Las Vegas, N.M. – A Highlands University biology professor helped Brazilian researchers launch a study of yellow anacondas aimed at ecosystem conservation in the largest tropical wetland in the world.
Highlands biology professor Jesús Rivas is internationally known for his research on anacondas. In October, he led the Brazilian Moto Grosso University expedition to study the elusive snakes.
“Yellow anacondas are an understudied species that play an important role in the imperiled ecosystem in Pantanal, a vast tropical wetland in Brazil that is the biggest globally,” Rivas said. “These snakes can grow up to 11 feet in length and weigh as much as 40 p0unds. They are top predators and control the density of smaller reptiles, mammals and birds. The more we know about yellow anacondas, the better we can manage the Pantanal ecosystem.”
Rivas and the research team from Mato Grosso University waded through the wetlands looking for the yellow anacondas under water hyacinths, where the snakes hide. While the university’s earlier attempts failed to locate and capture any of the snakes, this October expedition yielded seven.
“These snakes are constrictors rather than venomous snakes and are much smaller than green anacondas, which are the largest snake in the world. It’s possible to capture yellow anacondas safely because they tire quickly after being held behind their heads,” Rivas said.
Radio telemetry devices were implanted into the snakes before they were released back into their natural habitat. These devices allow researchers to monitor the snakes from a distance, gathering data such as movement, habitat use, diet and reproduction.
“This kind of knowledge about wildlife species is the most important tool we have for conservation,” Rivas said.
He is a Venzuelan-born herpetologist – a scientist who studies reptiles and amphibians. Rivas’ anaconda research spans 23 years. He founded the ongoing Anaconda Project in 1992, which focuses on research and conservation. Rivas is also known for being featured in anaconda documentaries broadcast on National Geographic, Discovery and the BBC.
While he was a visiting scholar in Brazil, Rivas also taught an intensive animal behavior class for master’s degree and Ph.D. students at Mato Grosso University’s School of Veterinary Science as well as the Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation program.
“This pilot research project in Brazil is priming the pump for broader, long-term collaboration with Mato Grosso University. Our Highlands students will have opportunities to participate in research activities in Brazil through study abroad programs. This collaboration with Mato Grosso will also enhance Highlands’ academic reputation on an international level,” Rivas said.
Rivas said biology graduate student Nicasio Gonzalez will be the first Highlands student to benefit from the collaboration. During spring semester 2016, Gonzalez will conduct fieldwork for his master’s thesis on the yellow anaconda in Pantanal. He will work alongside Brazilian graduate students to monitor the snakes that were radio tagged in October.
A memorandum of understanding, or MOU, is being developed between Highlands and Mato Grosso University to formalize cooperation on international research opportunities for faculty and students at both universities.
Since joining the Highlands faculty in 2010, Rivas and fellow biology professor Sarah Corey-Rivas have led their students on several research expeditions deep into the Venezuelan Llanos to study anacondas and other tropical wildlife.
“The advantage of our students going to South America for research is that while I teach a tropical ecology lecture class, there is no substitute for being immersed in a tropical ecosystem and doing hands-on field research rather than laboratory exercises,” Rivas said.
Corey-Rivas has also studied anacondas extensively. A focus of her joint research with Rivas is studying the genetic makeup of green anacondas to determine if there are multiple species. At Highlands, she leads the Molecular Ecology Laboratory, where Rivas also participates in research. They also study New Mexico species of concern such as northern leopard frogs.