The Liquid Forest


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.

Flooded forest in the Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler


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 pirarucu, 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.

A topographic map of a section of the central Amazon River Basin near in Manaus, Brazil. Dark blue indicates channels that always contain water, while lighter blue depicts floodplains that seasonally flood and drain, and green represents non-flooded areas. Image courtesy of the Global Rain Forest Mapping Project.


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 and seeds.

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.

Flooded forest in the Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Review questions:

  • How do changes in water level affect the Amazon?

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Continued / Next: Floating Meadows

  • 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.