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Finding Fish in Peru, Part Two

In November 2018, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute researchers and partners spent two weeks in Peru counting and identifying fish. In part two of this story, meet more of the animals they encountered and find out how their work could help protect wildlife that call this part of the Amazon home (Missed Part One? Read it here).

A fish researcher in the Peruvian Amazon holds a spotted tiger shovelnose catfish

This spotted tiger shovelnose catfish (Pseudoplatystoma punctifer) was caught in the Katirnaentsa River during the dry season, when the water levels were low. It is one of the larger catfish species found in the aquatic ecosystems of the Amazon.

Shovelnose catfish are nocturnal hunters and important predators in the food chain. They are also a key food source for local communities.

A variety of fish roasting on a grill constructed from pieces of bamboo

Fish, big and small, are one of the main protein sources for local communities in the Amazon. This meal from the Achuar Community of Brasilia includes piranhas (genus Serrasalmus), palometas (genus Mylossoma) and small mojarras (family Characidae).

Two small banded dwarf cichlids with light stripes down their bodies and fins down their backs swim over a green leaf

The banded dwarf cichlid (Apistogramma bitaeniata) can be found in slow-moving blackwater rivers and streams of the Amazon Basin in Peru and Brazil.

Species in the genus place their eggs in cavities and crevices that they often construct themselves. The female tends to the eggs until they hatch.

Two ichthyologists (fish researchers) take water samples from a boat in a stream in the Peruvian Amazon

In addition to collecting fish at each sampling site, the team also tested the water for dissolved solids, oxygen content, temperature and more.

In this photo, Leonardo Dávila Panduro measures variables associated with water quality. Dávila Panduro is one of the two lead ichthyologists on the project. Ichthyology is the study of fish.

Two hatchetfish with silvery scales and round bellies swim just below the water's surface

The common hatchetfish (Gasteropelecus sternicla) is a small freshwater fish found in slow-flowing waters across the Amazon Basin.

Hatchetfish live in large schools that swim near the surface of the water where they feed on invertebrates. They can easily leap from the water to capture small flying insects and also use this handy skill to escape danger from below.

Researchers and environmental monitors from the local community sit around a table and process samples collected during a fish survey in the Peruvian Amazon

The ichthyologists (remember, that’s a fancy word for fish researchers) worked closely with indigenous environmental monitors from villages in the Morona river watershed to process the fish they collected. Together, they photographed the fish and collected tissue samples for future DNA analysis.

The team also presented early results from their previous wildlife survey with the Brasilia native community who own much of the territory in which their study takes place. Sharing data directly with the people who live and work on the land is an essential piece of science and conservation work, and helps the research team better understand the needs and priorities of local people.

A type of toadfish, called a prehistoric monster fish, viewed from above. It has a wide body that tapers into a long tail that ends in a short fin. Two fins extend from its sides, and it has mottled dark brown markings along its body

Some animals the team discovered were unexpected, like this prehistoric monster fish (Thalassophryne amazonica). This species was previously unknown at the study site – even by local fishermen they spoke with.

Camouflaged on the sandy bottom of an Amazonian stream, this venomous predator partially buries itself and patiently waits for smaller fish to swim by. It has tiny eyes and a large mouth, characteristic of toadfish (the larger group of mostly marine fish to which this species belongs). In fact, across the Peruvian Amazon this species is known as “peje sapo,” which means frog fish.

Prehistoric monster fish are rare, and populations are threatened by the aquarium trade and ornamental fish market.

In addition to surveying fish, researchers have also set up acoustic monitoring and camera traps to capture sounds and photos of animals on land. In May, another team will begin to look at how different species use canopy bridges high up in the trees.

Collectively, these projects will help build a picture of the animals that live in this understudied area of the Peruvian Amazon. Scientists and local communities can then work together to monitor for changes, look at how human activities impact wildlife and develop conservation strategies.