The Amazon River defies description. Snaking its way through the southern hemisphere, it is approximately 4,000 miles long. A defining piece of geography for eight different South American countries, it still remains a tantalizing mystery to scientists. Even today, researchers are unsure of its true source. Intrigued? Here’s more from the BBC and ExtremeScience.com.
What’s a mystery without secrets? The Amazon River holds many of them, revealing these secrets slowly to those who pursue them. And that is where this story begins: with seekers, trying to understand what dwells in the depths of that murky water.
Patricia Yager, an associate professor of oceanography and climate change at the University of Georgia, was studying the Amazonian plume (where the river’s freshwater mixes with the ocean’s saltwater). Sampling and studying the waters at the mouth of the Amazon was to be the primary focus of an 18-day expedition into the region, with Yager hoping to investigate how plumes affect the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide. Then, colleague and senior Brazilian scientist, Rodrigo Moura, came to Yager with an unusual request.
“I kind of chuckled when Rodrigo first approached me about looking for reefs. I mean, it’s kind of dark, it’s muddy – it’s the Amazon River . . . But he pulls out this paper from 1977, saying these researchers had managed to catch a few fish that would indicate reefs are there. He said, ‘Let’s see if we can find these.’”
Yager was dubious about the proposal for good reason. The harsh living conditions found where fresh and saltwater meet would not seem to be an ideal habitat for a coral reef. Obscured by the Amazon’s muddy water, no one could predict the kind of aquatic life that might lie beneath those choppy waves. The question had remained unanswered … until now.
Once Moura had convinced Yager that there was enough evidence to proceed with the search, another problem arose. They would need a dredge, and Yager hadn’t even planned on taking one on the expedition at all. Where could they access one? The University of Washington, Yager’s old alma mater, provided an answer by offering a “big old dredge” that was part of their oceanography department. Quickly, they had it shipped across country in time for their departure.
Both Yager and Moura knew that their efforts might come to naught. According to all the previous research on the topic, the chances of finding coral at the mouth of the Amazon River were incredibly slim. Moura clearly knew, too, that the primary goal of the expedition was to research the Amazonian plumes, and that their schedule would be tight, so he carefully scrutinized the seabed sonar throughout the cruise. When the crew wound up with a little extra time, Moura had already decided exactly where he wanted to put down the dredge. The outcome shocked everyone: a massive, 600-mile healthy coral reef, with 73 fish species, many carnivorous.
The researchers published their report in Science Advances.
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