The Fish, the Forest and the Future: how climate change and deforestation in the Amazon are harming our fish

Many popular aquarium fishes come from the Amazon Basin. These fish include tetras, corydoras catfishes, suckermouth catfishes, dwarf cichlids, discus, piranhas and many others. Some of these species arrive in our fish tanks after being captive bred in many places around the world, but many others are wild caught and some are new imports that have only just been discovered. There are almost certainly more species that have not been discovered yet. What are the effects of climate change and deforestation in the Amazon on wild fish?


Effects on the Amazon

The combined effects of deforestation and climate change are likely to result in significant drying of the Amazon Basin as well as disappearance of half or more of the forest, possibly within the next 20 years (Nepstad et al, 2008). The reasons for the drying are twofold: cutting the forest reduces the ability of the forest to create its own climate, and the warming climate means increased evaporation and more fires. The increased rate of fire reduces the area of forest further, making the situation worse. Loss of the Amazon rainforest would also accelerate climate change by removing one of the world’s most important carbon sinks.

Potentially, deforesting a large part of the Amazon, when combined with climate change is likely to result in a Savannah type ecosystem with much less water over most of the area now covered by the Amazon rain forest. Some models predict the loss of the Amazon from climate change even without deforestation (Harris et al, 2008). These changes are likely to be very difficult to reverse, and drying of the forest has already been observed (Li et al., 2008).

Effects on Fish

Put together, this means fewer streams in which fish can live and breed. Smaller streams will likely disappear entirely while water levels are lowered in larger streams and lakes. A possible preview of some of the effects might be the 2005 Amazonian drought. This drought was primarily caused by unusually warm sea surface temperatures in the tropical north Atlantic. In 2005, streams disappeared and lower water levels in larger streams and lakes caused fish kills as well as increased fire (Marengo et al, 2008).

If these changes occur as predicted by current models, the area of habitat available to the fish species that depend on the forest will be vastly reduced, and many species will probably go extinct. Those that don’t will be scarcer they are now and will need to be bred in captivity if they are to continue appearing in hobbyist’s fish tanks. Considering how many aquarium fish species come from the Amazon, this is likely to have a major impact on the hobby.



Harris, P. Huntingford, C., Cox, P. (2008) Amazon Basin Climate under global warming: the role of the sea surface temperature. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 363: 1753-1759

Li, W., Fu, R., Robinson, I., Juarez R., Fernandez, K. (2008) Observed Change of the standardized precipitation index, its potential cause and implications to future climate change in the Amazon region. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 363, 1767-1772.

Marengo, J., Nobre, C., Tomasella, J., Cardoso, M., and Oyama, M. (2008) Hydro-climatic and ecological behavior of the drought of Amazonia in 2005 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 363,1773-1778

Nepstad, D., Stickler, C., Soeres-Filko, B., Merry, F. (2008) Interactions among Amazon land use, forests and climate: prospects for a near term forest tipping point. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 363, 1737-1746

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