Hyacinth Macaw

The Hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) is the largest flying bird from the parrot family (Psittacidae), and is around 1 metre long measured from the tip of its beak to the end of the tail. It can be found in three main areas of Brazil: east Amazonia, Gerais do Manhão, and Pantanal do Mato Grosso, as well as in eastern Bolivia and Paraguay. In those regions Hyacinth macaws can find their main food source, the fruits of palm trees (namely Attalea phalerata and Acrocomia aculeata). Hyacinth macaws have a beautiful cobalt blue colour, bare yellow skin around its lower mandible, and black underwings [1, 2]. These striking features combined with an innate charisma makes it very popular, having become a tourist attraction in the Pantanal.

Acrocomia aculeata fruit, the yummiest of them all. Photo by © 2006 Carla Antonini (Autoría propia.) [CC BY-SA 2.5 ar (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/ar/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

These features are also a downside, as illegal trade has taken around 10,000 birds from the wild just during 1980s, not only to be traded as pets but also to use its feathers as decoration, leading this species to become endangered. Fortunately, today this practice is in decline. This lovely bird is not yet safe from danger: the continuous destruction of habitat for cattle-ranching and hydroelectric power stations has contributed to the species decline. This is mainly due to the destructions of manduvi trees (Sterculia apetala) where Hyacinth macaw makes its nest.

A pair of Hyacinth Macaws and their nest in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. Photo by Geoff Gallice from Gainesville, FL, USA (Hyacinth macaws) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Not only do they have to compete with other macaws for nesting sites, but there are also other animals that use these trees for the same purpose. Even more problematic is that only trees older than 60 years produce cavities large enough to be used as nesting sites for the macaws. Not only that, but a study performed by Pizo et al. [3] suggests that the availability of the nesting sites are dependent on its major nest predator, the Toco toucan (Ramphastos toco), to disperse the seeds of manduvi trees.

Toco toucan, an example of complex interspecies interaction. Photo by cp channel uploaded by benjli (http://www.flickr.com/photos/cpchannel/221158822/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Due to increased public awareness lead by researchers and educators, the Hyacinth macaw now stands a better chance of survival, having been downlisted from endangered into vulnerable in 2014 by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species [4]. There is an ongoing project in the Pantanal do Mato Grosso denominated “Hyacinth Macaw Project” (Projecto Arara Azul in Portuguese) aiming to protect this species in their natural habitat, perform biological research and provide environmental education [2]. This project was started in 1990 by Dr. Neiva Guedes, after she saw the majesty of 30 hyacinth macaws in the wild, and afterwards learned about their endangered status. In 1999 WWF-Brazil became a great partner of the project running up to this day [5].

A happy Hyacinth Macaw couple. Photo by Ltshears (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


[1] http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=1543

[2] http://web.archive.org/web/20021111023725/http:/www.wwf.org.br/english/informa/sitearara_projeto.htm

[3] Marco Aurélio Pizo, Camila I. Donatti, Neiva Maria R. Guedes, Mauro Galetti, Conservation puzzle: Endangered hyacinth macaw depends on its nest predator for reproduction, Biological Conservation, Volume 141, Issue 3, March 2008, Pages 792-796

[4] http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/summary/22685516/0

[5] http://www.projetoararaazul.org.br/arara/Home/OProjeto/tabid/53/Default.aspx

Feauted photo: Hyacinth Macaw, saying hello to visitors. Photo by Sunira (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Trouble in paradise: Oil roads significantly reduce rainforest frog biodiversity


  • The canopy of tropical rainforests harbour a rich variety of life, and remain a largely unexplored scientific frontier
  • Bromeliads are plants that grow in the rainforest canopy, and their leaves form minute ponds in which water can collect, playing host to many other species
  • Disturbance caused by road building and deforestation dramatically alters these complex arboreal ecosystems, with strongly negative impacts on biodiversity

There is an entire world in microcosm living among the branches in the rainforest canopy. This world is complex and replete with microhabitats, hence it supports many thousands of species. The canopy is largely unexplored by scientists, due in part to the difficulties of conducting a study tens of metres above the ground. One of the most important microhabitats present in the lofty world among the trees are phyotelmata- miniature pools that form in the leaves of plants that are perfectly adapted to life in the tree tops. And the most important of these plants are the bromeliads- they have specialised ‘tanks’ at their base, where overlapping leaves form a leak-proof pond of water in order to trap water. This is because most bromeliads are epiphytes- plants that live on tree branches whose roots never touch the ground, relying on airborne mist and dust for their water and nutrition.

