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Bottlenecks in the migration routes of Amazonian manatees and the threat of hydroelectric dams

Gargalos na rota migratória do peixe-boi amazônico e a ameaça das barragens hidrelétricas

Eduardo Moraes ARRAUT José Luis ARRAUT Miriam MARMONTEL José Eduardo MANTOVANI Evlyn Márcia Leão de Moraes NOVO About the authors


In a particular region within western Amazonia, Amazonian manatees (Trichechus inunguis) live in a floodplain environment that becomes inhospitable for them during the annual low-water season. To flee from it, they undergo a dangerous migration to a refuge while water levels are dropping fast. Our aim was to better understand the role of depth variation in this migratory process. We analyzed the sole tracking data on wild manatees (n=10 males), 30 years of Landsat images, a 14-year hydrograph and a 3-D bathymetric model. Migratory routes contained shallower segments, here called 'migratory bottlenecks', which dried out at the end of most lowering-water seasons, blocking the passage to the refuge. Manatees began migrating just in time to traverse the bottlenecks furthest away, suggesting they fine-tuned their departure so as to maximize time within the foraging home range without compromising safety. They apparently achieved this by estimating depth at the bottlenecks. Moreover, a bottleneck was created in >15 years, illustrating the environment's dynamism and the challenge this imposes upon manatees. Our results are probably generalizable to most of the species' range. We contend manatees possess an updatable cognitive map of their environment and are behaviorally plastic. Current dam-building plans, if implemented, would create more bottlenecks and make flooding less predictable, increasing manatee mortality from unsuccessful migrations. It would also partition the species into small populations, each prone to short-term extinction. The natural outcome would be the second species-level collapse. Economic growth should not come at the expense of the extinction of the iconic manatee.

Sirenia; behavioral plasticity; Mamirauá; Amazon development

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