FLOODING, LOW WATER, AND HIGH WATER LEVELS IN THE RAINFOREST
By Rhett Butler
| Last updated July 31, 2012
Seasonal flooding is characteristic of many tropical rivers, although few compare to the so-called igapo (swamp
forest) and varzea (flooded forest) of the Amazon River Basin, where large tracts of rainforest are inundated to
depths of 40 feet during seasonal flooding. The lowest flood stage occurs in August and September, while the highest
stage occurs in April and May. Tributaries that drain the Guyana Shield flood in June, while the tributaries
that drain the Brazilian Shield flood in March or April. Since the peak rainy seasons are out of phase, the peak
discharges of left bank (Guyana shield) and right bank (Brazilian shield) rivers are somewhat offset, having the
effect of moderating high and low water levels on the main stream, but tributaries can have extreme variations.
Rain and snow that fall in the Andes and other highland areas reach the Amazon through its tributaries and produce
the high-water season. Deforestation of foothills and upper basin may have caused a shift in rain levels during
certain times of the year resulting in irregular high and low river levels.
Flooding has important functions for the surrounding forests including eradicating pests, enriching soils with
nutrients from whitewater rivers (especially varzea forests), and dispersing seeds.
Varzea vs. Igapo Forest
The contrasts between the low- and high-water season in some areas of the Amazon Basin are extreme. Low water leaves
vast islands and sand bars exposed and river banks high above water level. Smaller tributaries may become so shallow that travel by dugout
canoe is barely possible only when travelers push the canoe. Creeks and streams, which are raging torrents
when rainstorms come, may dry up altogether.
Low water is a time of troubles for most Amazonian fish and a time of plenty for predators like arapaima, large
catfish, dolphins, and jaguars. With the dramatic decrease in water area, fish become trapped in tiny lakes and
river shallows and are easy targets for predators.
In the floodplains, which during highwater are a continuous stretch of water, bodies of water are reduced to floodplain
lakes. These floodplain lakes are packed with fish and predators, and dissolved oxygen levels are sharply reduced.
During a few weeks each year, massive die-offs are caused in these pools when cold Antarctic air passes over parts
of the Amazon, cooling surface waters and causing them to sink to the bottom. The bottom of floodplain lakes is
often a decaying anaerobic layer of organic sludge. As surface waters sink to the bottom, methane and hydrogen sulfide
from the bottom pushes toward surface causing tremendous die-offs. Vultures crowd by thousands to feed on carcasses.
Many fish have adapted to lack of oxygen by developing structures that enable them to take atmospheric oxygen from
the air. Most famous are the lungfish of South America, Africa, and Australia, but many catfish, labyrinth
fish, and loaches also are able to directly use atmospheric oxygen.
The best-known predator of floodplain lakes is the arapaima or piracucu, one of the world's largest freshwater
fish. The species attains a maximum of 16 feet, though today such large individuals are extremely rare because
of overfishing. Today conservation efforts are focused on restoring this magnificent species.
The anaconda is also an apex predator in floodplain lakes.
High water is the time of the flooded forest when water levels rise 30 to 40 feet and flood the surrounding forest
and floodplains, linking river branches as one massive body of water. The higher water level makes the lower
canopy accessible by boat. Many tree species depend on the floods for seed dispersal through animal or mechanical
(floating downriver) means. It is a time of abundance for most herbivorous fish which can feed on the fruit and
seeds that fall from fruiting trees. The Amazon is home to the vast majority of fish species dependent on fruits
One famous fruit-eating fish is the tambaqui, a large fish that crushes fallen seeds with its strong jaws. The
tambaqui waits beneath trees that are dropping seeds, congregating especially under its favorite, the rubber tree Hevea spruceana, which is widely
scattered in the flooded forest. Humans take advantage of the tambaqui and other fish that wait for fallen seeds
by imitating falling seeds using a pole with a seed attached by a line. When the fish is attracted within range,
the hunter harpoons it. In Amazonian folklore, it is said that the jaguar hunts such seed-eating fish using its
tail to mimic the "thud" of falling seeds.
The high-water season is a difficult time for fish predators. The increased water area gives potential prey a larger
range and predators must rely on their fat stores from their heavy feeding during the dry season. Many omnivorous
species eat mostly seeds and fruit during this period.
High water also means difficulty for ground-dwelling plant and animal species. Many ground dwellers migrate to
more elevated areas, while some species move up into the trees. Understory plants and shrubs may spend 6-10 months
underwater where they are thought to continue some form of photosynthesis.
Research published in 2005 found that flooding in the Amazon causes a sizable portion of South America to sink several inches because of the extra weight and then rise again as the waters recede. Scientists say that this annual rise and fall of earth's crust is the largest ever detected, and it may one day enable researches to calculate the total amount of water on Earth.
- How do changes in water level affect the Amazon?
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Selection of information sources
The flowering and pollination of the Amazonian water lily is described in Attenborough, D. (The Private Life Of Plants, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995); Goulding, M. (Amazon-The Flooded Forest New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 1990); and Davis, W. (One River, New York: Touchstone, 1996).
Goulding, M. (Amazon-The Flooded Forest New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 1990) is the source for the number of species and individuals in a floating meadow.
The ecology of the tambaqui is discussed in Amazon-The Flooded Forest (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 1990) by M. Goulding.
Goulding, M. (The Fishes and the Forest. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980) finds that numerous fish species are important seed dispersers in the flooded forest and warns that clearing of vàrzea forests could reduce their populations. He also reports that over three-quarters of the fish important in commerce and subsistence depend directly or indirectly on flood-plain forests for food.