Shape-Shifting Habitat

Two displays in the National Aquarium's Amazon River Forest exhibit show identical slices of habitat during opposite seasons: rainy and dry.

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Imagine an otherworldly place that's not forest or river but both—where the branches of submerged trees reach toward the surface of the water. Where stingrays skim along the forest floor, turtles and river dolphins weave through the trees, and some species of fish serve the same function as mammals and birds on land, eating fruits and spreading their seeds.

During the Amazon rainy season—which can last from four to nine months—this is life in a flooded forest. Exactly when the rainy season begins and ends varies by region, but the timing of the starkly different wet and dry seasons in each region remains predictable and consistent.

The National Aquarium's Amazon River Forest exhibit on the fourth floor of Pier 3 showcases an Amazon tributary in three distinct stages of seasonal flooding. The main portion of the exhibit portrays an Amazon tributary at the very beginning of the rainy season, when floodwaters are just starting to enter the surrounding forests. The two smaller displays show identical slices of forest habitat at the peak of rainy and dry seasons.

A dwarf caiman shows its teeth as it walks along the bottom of the Amazon River Forest exhibit.

Unmatched Biodiversity

"During the rainy season, rivers overflow their banks and water rises 10 to 40 vertical feet in these forests," explains Curator Ken Howell. "When the rivers rise, fish and other aquatic animals move with the water into the forests. When the dry season returns and the waters recede, they are often trapped in lakes and ponds by the receding waters."

A group of tiny, bright red and blue striped fish in the Amazon River Forest exhibit.

Less than 5% of the Amazon basin is considered flooded forest, but the diversity of fishes there is unmatched, ranging from tiny cardinal tetras to sizable silver arowanas. The Amazon basin as a whole is one of the most biodiverse habitats on Earth.

Species from the region that can be seen at the Aquarium include the armored catfish, dwarf caiman, emerald tree boa, giant waxy tree frog, white-blotched river stingray and several species of turtles, including big-headed Amazon river turtles, giant South American river turtles and yellow-spotted Amazon river turtles.

The head of a bright green snake rests against a brown branch in the Amazon River Forest dry season exhibit.

"While our exhibit water is filtered and clear, our fish population most closely resembles that of a blackwater habitat where the water is tinted the color of tea," says Ken.

The Damage of Deforestation

The deforestation taking place in the Amazon basin and throughout the region poses a serious threat to animals and humans alike, and it reached a 15-year high in November 2021.

Beyond the loss of biodiverse habitats, deforestation across the Amazon basin has serious global repercussions, decreasing rainfall and increasing droughts around the world, as well as contributing to climate change by adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (because much of the land is cleared by burning) while eliminating the trees that could help remove it.

The rain forests are being cut down in part so that land can be used to grow crops to satisfy worldwide demand for products like soy and palm oil, as well as raise cattle for beef production.

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