by Joseph DeSisto
Just a few years before Darwin published his work on evolution by natural selection, his contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, finished a four-year-long tour of the Amazon Basin. During these travels he explored the Amazon River and its tributaries, met with indigenous tribes, and collected a shipload of biological specimens, which he planned to return to England to sell. Sadly the ship and all its contents, save a few notes and sketches, were lost in a fire at sea. From those notes was forged a book documenting Wallace’s travels and his observations on natural history in the Amazon (Wallace 1853).
When Wallace began to explore the Rio Negro or “Black River,” the Amazon’s largest tributary, he noticed that the water seemed darkly stained, like tea or coffee. Similar, smaller rivers could be found across the Amazon — such rivers were usually deep, slow-moving, and wound through forests or swamps. “Blackwater” (aside from being an episode of Game of Thrones) is the name Wallace (1853) used to describe these stained waterways. Where the blackwater of the Rio Negro meets the silt-laden, “whitewater” of the Amazon, the transition is sharp and visible from space.
The junction of the whitewater Amazon (left) and the blackwater Rio Negro (right) near Manaus, Brazil. Photo by Lecomte, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Not only do blackwater rivers look like tea, they effectively are tea — the color comes from tannins, organic molecules that seep into the water as certain types of tannin-bearing plants die and decompose (Janzen 1974). Whether a river has blackwater or not depends entirely on the plant life growing at its banks. In life, certain plants use tannins as a protection against insects. In death, the tannins play a new role, altering the aquatic environment and the life therein.
Blackwater rivers have a very different chemistry than other water bodies. They are more acidic but lower in oxygen, nutrients, and the dissolved elements many animals need (Ribeiro and Darwich 1993). There are, therefore, fewer animals in blackwater than in clearwater or whitewater. Snails and some other invertebrates, for example, need calcium to build their shells, and these do not fare well in low-calcium blackwater rivers. With fewer invertebrates to eat, fish and other predators are relatively scarce. Yet there is life in blackwater, and although it is a bit harder to find, it is unique and, in its own way, amazing.
The deformed-zucchini-shaped thing above is in fact an animal, smaller than a grain of sand, called a rotifer. Rotifers can be found almost anywhere with moisture, though you’d need a microscope to spot them. They feed on tiny particles of all kinds, from bits of detritus and algae to bacteria and other single-celled organisms. Despite being tiny, rotifers are relatively complex creatures with minute brains, feelers, and a large mouth surrounded by hair-like appendages called cilia. Some species even have simple eyes.
When a rotifer wishes to swim, it simply vibrates the cilia to pull its body forward. The cilia are also important in feeding — if the rotifer is anchored by its “tail” end, the vibrating cilia create a water current that draw particles towards the mouth. Rotifers eat pretty much the same way street-sweepers sweep. Below is a video of what this looks like:
[Video credit is to “NotFromUtrecht,” licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.]
In the Amazon Basin, blackwater is dominated by rotifers which, unlike many planktonic invertebrates, do not need calcium or other dissolved minerals to construct cells. At the junction of the Rio Negro and the Amazon River, rotifer populations can be up to ten times higher in the blackwater than in whitewater (Ribeiro and Darwich 1993), even though the two extremes are separated by only a few feet of transition. The same pattern exists in Argentina, where a different “Rio Negro” (also blackwater) meets the whitewater Rio Salado (Frutas 1998).
As long as there are rotifers and other blackwater-tolerant plankton around, fish can also live in blackwater, but low nutrient and oxygen levels make it difficult for them to do so. Still, some very special fish have evolved to tolerate blackwater, and perhaps the most recognizable of these is the neon tetra, a fish made famous by its popularity in home aquariums.
In Rio Negro (Brazil, not Argentina), fish are not especially abundant, but many of the species that live there are endemic. Of the 700 or so fish known from the river, around 100 are found nowhere else on earth. Among these fish is the cardinal tetra, a close relative of the neon tetra with similarly vivid red and blue streaks. Another is the cururu, a freshwater stingray.
Freshwater stingrays are common in the Amazon Basin, where they are considered to be more dangerous even than piranhas. The greatest abundance and diversity of stingrays is found in the whitewater, but surveys have revealed there are several species that prefer blackwater, and at least two in the genus Pomatotrygon are found exclusively in the blackwater of the Rio Negro (Duncan and Fernandes 2010). One of these is the cururu ray, a unique species that has only been discovered in the last decade.
Studying the cururu ray has helped us understand what is required for a fish to thrive in blackwater. First, the extremely low levels of sodium, chlorine, and other salts in blackwater presents a problem, since fish and all other animals require salts to keep their bodies running. The cururu, like many fish in Rio Negro, can survive with far less sodium and chlorine than most other fish, but it is also more efficient at extracting salts from the water, however scarce they may be (Wood et al. 2002).These rays also have gills with finger-like projections, adapted to be as efficient as possible in gathering both salts and oxygen from blackwater (Duncan et al. 2010).
Although scientists have known for some time that the cururu ray represents an undescribed species, it has yet to be given a Latin name. Many more new species may yet be discovered in the tannin-soaked waters of Rio Negro and other blackwater rivers. Unique places yield unique creatures, often with amazing stories.
Duncan W.P. and M.N. Fernandes. 2010. Physicochemical characterization of the white, black, and clearwater rivers of the Amazon Basin and its implications on the distribution of freshwater stingrays (Chondrichthyes, Potamotrygonidae). Pan-American Journal of Aquatic Sciences 5(3): 454-464.
Duncan W. P., O.T.F. Costa, M.M. Sakuragui, and M.N. Fernandes. 2010. Functional morphology of the gill in Amazonian freshwater stingrays (Chondrichthyes: Potamotrygonidae): implications for adaptation to freshwater. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 83: 19-32.
Frutos S.M. 1998. Densidad y diversidad del zooplancton en los Rios Salado y Negro — planicie del Rio Parana — Argentina. Revista Brasileira de Biologia 58(3): 431-444.
Janzen D.H. 1974. Tropical blackwater riversm animals, and mast fruiting by the Dipterocarpaceae. Biotropica 6(2): 69-103.
Ribeiro J.S.B. and A.J. Darwich. 1993. Phytoplanktonic primary productivity of a fluvial island lake in the Central Amazon (Lago do Rei, Ilha do Careiro). Amazoniana 12(3-4): 365-383.
Wallace A.R. 1853. Narrative of travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro. Reeve, London.
Wood C.M., A.Y.O. Matsuo, R.J. Gonzalez, R.W. Wilson, M.L. Patrick, and A.L. Val. 2002. Mechanisms of ion transport in Potamotrygon, a stenohaline freshwater elasmobranch native to the ion‐poor blackwater of the Rio Negro. Journal of Experimental Biology 205: 3039–3054.