Freshwater Ecoregions of the World
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343: Paraguay


Jennifer Hales, Paulo Petry


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Species Richness
# of Endemic Species

Major Habitat Type

Tropical and subtropical floodplain rivers and wetland complexes


Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay


This ecoregion includes the drainage basins of the Río Paraguay (Rio Paraguai), with tributaries that flow through the southern slopes of the Brazilian Shield and tributaries that flow through the low gradient terrains of the Pantanal Matogrossense. The southernmost limit is the confluence of the Río Paraguay with the Río Paraná. The northern boundary is the drainage divide with the Amazon Basin along the Chapada dos Parecís and Chapada dos Guimarães on the Brazilian Shield. The eastern boundary is the divide with the Paraná and Araguaia basins. The western boundary is the western side of the Río Paraguay’s main channel.

Drainages flowing into

Lower Paraná

Main rivers or other water bodies

The Paraguay ecoregion comprises many of the leftbank tributaries of the Río Paraguay, including the Rio Negro, Rio Miranda, Rio Taquari, Rio Piquiri, Rio Cuiabá, Rio Aquidauana, Rio Apá, Río Ypané, and Río Tebicuary.


The Paraguay encompasses a vast, relatively flat sedimentary plain that is bordered to the north and east by the Brazilian Shield and to the west by ancient volcanic ranges and distantly by the Andes (Heckman 1998). Within the basin lies the Pantanal, which forms a series of alluvial fans and inland deltas that have merged with the Paraguay’s floodplain (Veblen et al. 2007). Most floodplain soil is sandy with deposits of clay and limestone (Willink et al. 2000). Elevations range from 50 m to 200 m in the Pantanal, and rise to over 1200 m in the surrounding highlands (Planalto). The basin has a gentle slope, measuring 1-2 cm/km2 north-south and 6-8 cm/km2 east-west.


The Pantanal and upper reaches of the Paraguay fall within a tropical savanna climate zone (Aw) that is highly seasonal, with a dry season that occurs from April to September and the rainy season from October to March (Dolabella 2000). The mean annual precipitation varies from 941 mm in the Otuquis Pantanal to roughly 1700 mm in the northern highlands, with more than 80% of the rainfall occurring during the wet season (Hijmans 2004). The seasonal floods and droughts are integral to life cycles in the Pantanal.  The climate of the lower Paraguay, by contrast, is humid subtropical (Cfa) (Köppen 1936). Mean annual temperatures in the ecoregion range between 20 and 26 ºC, with a mean temperature of 25 ºC in the Pantanal.

Freshwater habitats

Extending 2550 km, the Río Paraguay is the largest tributary of the Paraná, and itself the fifth largest river in South America. Its headwaters originate in the Chapada dos Parecis and flow into the Pantanal, which is the largest wetland complex in the world, stretching 140,000 km2 across Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay (Dolabella 2000). This vast area includes permanent and semi-permanent lakes, ponds, oxbows, floodable depressions (baías), rivers, streams, swamps, and anastomosed channels (Resende 2003). The Pantanal’s gentle slope, in addition to a single outlet through the Rio Paraguay, heavy rainfall, and poorly drained soils account for massive flooding during the annual wet season when up to 78 % of the Pantanal is submerged (Hamilton et al. 2002). This amounts to 172 days of the year, with the Paraguay fluctuating by as much as 4-5 meters. During this flood season the Pantanal becomes an important nursery for fishes, macroinvertebrates, and aquatic plants (Willink et al. 2000). Flood peaks occur between May and August and low water between December and January, which is often asynchronous with the wet and dry seasons. It takes six months for the river pulse to travel from the Paraguay’s headwaters to the lower Paraguay (Dolabella 2000). However, as water levels fall, once contiguous areas separate into shallow lakes and rivers, producing a dynamic seasonal succession of biotic communities. Only the Paraguay and Cuiabá retain a steady flow despite considerable variation in their water level (Heckman 1998).

Habitat and species diversity of aquatic vegetation is high, reflecting the dynamic flood regime and nutrient cycles (Chernoff et al. 2001). Floating meadows are characteristic of the Río Paraguay. Common aquatic vegetation includes species such as pickerelweed (Pontederia lanceolata), anchored water hyacinth (Eichhornia azurea), eared watermoss (Salvinia auriculata), water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes), and floating watermoss (S. natans) (Heckman 1998).

The waters of the Paraguay are relatively shallow, meandering, and slow-moving, although around Fort Olimpo the current increases (Carron 2000). The banks are lined by gallery forests and palms, and oxbow lakes and channels are common. Water quality of the Paraguay tends to have a slightly acidic pH (6.0-6.5), low oxygen levels (<6 mg/l), low electrical conductivity (60-100 μS/cm), and water temperatures between 24-27 ºC (Chernoff 2001). 

