The Amazon rainforest, home to one in 10 species on Earth, is being ravaged by fire. Till last week, 9,000 wildfires were raging at the same time across the vast rainforest of Brazil and spreading into Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay. The blazes, many set intentionally to clear land for cattle ranching, farming, and logging, has been aggravated by the dry season. They’re now burning in massive numbers with an 80 % increase last year at the same time, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). The fires are so fierce that they can even be seen from space.
The wildfires’ impact on the thousands of mammal, reptile, amphibian, and bird species that live in the Amazon, will be evident in two phases: one immediate, one long-term.
“In the Amazon, nothing is adapted to fire,” states William Magnusson, a researcher specializing in biodiversity monitoring at the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA) in Manaus, Brazil.
In some forests, including a few across the U.S., wildfires are essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems. Animals get adapted to cope with it. Many even thrive. For example, the black-bellied woodpecker, native to the American West, only nests in burnt-out trees and eats the beetles that infest burned wood.
But life in the Amazon is different.
The tropical rainforest is so uniquely rich and precisely diverse because it doesn’t really burn according to Magnusson. While fires do happen naturally from time to time, they’re typically small in scale, burn low to the ground and quickly put out by rain.
Magnusson says, “Basically, the Amazon hadn’t burnt in hundreds of thousands or millions of years”.
For example, unlike Australia where eucalyptus would die out without regular fires, this rainforest is not built for fire, he mentions. In recent years, a growing number of manmade fires have plagued the Amazon, imperiling the ecosystem.
How are the fires affecting individual animals right now?
Mazeika Sullivan, associate professor at Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, who has done fieldwork in the Colombian Amazon says, “It’s likely they’re taking a “massive toll on wildlife in the short term”.
Sullivan says that in the midst of wildfire, animals generally have very few choices. They attempt to hide by burrowing or going into the water. Some can get displaced while others perish. According to him, a lot of animals will die from flames, heat from the flames, or even smoke inhalation in this situation.
Sullivan says, “You’ll have immediate winners and immediate losers. In a system that isn’t adapted to fire, you’ll have a lot more losers than you will in other landscapes.”
Are some animals likely to do better than others?
Certain traits can be beneficial in the midst of wildfire. Being naturally agile helps so large, fast-moving animals like jaguars and pumas may be able to escape, along with some birds. But slow-moving animals such as sloths and anteaters along with smaller creatures like frogs and lizards, may be unable to move out of the fire’s path quickly enough and die.
Sullivan says, “Escape into the canopy but choose the wrong tree and an animal is likely to die “.
Could some already-vulnerable species become more threatened or even extinct?
This is tough to predict as the wildfire in the Amazon is completely different than those in the U.S., Europe, or Australia, where a lot is known about species distributions, says Magnusson. Enough is not known about the range of most of the animals in the rainforest to pinpoint which species are under more threat.
Nonetheless, there are a few species of specific concern like Milton’s titi, a monkey discovered in 2011, has only been reported in a part of Brazil in the southern Amazon that’s presently beset by fire. The Mura’s saddleback tamarin, another recently discovered monkey that lives in a small range in central Brazil may also be threatened by encroaching wildfire, says Carlos César Durigan, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Brazil. It’s possible for species that are native to these specific regions. Durigan expresses, “I [fear] we may be losing many of these endemic species.”
What about aquatic animals?
In the short term, large bodies of water are mostly safe, but animals in small rivers or creeks which have high biological diversity, there could be in trouble as per Sullivan.
He says, “ In smaller streams, fires burn right over”.
He thinks that water-dwelling amphibians, which need to stay partially above water in order to breathe, would be in harm’s way. Also, the fire could possibly change water chemistry to the point that it isn’t sustainable for life in the short term.
How might the fires’ aftermath affect species?
“Longer-term effects are likely to be more catastrophic,” admits Sullivan.
The entire ecosystem in the burning Amazon sections will be altered. The dense canopy of the rainforest that largely blocks sunlight from reaching the ground might get opened up by the fire, bringing in light and fundamentally changing the energy flow of the entire ecosystem. Such a change can have cascading effects on the entire food chain, Sullivan says.
Surviving in a fundamentally altered ecosystem would be a struggle for many species. For instance, several amphibians, have textured, camouflaged skin that resembles the bark or leaves of a tree, allowing them to blend in.
Sullivan explains, “Now, all of a sudden, the frogs are forced to be on a different background. They become exposed.”
He describes many animals in the Amazon as specialists i.e. species that have evolved and adapted to thrive in niche habitats. For instance, toucans eat fruits that other animals can’t access as their long beaks help them reach into otherwise unreachable crevices. If wildfire decimates the fruit these birds depend upon, then the local toucan population will likely plunge into crisis. Spider monkeys live high in the canopy to avoid the competition below. “What happens when you lose the canopy?” Sullivan questions. “They’re forced into other areas with more competition.”
The only “winners” in the burned forest are probably the raptors and other predators, Sullivan says, as cleared-out landscapes will make hunting easier.
Are there other consequences for wild animals?
Magnusson is most troubled about the overall repercussions of forest loss.
He says, “Once you take the rainforest away, [you lose] 99 percent of all species. If these wildfires were a one-off, I wouldn’t necessarily be worried, but there’s been a fundamental change in policy in Brazil “that encourages deforestation.”
Referring to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s evident commitment to open up the Amazon for business, he says, “The political signal that’s gone out is basically that there’s no law anymore, so anybody can do what they want.”
Conservationists and worried citizens have taken to social media making #PrayForAmazonas a top trending hashtag on twitter. Many criticized the Brazilian government’s policies while others expressed concern that the global demand for beef incentivizes the augmented clearing of land for cattle ranching. Now #PrayForAmazonas had incited momentum for a spin-off hashtag: #ActForAmazonas.
Magnusson notes, “ There’s an area along the southern border of the Amazon rainforest, in the Brazilian states of Pará, Mato Grosso, and Rondônia called the “deforestation arc. There, wildfire is pushing the edge of the rainforest north, possibly changing the border forever. We know the least about it. We may lose species without ever knowing they were there.”