Alexandre Aleixo, and project postdocs Fernando d’Horta and Mateus Ferreira published a paper in Science Advances entitled “A dynamic continental moisture gradient drove Amazonian bird diversification.” Several other papers have been submitted recently and are under review or revision. Meanwhile, the PI and her colleagues have continued their collaboration with the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) regarding the impact of the Belo Monte dam at the Xingu river and the prospect of implementation of the water discharge regime that will reduce discharge at a large portion of the lower Xingu river. They have analyzed the monitoring of fluvial vegetation and birds being conducted by the company responsible for operation of Belo Monte (Norte Energia). In addition, they have participated in the creation of a manuscript organized by ISA about the impacts of the dam. That paper has been submitted recently as well.

The PI also reports that the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) has expressed interest in using the results of the PEER project in their evaluation of the impact of Amazonian dams, including in the Belo Monte situation. IBAMA and the Federal Prosecution Service have used the team’s results as the scientific basis for new requests for studies and new strategies for monitoring the environmental impacts of the Belo Monte dam, as well as to substantiate the need for a reassessment of the proposed hydrograph.

As the project moves towards its completion date at the end of November 2019, Dr. Ribas and her colleagues plan to continue preparing and submitting manuscripts based on their work on the project. They will also deliver a presentation at the meeting of the International Biogeographic Society in Quito, Ecuador, August 5-9. In addition, they plan a few additional field trips with non-PEER funding in order to complement their previous sampling in specific regions of Amazonia. 

Recent Paper Published:

Silva, S. M., A.T. Peterson, L. Carneiro, T.C.T. Burlamaqui, C.C. Ribas, T. Sousa-Neves, … A. Aleixo. (2019). A dynamic continental moisture gradient drove Amazonian bird diversification. Science Advances, 5(7).  

Recent Paper Accepted for Publication: 

Ribas, C.C., and A. Aleixo. (2019) Diversity and evolution of Amazonian birds: implications for conservation and biogeography. Annals of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, 91, Suppl. 3: e20190218

Recent Press Releases (in Portuguese):  

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