Terrestrial Habitats

This ecoregion is home to a mosaic of plant species from the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests, gallery forests, cerrado, and chaco vegetation (Resende 2003). In addition to permanently flooded wetlands are species at higher elevations that are adapted to periodic flooding. For example, seasonally flooded grasslands are dominated by herbaceous plants such as purpus’ carpetgrass (Axonopus purpusii) and acute spikerush (Eleocharis acutangula) that can tolerate the extremes of flood and fire, as well as seasonally flooded palm stands dominated by Caranday palm (Copernicia alba) (WWF 2001). There are also cerrado, chaco, semi-deciduous, deciduous, and gallery forest species that occur at higher elevations beyond the flood zone, including Psidium kennedyanum, Acacia spp., kapok (Ceiba pentandra), and pacara earpod tree (Enterolobium contortisiliquum) (Prance and Schaller 1982).

Fish Fauna

The Paraguay presently contains around 344 described species. As typical of South America, the most abundant fishes in this ecoregion are Characiformes and Siluriformes, which together comprise nearly 80% of the species. These are followed by Cyprinodontiformes (primarily rivulids) and Perciformes (primarily cichlids).

Characiformes are represented by 135 species in 13 families, with nearly 75% of the species in the Characidae family. Common species include the serpae tetra (Hyphessobrycon eques), bandtail tetra (Moenkhausia dichroura), redeye tetra (M. sanctaefilomenae), and bloodfin tetra (Aphyocharax anisitsi) (Chernoff et al. 2001). Piranhas are also abundant and include the red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri), spotted piranha (Serrasalmus maculates), and S. marginatus. Other piscivores include the wolf fish (Hoplias malabaricus) and golden dorado (Salminus brasiliensis).

Siluriformes are represented by 126 species in 11 families, with nearly half of the species in the Loricariidae family. Some of the larger commercial catfish include the moleque (Pseudoplatystoma corruscans) and reticulated shovelnose (Pseudoplatystoma reticulatum).

Cartilaginous fishes (Rajiformes) are represented in this basin by five species of river stingrays: short-tailed river stingray (Potamotrygon brachyura), vermiculate river stingray (P. castexi), largespot river stingray (Potamotrygon falkneri), porcupine river stingray (P. hystrix), and Schumacher’s river stingray (P. schuhmacheri). All except for the verticulate river stingray are restricted to the larger La Plata basin.

Description of endemic fishes

The ecoregion contains more than 80 endemic species in 14 families. Most of the endemics are found in the families Characidae (25 species), Loricariidae (21), and Rivulidae (12). There are also two endemic genera represented by the monotypic Mixobrycon ribeiroi and Merodoras nheco. Endemicity tends to be higher in the headwaters than in the floodplain (Willink et al. 2000).

Other noteworthy fishes

Primary production increases significantly during the flood season, resulting in the movement of fish across the floodplain to breed and feed (Lowe-McConnell 1987). Some species, like the South American lungfish (Lepidosiren paradoxa), dwarf corydoras (Corydoras hastatus), and armored catfish Corydoras hastatus, have special adaptations for aerial respiration (Lowe-McConnell 1987). Others, like Rivulus sp., lay eggs that can survive the dry season (Chernoff et al. 2001).

Other noteworthy aquatic biotic elements

The Pantanal is renowned for its aggregations of water birds such as the jabiru stork (Jabiru mycteria), roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), and wood stork (Mycteria americana), and is a major stopover and wintering ground for migratory birds. It is also home to the some of the largest concentrations of caiman (e.g. Caiman yacare), capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), and marsh deer (Blastocerus dichotomus), as well as the endangered giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) (Willink et al. 2000). 

Ecological phenomena

A number of fish species undergo migrations in the Paraguay basin to reproduce. One of the most notable is the sábalo (Prochilodus lineatus), which typically begins its migration or “piracema” upstream around the end of the dry season. During the early wet season fishes enter headwaters and flooded areas to spawn, returning to permanent rivers as the waters recede (Resende 2003; WWF 2001). Large catfishes like the moleque (Pseudoplatystoma corruscans) also migrate to spawn in the headwaters (Resende 2003).

Evolutionary phenomena

The South American lungfish (Lepidosiren paradoxa), one of the most primitive species on earth, is the single representative of the monotypic family Lepidosirenidae. It is an obligate air breather, and hibernates in mud during the dry season (Lowe-McConnell 1987).

The Paraná-Paraguay system split from the Amazon around 10 Ma, but similarities in species between the two systems indicate headwater exchanges between the Río Guaporé and Paraguay (Chernoff et al. 2001; Lundberg et al. 1998). Similar events may have also occurred between the headwaters of the Tapajós and Paraguay (Hubert & Renno 2006).

Justification for delineation

This ecoregion lies wholly within the Alto Paraguay and partly within the Parano-Platense ichthyographic province defined by Ringuelet (1975). It is distinguished by the Pantanal, the largest wetland complex in the world. The Pantanal was once a saltwater lake before connecting to the Paraná during the Holocene. This has resulted in a slightly different fish fauna between the upper and lower Paraguay (Resende 2003). There are even more pronounced differences in fish fauna compositions along the Paraguay, Paraná, and Río de la Plata river axis. Differences in climate patterns between the tropics and subtropics, through which these rivers flow, may account for some of the distinctiveness (Junk 2007).

Level of taxonomic exploration

Good in the large rivers and fair in the headwaters.


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