Wildlife of Brazil's Pantanal
Brazil's Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world and home to more than 3,500 plant and 690 bird species. Although not as famous as the Amazon rainforest, the unique ecological and hydrological characteristics of the Pantanal, a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, make it an equally important ecosystem.
The Pantanal is located in western Brazil near the borders of Bolivia and Paraguay, and is the largest freshwater wetland in the world. Covering 200,000 square kilometres, it is roughly half the size of the US state of California and comprises an impressive mosaic of forests, grasslands, swamps and rivers. The singular ecological and hydrological characteristics of the area make it a spectacular sanctuary of flora and fauna, home to myriad species such as the caiman, tapirs, giant anteaters, and hyacinth macaws. It has also been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A massive flooding during the wet season (November to March) causes the region to act like a giant sponge, so that up to 78 per cent of the area is submerged each year, with water levels rising up to five metres in some parts. This results in a rich, fertile habitat comparable to the Nile Delta. The influx of fresh water explains the diversity of life in this region, but also brings with it problems of human overexploitation.
Despite its unique ecological characteristics and biodiversity, the Pantanal remains a less studied region in Brazil than, for example, the Amazon rainforest. Unfortunately, this lack of scientific research is not a reflection of the lack of threats to this sensitive ecosystem; on the contrary, the wildlife of the Pantanal is increasingly at risk from human activities. Intensive cattle ranching, transportation projects, uncontrolled tourism, sport fishing and poaching have negative impacts on biodiversity. Industrial effluents containing mercury and other pollutants from gold mines also pose a risk to the native biota (plant and animal life) inhabiting the streams and rivers.
Four Earthwatch projects address this lack of scientific research in the Pantanal wetlands, each focusing on improving our knowledge about the ecology and threats facing particular groups of species. These projects are led by Brazilian scientists and share the aim of developing our understanding of this complex ecosystem, thus creating conservation strategies that will draw attention to this spectacular ecosystem and combat the damage caused by human activities.
Bats of the Pantanal
Bats play a key role in ecosystems around the world, including the neotropical ecosystems such as the Pantanal, as they disperse seeds, host parasites, eat insects and pollinate flowering trees. Despite their crucial ecological role, these creatures are still feared and mistrusted. Dr. Erich Fischer's project investigates feeding preferences and different species of bats in the Pantanal, their role in seed dispersal and pollination, and associated ectoparasites (parasites that live outside the body), with the aim of improving our knowledge of bats and their associated species to develop effective conservation plans. The research so far includes the sampling of more than 1,000 bats in 26 species and five families, and different species compositions in several habitats.
Birds of the Pantanal
The Pantanal is home to more than 690 species of bird, including jabiru stork, parrots, hummingbirds, and kingfishers, and provides an important source of food and water for migratory birds during the dry season. Dr. Reginaldo Donatelli's research focuses on documenting the amazing bird diversity and bird behaviour in the Rio Negro region of the Pantanal. He is building an understanding of how birds interact with their various habitats and the main threats affecting bird species. To date, volunteers have registered more than 45,000 bird identifications through sightings and songs of over 400 different species. Volunteer observations of low species diversity around salinas (soda lake) habitats also suggest the lakes are in the first stages of eutrophication (nutrient enrichment from chemical compounds that often results in excessive plant growth leading to ecosystem degradation) as a result of nearby cattle farm activity.
Otters of the Pantanal
Giant otters (Pteronura brasiliensis) are well-known for their playful nature and conspicuous physical characteristics and vocalisations (with a repertoire ranging from barks and snorts to hums and coos), making them a great tourist attraction. However, habitat destruction and degradation as a result of poorly managed nature tourism, as well as logging and agriculture in the Pantanal, has decimated giant otter populations so they are now classified as endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Manoel Muanis' research follows these creatures to see how they interact with other species of otters in the Pantanal. Volunteers identified 11 different giant otter individuals in 2007 and collected a range of data on the diet of giant otters. This data is being analysed to determine the dietary overlap between different otter species. Identifying and studying the habitat requirements and feeding habits of otter species will be used to inform species management plans and to develop more sustainable ecotourism regulation.
Reptiles and amphibians of the Pantanal
Reptile and amphibian species are often the first to show signs of environmental stress, making them good indicator species for the health of an ecosystem. Despite this, the database of reptiles and amphibians in the Pantanal is poor and in urgent need of recategorisation. Professor Jeffrey Himmelstein's research uses pitfall traps, artificial pool creation, raking, nocturnal sampling, and road cruising to survey frog, snake and turtle species to come up with a more thorough species inventory of herpetological (dealing with reptiles and amphibians) diversity in the region.
So far volunteers have helped capture and identify 13 species of frogs, 10 species of snakes, nine species of lizards, and some tortoises. Ultimately, these results can be used to identify which sites are threatened by the onset of environmental impacts such as those related to eutrophication or climate change. The project has also played an important educational role for local farmers and volunteers alike, dispelling some of the negativity to frogs and snakes.
Did you know?
- The word Pantanal comes from the Portuguese word pântano meaning wetland, bog, swamp or marsh. By comparison, the Brazilian highlands are locally referred to as the planalto, plateau or, literally, high plain.
- There are an estimated one million caiman individuals in the Pantanal, as opposed to roughly 200,000 people.
- The lowest areas of the Pantanal, where permanent and semi-permanent lakes and ponds are found, are home to some of the most diverse, floating aquatic plants in the world.
- To date 3,500 plant, 500 butterfly, 400 fish, 30 frog, 80 reptile, 690 bird, and 75 mammal species have been found in the Pantanal.
Find out more
• Join the Earthwatch expedition Wildlife of Brazil's Pantanal.
• Read a volunteer blog from the Reptiles and Amphibians of the Pantanal expedition.