Las Vegas, N.M. – A New Mexico Highlands University professor’s Fulbright Scholar Award to study green anaconda snakes in Brazil aims to shed light on possible new species of the largest snake in the world, aiding conservation efforts.
Highlands biology professor Jesús Rivas will collaborate in his research with Brazilian scientists in 2018 and 2019 in different locations in the Brazilian Amazon Basin, prime habitat for green anacondas. Rivas’ Highlands biology students will work alongside their professor during some of his fieldwork.
“This Fulbright gives the opportunity to expand anaconda research into Brazil, which has the highest percentage of anaconda habitat in the world and is largely understudied,” said Rivas, whose green anaconda research in Venezuela spans 26 years. “One of the biggest goals of this research is to study the genetic composition of anaconda populations across the snake’s Brazilian range. I suspect we may discover news species of anacondas.”
Rivas said the Amazon Basin suffers dramatically increasing environmental degradation due to industrial activities ranging from gold mining to biofuel production, with habitat destruction threatening the survival of top predators like anacondas. Anacondas are nonvenomous snakes that use constriction to kill their prey.
“Creating a better understanding of the distribution of anaconda populations in Brazil will lead to designing better conservation strategies. In addition, more knowledge on anacondas can help us better understand larger evolutionary processes of South American biodiversity,” Rivas said.
Rivas is a Venezuelan-born herpetologist, a scientist who studies reptiles and amphibians, and joined the Highlands faculty in 2010. He founded the ongoing Anaconda Project in 1992, which focuses on research and conservation. In 2015, Rivas published the first comprehensive study of anacondas in the wild, Natural History of the Green Anaconda: With Emphasis on its Reproductive Biology. His study area for the book was Venezuela.
For his Fulbright, Rivas will collaborate with scientists from three Brazilian universities: Universidade Federal do Mato Grosso, Universidade Federal de Sao Paulo, and Universidade Federal do Para. He laid the groundwork for his Fulbright by collaborating first with Universidade Federal do Mato Grasso in 2015, leading a study on yellow anacondas.
Rivas will use noninvasive capture and release techniques to study the anacondas in Brazil. For instance, microchips will be imbedded in the snakes to study their movements, and he will collect scale tissue and blood samples for DNA microanalysis.
“Humans are fascinated by large predators so anacondas have enjoyed a place of mystery with people who inhabit the same area. They call the largest anacondas Madre de Aguas – Mother of the Waters – and believe they are enchanted and must be protected. The snake is shrouded in mystery due to a lack of comprehensive research,” Rivas said.
Rivas said Highlands students will benefit from working with him and the Brazilian scientists on the anaconda research.
“This will give our students invaluable hands-on international professional experience that will make them better scientists. I’m very excited for the potential this Fulbright has to establish long-term collaboration with the Brazilian universities that will benefit our Highlands students ranging from research to coursework,” Rivas said.
Rivas joins the ranks of distinguished Fulbright scholars worldwide who have been selected to participate in this prestigious international academic exchange program. The U.S. government established the Fulbright Program in 1946.
He and fellow biology professor Sarah Corey-Rivas have led their Highlands students on a number of research expeditions to study anacondas and other wildlife in Venezuela and other South and Central American countries.