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Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Ocean in the Jungle

"There is a river that runs from the mountains,
That one river is all rivers, all rivers are that one...
It is the song of life, it is the flower of faith,
It is the tree of temptation, it is the river of no regret."

- John Denver, Amazon

If you asked any ten zookeepers to create a short-list of the places around the world that they would love to see before they die, I'm sure there would be a fair bit of overlap.  I'm sure many would say the Serengeti Plains, and the Australian Outback, the Galapagos, and perhaps the Himalayas.  I'm also sure that most, if not all, would say the Amazon.

I know I would.

For many people - zoo staff and zoo visitors alike - the Amazon is the quintessential, paragon rainforest in our collective imagination.  And that rainforest is defined by its the river for which it is named.  Spanning five countries, the Amazon isn't the longest river in the world, but it is the largest, pushing out more water into the ocean than the next seven largest rivers combined.  It freshens the sea for miles from its mouth.  Its waters are home to some of the most extraordinary freshwater creatures on the planet, from anaconda and caiman to manatees and river dolphins, to say nothing of the thousands of species of fish, with more being discovered annually.

For all of their many positive traits, zoo and aquarium directors tend not to be an especially imaginative lot, and you tend to see a lot of repetition among zoo designs.  Someone comes up with an idea, it blooms at their zoo, and then you can sit back and watch it spread like wildfire throughout the community.  Sometimes the fad burns out, sometimes it doesn't.  Amazon River displays are one of those which have shown no signs of burning out.

National Aquarium in Baltimore has its Amazon River Forest.  Shedd Aquarium has Amazon Rising. Audubon Aquarium of the Americas has its Amazon Rainforest. Dallas World Aquarium devotes most of its collection to the Orinoco River, which shares many of the same fish species.  The National Zoo has Amazonia, Zoo Miami has Amazon and Beyond (including a river-life building), Milwaukee and Pittsburgh devote large chunks of their zoo aquariums to the Amazon.. even the tiny, now-closed DC aquarium was basically divided in half between oceans and Amazon.

I don't think that it would be an exaggeration to say that about 90% of the freshwater exhibit space I've seen at zoos and aquariums has been devoted to the fishes of the Amazon.  Apart from a few displays of Rift Valley cichlids (an endangered group of beautiful little East African lake fishes), almost the entirety of the remainder has been devoted to native freshwater habitats (Baltimore gets some points for originality with their Australian river display).

You certainly can't blame them. Ichtyologically speaking, the Amazon is the stuff of legends.  You have some of the most massive freshwater fish in the world, such as the pacu, red-tailed catfish, and the arapaima.  You have the notorious red-bellied piranha, nowhere near as savage as the stories claim, but still a major crowdpleaser.  You have the electric eel, a predator with a power that defies imagination.  Bull sharks and sawfish are known to make appearances.  You have a host of gorgeous fish, from the tiny neon tetra to the handsomely striped tiger oscars.  Throw in the reptiles - crocodilians, twenty-foot long snakes, and turtles the size of coffee tables - and you have an amazing collection of aquatic life.

The advantage of having many zoos and aquariums working with the same set of fish species is that expertise can be developed and better husbandry will result.  The downside is that allowing one habitat to monopolize our aquarium collections can lead us to overlook other, equally fascinating habitats.  Do you know how many fish species from the Congo River I can name?  Zero.  The Mekong?  Maybe one or two.  It would be beneficial for education and research purposes to start focusing a little more on other imperiled freshwater habitats around the world.  Those species may not have the star power of the Amazonian fishes, but could still benefit from our help and understanding.

I do hope to see the Amazon someday, though I doubt I'll see too much of its fishlife, unless someone has hooked it and pulled it onto dry land.  I've said before, I'm not a diver, and even if I was, I've been told that it's almost impossible to see anything in the murky waters of the Amazon - literally anything could be in there with you.  Which is one of many reasons that I'll always have a major softspot for aquariums.  They've shown me - shown all of us, really - a world that we would otherwise not be able to even imagine.

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