Ranitomeya variabilis male, carrying his tadpole on his back. [Picture retrieved from http://www.dendrobates.org/images/variabilis_nominal9.jpg 17/02/2016]
Many animal species are bromeliad specialists; they can live and breed nowhere else. Among the most common specialists are frogs- they require water to hatch their eggs and rear their tadpoles- and as such they are at the greatest risk should anything happen to their arboreal nurseries. One such species is the fantastically colourful poison dart frog Ranitomeya variabilis (left): only as large as your thumbnail, potently poisonous and brilliantly adapted to the rainforest high-life. The female of this bijou little frog lays her eggs in the tank of a bromeliad, and supplies it with infertile eggs as food. Should anything endanger the tadpole, the male carries it on his back to find safety in a new bromeliad pond.

Yasuní national park, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, is the most biodiverse place on Earth, and is a fantastic place to study the rainforest canopy as its variety of life is almost unmatched. Unfortunately Yasuní is under threat by recent oil exploration due to its underground reserves of fossil fuels. A recent study published in the online journal PLoS ONE has attempted to examine the damage caused by this exploration, with a focus on the impacts of oil road construction. The investigation focussed on the response of bromeliad-dwelling frog diversity under three different ‘treatments’- intact forest, low-impact road construction (which uses geofabric as a base) and high-impact road construction (which uses felled trees as a base).. Along with this they recorded environmental variables such as the tree species that bromeliads were living on, the height above the ground that they were growing and the number of bromeliads growing in each tree. The researchers focussed on frogs living in one particular species of pool-forming bromeliad, Aechmea zebrina. Their analyses revealed a startling result: bromeliads growing near oil roads (both low and high-impact) harboured significantly fewer individual frogs from fewer species. Deforestation has many effects on rainforests- the loss of large trees reduces the local

Bromeliads (Aechmea zebrina) in Yasuni national park, with the author collecting specimens. Retrieved from McCracken & Forstner (2014)

humidity, increases temperature and further tree mortality. As well as this, toxic fumes from oil-towing vehicles could pollute the areas surrounding the road. Both bromeliads and frogs are ‘hypersensitive’ to changes in climatic conditions, because they rely on the moist, cool rainforest air to supply them with water and prevent them from drying out. This, coupled with the reduced number of bromeliads, drastically reduces the habitat space available to canopy-dwelling amphibians; habitat loss is one of the greatest threats to frogs worldwide.

Detrimental effects of oil extraction of tropical rainforests are well documented, and as this study shows even the lowest possible impacts of oil extraction have a significantly destructive influence on these mega-diverse systems. As such, the authors suggest that no further access routes are made into Yasuní, and best-practice methods are used to try to protect this precious tropical Eden.




McCracken, S.F., Forstner, M.R.J. (2014) ‘Oil road effects on the Anuran community of a high canopy tank bromeliad (Aechmea zebrina) in the Upper Amazon Basin, Ecuador’ PLoS ONE 9(1): e85470. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0085470

Sempre Vivas, Manatees and the Green Sea Turtle

In the news this week…

  • The story of Sempre Vivas, the ‘everlasting’ flower of which three species are critically endangered, and how they provide a ‘way of life’ in Brazil.
  • Manatees are due to be downlisted from endangered to threatened.
  • A specimen from the Yale Peabody museum that was eaten as ‘mystery meat’ at the annual dinner of the Explorers Club on Jan. 13, 1951 was originally thought to be that of a sloth, however it is actually of the Green Sea Turtle – a species now classed as endangered.

Image courtesy of think4photop at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Riverine roadblocks: Vital connections between Amazonian watercourses severed by environmental change


  • The Amazon basin has the highest freshwater fish diversity in the world, and provides fish for millions of people along its course
  • The interconnected watercourses of the Amazon are in danger due to dam building and droughts caused by climate change
  • Conservation strategies have been devised based on ‘metapopulation theory’, where connectivity is maintained between the many thousands of watercourses in the Amazon basin
  • These strategies aim to protect fisheries and biodiversity by improving their resilience to change

The Amazon River and its tributaries are home to over 5600 fish species- more than the entire Atlantic Ocean. This plethora of species supports many millions of people living along the banks of the mighty river, who depend on fishing for subsistence and income. The forests, floodplains and lakes of the Amazon are interconnected during half of the year due to seasonal flooding, linking watercourses across a vast area; the river acts as the veins for the ‘lungs of the Earth’. The interconnected nature of these watercourses allows fish to move far and wide across the Amazon basin, causing the seasonal influx of many millions of fish, directly providing food for local people. In addition to this, flooding brings new individuals (and by extension, new genes) into the mix, allowing fish to breed and the next generation to disperse. Indeed, this connectivity is a key part of the life cycles of many economically (and ecologically) important fish species.

