No matter how well we think we know our planet, there are always surprises – and a big one at that. The Amazon is the Earth’s crown river. The largest by water discharge, the second by length, its basin covers approximately 7,050,000 square kilometres (2,720,000 sq mi), and accounts for roughly one-fifth of the world’s total river flow. Now, we have another jewel to add to that crown, as Patricia Yager, a professor of oceanography and climate change at the University of Georgia, writes in a new paper.
It begins in Peru, less than 75 miles from the Pacific shore, among the tiny glacial streams that trickle through the Andes. Those creeks become a river, which joins a network of other capillaries draining more than 3 million square-miles of South American land—water from mountains, foothills, and the world’s largest rainforest uniting to form a monumental flow that thunders clear across the continent until it gushes into the Atlantic.
The discovery, announced Thursday in the journal Science, was more than three decades in the making. Patricia Yager, a professor of oceanography and climate change at the University of Georgia, and the sole American researcher on the project, wasn’t even in the area to look for reefs, at first. Her project was supposed to use the RV Atlantis to investigate how the Amazonian plume affects the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide. But one of the senior Brazilian scientists, Rodrigo Moura, said that he wanted to use their time on the vessel to look for a reef he thought might be in the region.
Watch: What Are Coral Reefs And What's Their Purpose?
"I kind of chuckled when [Brazilian oceanographer Rodrigo Moura] first approached me about looking for reefs. I mean, it’s kind of dark, it’s muddy - it’s the Amazon River," one of the researchers involved, Patricia Yager, told Robinson Meyer over at The Atlantic.
"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.'"
The paper in question went largely unnoticed. It described species of reef fishes and sponges being dredged up from the mouth of the Amazon, species tightly related to coral reefs like you’d find in the Caribbean Sea. It caused a bit of a local stir, but then most of the scientific community simply regarded it as a quirk – or completely forgot about it.
There still more investigation to be done into the species that live in this new reef. But according to Rebecca Albright, an oceanographer and coral researcher from the Carnegie Institute for Science, who wasn't involved in this study, the find is a pretty big deal.
The research has been published in Science Advances.
1) Robotic killer being trialled to rid Great Barrier Reef of crown-of-thorns starfish
2) Fish play a major role in restoring coral reefs