Amazon gives up deepest secrets
New species are being found in record numbers in the river. Now TV viewers have a chance to name one of them
Robin McKie and Vanessa Thorpe
Sunday April 3, 2005
It is one of the world's greatest treasures. Stretching more than 3,000 miles from the Andes to the Atlantic, the Amazon accounts for 20 per cent of all the freshwater that pours into the planet's oceans.
The river has been the focus of exploration for centuries. Yet its murky waters are only now giving up their secrets. Last year, almost 20,000 new species of animals were found by researchers across the world - and a massive proportion came from the Amazon.
Despite logging, oil drilling, and other ecological damage in the region, scientists are finding more and more new creatures there.
'It is a strange trend,' said Mario de Pinna, director of the Zoological Museum in São Paulo. 'The more we destroy their environments, the more new creatures we find.'
A perfect example is provided by a tiny, finger-length blood-sucking catfish that has just been found by Pinna and his colleagues in the Amazon.
The discovery is to be screened as part of BBC1's Amazon Abyss series this week and will give television viewers a unique opportunity to become involved in ecological issues - by allowing them to vote for a name for the tiny aquatic vampire. The development is a first in scientific nomenclature. The fish was found by British and Brazilian scientists whose expedition was jointly funded by the BBC and The Discovery Channel. Swollen with blood that it had sucked from the gills of larger Amazon fish, the little catfish is a fairly gruesome addition to scientific knowledge.
Yet it could be a highly important one. The anti-coagulants it uses to digest the blood it drinks will make a fascinating study for medical researchers, for these chemicals are vital in the treatment of common but devastating conditions such as heart disease and blood disorders.
'This discovery of ours is the tip of the iceberg,' said Steve Greenwood, the director of Amazon Abyss. 'The number of things that are waiting out there to be found underwater is incredible.'
The Amazon is one of the three key areas that is now providing science with its unprecedented input of new animal species. The Congo basin, together with the jungles of south east Asia, around Laos and Cambodia, are the others.
The Amazon snakes 3,000 miles from its source in Peru to its mouth at the Atlantic. Apart from its dense rainforest, the river - murky with mud - is packed with unseen lifeforms that biologists are only just beginning to understand.
Apart from the vampire catfish, there are pink dolphins with long twisted noses, giant otters, and a species of fish that eats only wood.
'Scientists have been put off in the past because the Amazon's waters are unclear,' said Greenwood. 'Sometimes, you can't see your hand an inch away from your face. We had to use hi-tech lighting and high definition cameras. And a lot of perseverance.'
The result is one more addition to the list of new animals that will be reported in 2005, which promises to be another record year for discoveries. 'It is really astonishing,' said Andrew Polaszek, executive secretary of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. 'The world may seem to get smaller but we are finding more and more new animals every year. Last year, we reached a record of almost 20,000, from beetles to dolphins, and from apes to birds.'
The fact that discoveries of new animals are rocketing, not just in the Amazon but across the world, is certainly surprising, given the current rate of global extinctions. One key factor for this phenomenon is the use of new DNA identification techniques. Animals that look identical and are assumed to be the same have turned to have different genetic constitutions and so have to be defined as new species.
But that is not all, as de Pinna told The Observer. 'We are finding new species at an unprecedented rate for the simple reason there are more specialist scientists - like myself - out looking for them. The more we realise now imperiled our world is, the more we are studying it while we have the chance.
'However, there is another and rather ironic cause for this zoological explosion. We are getting to these remote places to find these creatures because more and more land that surrounds their habitats is being destroyed or developed.
'In the case of the Amazon, more and more logging tracks made it easy for us to get to the places where we could find these wonderful creatures. How long this can go on is a different matter, of course.'
The naming game
What's in a name? Paracanthopoma draculae or Paracanthopoma irritans? Or for that matter, Paracanthopoma minuta; Paracanthopoma nosferatu; or Paracanthopoma vampyra, to give all the suggested names for Pinna's catfish.
Viewers will get to pick their favourite this week. But it will be the views of Andrew Poleszek and colleagues, working in a basement in London's Natural History Museum, that will really count. 'All creatures have to be named following the double-barrelled nomenclature laid down by Carl Linneus 200 years ago,' said Poleszek, head of the commission charged with naming new animal species. First comes a general group - or genus - name, followed by a specific species name. Hence Homo sapiens: wise men.
Discoverers are generally given freedom when naming creatures, but are sometimes over-ruled. 'You cannot give offensive names,' said Poleszek. Researchers found several new beetles and tried to name them after George Bush's cabinet. That had to be vetoed.'
'As for the names suggested for this little blood-sucking catfish, they are rather good,' added Poleszek. 'I like Paracanthopoma vampyra. It sums the fish up rather nicely.'
To vote, visit www.bbc.co.uk/nature