The watercourses of the Amazon are many and linked by seasonal flooding

Unfortunately, these seasonal ‘fish highways’ are at risk. The most imminent threat comes from the building of hydroelectric dams. Dams act as an impenetrable barrier to fish that need to migrate along river systems in order to breed, preventing them from reaching their spawning grounds. The second major threat to the aquatic life of tropical floodplains is climate change, which also acts as a road block for these fish thoroughfares. Climate change extends the dry season, trapping fish in ever-shrinking water bodies, severing the connections between aquatic environments and reducing the influx of food that is usual
ly washed in by floods. These problems will only become more severe in the coming decades, as development encroaches on wilderness, and the climate continues to warm. The reduction in recruitment of young fish due to hampered seasonal flooding will also lead to a reduction in fish stocks, increasing their vulnerability to overexploitation by humans.

Many species are dependent on Amazonian wetlands, such as the 3m wide Victoria water lily.

A recent study published in Biological Conservation highlights the importance of habitat connectivity to Neotropical fish communities, the threats they face and most importantly suggests conservation strategies aimed at preserving the interconnected nature of Amazonian floodplains. The conservation strategies are based ‘metapopulation theory’- the way that natural populations hedge their bets against environmental change. It posits that in nature organisms exist in metapopulations- small, inter-connected populations that individuals may freely disperse between. Under this pattern, should any natural catastrophe locally wipe out a metapopulation, there will always be a source of new individuals from one of the others able to recolonise. This hugely reduces the likelihood that an entire species will go extinct. Since dam construction is an immediate threat to the connections between metapopulations and to the breeding patterns of many migratory species, Hurd et al. suggest that governments should slow the rate of damn construction on these important watercourses, and where construction must take place that ‘fish ladders’ (artificial steps allowing fish to migrate up and down river) should be built.

Climate change and its effects on the floodplains of the Amazon is an altogether more difficult problem to address. However, the authors promote the establishment of large protected areas in order to encapsulate as much biodiversity as possible, and to facilitate the regulatory functions that intact ecosystems undertake. In addition to this, reducing overexploitation of fish species by banning commercial fishing, only allowing subsistence catches under a quota system would allow fish metapopulations to replenish stocks naturally. These community-based management techniques have been shown to work in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon, and can hopefully be applied across the Amazon basin.



Hurd, L.E., Sousa, R.G.C., Siqueira-Souza, F.K., Cooper, G.J., Kahn, J.R., Freitas, C.E.C. (2016) Amazonian floodplain fish communities: Habitat connectivity and conservation in a rapidly deteriorating environment. Biological Conservation 195: 118-127

Environmental change and the extinction of ecological interactions


  • Interactions between species allow ecosystems to function, and channel energy, nutrients, water and other resources. 
  • A new mathematical model was devised to test whether the loss of species and the loss of ecological interactions were connected.
  • Where ‘keystone’ interactions are removed, a cascade of other ecological interactions are lost, even before other species become extinct
  • Climate change and habitat loss sever ecological links between species, disrupting the function of ecosystems and reducing the benefits they provide.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”. These were the words of John Muir, the famous twentieth century naturalist and one of the first proponents of the conservation movement. It implies that when one element of a natural system is changed there will be a cascade of effects upon all of its constituents; this is an astute observation as ‘ecological cascades’ – changes to one small part of an ecosystem having a disproportionately large effect- are well demonstrated in environmental science. If these interactions are so complex and far- reaching, then how will they change life on Earth in the face of species extinction and climatic change?

Interactions between species are complex and interlinked, like the threads of a spiders web

A recent study by Alfonso Valiente-Banuet et al. may have the answer. Using a new type of mathematical model that takes into account the diversity of species, the diversity of their interactions and the degree of environmental degradation, the group investigated whether there is a link between species extinction and loss of ecological interactions.

The importance of species interactions may at first be unclear, but they are essential for the functioning of living systems. A healthy ecosystem is a web of interconnected organisms, all performing different roles and chaperoning the cycling of energy and nutrients- the unintentional product of this cycling is the provision of ecosystem services which directly benefit us. For example, think of how trees take groundwater and through transpiration turn it into rain clouds, or of the constant recycling performed by earthworms in your allotment, returning nutrients to the soil so that you can grow those prize-winning pumpkins. On a large scale and under major environmental devastation the loss of some interactions may have far more dire consequences- droughts, famine and increased susceptibility to natural disasters to name a few (Diaz et al., 2006).

