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Up in that tree – is it a fish?

During flood season on the Amazon River, all kinds of unusual creatures appear.

By Moss Hall / January 24, 2008



During the rainy season, the Amazon River may rise as much as 30 feet. When it floods into the surrounding forest, strange things happen. If you could take a trip on this great South American river, you'd see fish swimming through the trees, feeding on fruit. And, if you are very fortunate, you might witness a jaguar fishing with its tail.

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The Amazon is generally considered to be the second longest river in the world, after the Nile. It begins in the mountains of Peru and flows for some 4,000 miles through Brazil to the sea. This river carries 20 percent of the earth's fresh water to the Atlantic Ocean. In flood times, the river can expand to more than 25 miles wide.

As you cruise through the flooded forest, you notice fish that seem to be trying to eat the trees. The jaraqui use their suction-cup lips to feed on snacks that have been deposited on tree trunks by the rising waters.

Then, in the distance, a shock! Something has leapt out of the river toward a tree branch. Moving closer, you see that it is a "water monkey." These large arawana fish can jump up to three feet to capture frogs and small birds from the trees.

The tambaqui plays a different game. It swims under the branches and waits for fruit to fall. Then, plop! The fish darts to the surface and feeds.

River people love these tasty fish. The traditional way to catch them is to hook fruit to fishing lines and flop it into the water.

The jaguar uses the same method. It crouches by the river and slaps its tail on the surface. Hearing this, the tambaqui appears. The jaguar leaps for it, even diving to the bottom to pursue its lunch.

Finally, the floodwaters recede. Fruit-fattened fish return to their homes, ready to spawn. But some remain. Killifish seek a puddle in wet leaves on the forest floor where they lay their eggs. The young will hatch during the next flood. Lungfish dig into the mud. They leave holes in the mud for breathing and wait for rainy days to return.

The benefits of this forest flooding are many. River families feast on protein-rich food. During the dry season, fruit-eating fish live on stored fat. And as they swim away, fish spread the seeds of flood-plain trees. This allows new trees to grow.

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