In the face of environmental change, these links become more and more threatened as the species that orchestrate them go extinct, eliminating key elements of the web. The study, published in Functional Ecology, shows that with increasing environmental degradation the rate of the loss of ecological links depends on the species in question. Generalist species, species that are ecological ‘jack-of all trades’, have interactions that are easily replaced by other species in the ecosystem until most species are extinct. However, many of the most important ecological jobs are conducted by ‘keystone’ species, which demonstrate ‘keystone’ interactions- i.e. those that have a disproportionately large effect on the ecosystem, and whose loss would mean the loss of many critically important interactions. It is these species that have the strongest effect on the extinction of ecological interactions, even before many other species go extinct. These are the interactions which should be conservation priorities, as ‘…to ensure the long-term provision of ecosystem services that depend upon biodiversity, the greatest attention should be focused on those components of biodiversity, such as species interactions, that can be affected by the new scenarios emerging in a changing world. ‘



Díaz S, Fargione J, Chapin FS III, Tilman D (2006) Biodiversity Loss Threatens Human Well-Being. PLoS Biol 4(8): e277. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0040277

Valiente-Banuet, A., Aizen, M.A., Alcántara, J.M., Arroyo, J., Cocucci, A., Galetti, M., García, M.B., García, D., Gómez, J.M., Jordano, P., Medel, R., Navarro, L., Obeso, J.R., Ovideo, R., Ramírez, N., Rey, P.J., Traveset, A., Verdú, M., Zamora, R. (2015) ‘Beyond species loss: the extinction of ecological interactions in a changing world’. Functional Ecology 29: 299-307.

Brazilian Rosewood: Dalbergia nigra

Brazilian Rosewood is a tree endemic to the central regions of the Atlantic Forest, a tropical and subtropical broadleaf forest that traces the south eastern coast of Brazil. This forest is one of the most diverse regions in the world, and though less famous than the Amazon it is much more at risk. By 2003 it was estimated that 92% of the Atlantic Forest had been lost, with the remnants largely consisting of small separate areas which at the time it contained approximately 11,000 endangered species [1].


Of the roughly 22,000 plant species native to the Atlantic Forest [2] the distinctive Brazilian Rosewood, at around 40m, is amongst the tallest [3]. It is listed Vulnerable on the ICUN list of threatened species and in 1992 it was given the highest level of protection offered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It currently only grows in small, fragmented populations, and attempted regeneration of the species so far has had a very low level of success.

Why is it in danger?

Much of the damage to the Brazilian Rosewood population comes from the general destruction of the Atlantic Rainforest, which began centuries ago when Europeans began to colonise South America. Recently this has been spreading due to, amongst other things, the large scale conversion of native forest into monoculture such as soy or tobacco plantations, and the the Atlantic Forest’s unfortunate situation alongside two of the biggest cities in the word, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

This widespread habitat loss is not however the only thing endangering this important species, and for a long time the Brazilian Rosewood has been the victim of targeted logging. The timber of his species has many desirable characteristics. Besides it’s beautiful grain, colour and the rose-like scent of it’s heart wood, which have made it a popular furniture material since the 18th century, it is highly resonant, emitting a metallic ring when cut correctly, and it is this property that has made it one of the most highly sought after materials for the creation of stringed and woodwind instruments, and now the guitar, since as long ago as the late Renaissance.

It is for these reasons that there has long been a trade in Brazilian Rosewood from South America to Europe, and that over time this trade has resulted in the Brazilian Rosewood population dropping to a vulnerable level.

What is being done about it?

Trade in any Brazilian Rosewood has been highly restricted since its addition to CITES in 1992, and any logging of the species is now illegal. This has not however proved enough to stop the trade, which is still ongoing, and there are still vendors in the UK claiming to sell the wood with no mention of the need for documentation. The European Commission is working closely internationally, particularly with the USA, to reduce the illegal trade as far as possible, and the conservation status of this species is now well known amongst luthiers (the makers of stringed instruments), and there are other high quality alternative species available that are not restricted by CITES.


Beyond this, there are organisations in Brazil attempting to create sustainable plantations of this species to simultaneously address the demand for the wood, thus protecting the remaining trees, and to provide the local community with income.

Between these local and international efforts, and the increasing protections of what remains of the Atlantic Forest, the fate of this species is my no means sealed already, but it will likely take a continued and strengthened effort, as well as the regeneration of much of its broken and fragmented habitat.



[1] Galindo Leal, Carlos, and Ibsen de Gusmão Câmara. 2003. The Atlantic Forest of South America: biodiversity status, threats, and outlook. Washington: Island Press.

[2] Atlantic forest | ARKive

http://www.arkive.org › Eco-regions › Atlantic forest

[3] http://globaltrees.org/threatened-trees/trees/brazilian-rosewood/