Exploring a Morichal

By Ivan Mikolji / 2018

George Fear and I drove down a narrow dirt road, north-west of the Paragua River, Bolivar state, Venezuela. We were scouting the area for new locations for underwater videography, back then in 2006, I wasn’t into underwater photography, yet.

Listening to Hank Williams Sr.’s old country tunes, we drove, for what seemed many hours without seeing another car or human. All of a sudden we got to a guard post consisting of a barrier arm gate stretching across the road. We were perplexed to see such a structure in the middle of nowhere and as we approached it a person came to greet us signaling us to stop. The man was even more perplexed than we were when he realized he didn’t know us and to see “tourists” in that remote area. We drove up to him and asked if we could pass, explaining what we were doing in the area. He said it was a private hacienda called Hato La Vergareña and he could not let us pass. He suggested us to go to a clear water morichal we had left behind, approximately half a mile back. “Turn around, drive around 1 kilometer and keep looking to the right, you won’t miss it, but be careful, an anaconda lives in that morichal”, said the man. We drove back and just as the man said, there was the morichal about 400 yards from the road.

Morichales is the common name given to a group of Mauritia flexuosa palm trees. Moriche palm trees are widespread across tropical South America which are called canangucho in Colombia and aguaje in Peru. One of the traits that make moriche palms so special are their high tolerance to wet environments or actually, you can totally turn this around and say that one of the traits that make moriche palms so special are their low tolerance to dry environments. These palm trees need water year round to thrive so they are landmarks or indicators of the presence of water. You can drive for hours down a dry savannah and be completely sure that if you see a Morichal, you have found water. They are the South American tropical version of the African desert oasis.

We got off the dirt road, drove through the savannah and hid the truck behind some trees which left us only two hundred yards away from the small morichal. The landscape was pretty flat but had a lot of tall grass. We decided to pack up all our gear and walk to the morichal. What we thought was a field of tall grass wound up being a field of tall long saw grass!

George was wearing shorts and after walking a bit, his legs looked like zebra legs but instead of black and white, they were red and white. I think I was wearing jeans but no socks so only my ankles were getting sliced by the razor sharp plants. We stopped to think over the idea of going to the morichal because we didn’t even know if it had clear water or running water at all. We looked around and saw no signs of other morichales, rivers, or creeks. The morichal did not even look like it had a water exit drainage, it was short, around 150 meters long. The idea of finding an isolated habitat which could hold unique species of fish or plants made us decide to keep on going and with a lot more enthusiasm despite the saw grass.

Morichales are not an actual fixed geological structure per say, they are regular springs, creeks or rivers which have been populated with moriche palms. A river can actually have morichal sections where the moriche palms are thriving and be called a regular river in the sections where there are no palm trees to be found. If a spring does not have enough water to overflow and become a stream or river, you get interesting small morichales that are short and isolated. In the banks and shallow areas of a morichal, you can find small tropical fish like Dwarf Cichlids, Cardinal Tetras, Pencil fish and Hatchet fish. The small fish use the moriche palm roots, fallen palm branches, and aquatic vegetation as hideouts. In waist deep areas, you find medium, more pelagic and predatory fish, such as peacock bass, piranhas, and Acestrorhynchus. When a morichal is very wide and deeper than 5 or 6 meters, you can find large catfish and other fish that grow to large sizes such as pacu and payara. I have never seen these large fish venture into the shallow parts where the rivers are born. Shallow morichales with clear water resemble incredible natural “Wild Aquariums.”

Mother Nature made the last 50 yards of our walk easier for us. She decided the tall saw grass was not enough and infested our path with a long shrub plant which locals call “Echa pa tras”. The English translation is “go backwards vine” but they are commonly called catclaw mimosa or the wait-a-minute shrubs. These shrubs are thin, grow very long, with almost no leaves but full of sharp hook shaped spines from be-ginning to end. Once you get tangled or caught by one or many of these vines, there are some steps you must follow: First, say “Ouch!” due to the pain, then stop, analyze the situation, and start pulling off the vines out backwards because you will never get them off if you pull them forward. So, even after pulling all the vines off, you are still left with hundreds of the little hook like spines in your skin or clothes.

By the way, most of the morichales I have explored have many similar traits. Most of them are spring fed which works in favor of most living organisms as they do not dry up in the dry season. In swampy shallow areas where the water current is very slow, they grow in great numbers and very close together, but in deeper, faster flowing streams, they are confined to the river banks. Moriche palms are very robust and they shed great amounts of large leafs, fruit, seeds, and spikes to the immediate surrounding habitat. Moriche debris rots very slowly and through the years, all this organic matter starts to build up making a thick layer of acidic decaying matter. The moriche reddish-brown fruit is used by the indigenous people as a food source. The pulp is used to make jam and it also gives a distinctive tangy flavor when mixed in river water as a drink. The fruit is also a food source to many freshwater fish, of which you would never think would feed on fruit. These fruit eating fish are piranhas from the Pristobrycon and Pygopristis genus, silver dollars, pacu and cichlids such as flag cichlids, Banded cichlids and dwarf cichlids. The moriche fruit floats when it has just fallen off the palm tree and as the fruit drifts down river it starts to decompose. Its scaly skin which pretty much resembles the scales of a fish or a dragon’s egg, starts opening, the fruit then absorbs water and starts to sink. The fruit is quite impenetrable to smaller fish before swelling, only larger pacu and Myleus can break through the hard scaly skin.

By then, George’s legs looked pretty bad but I tell you, he tolerated the pain well and kept on going, making a joke out of the situation. We finally made it to the edge of the Morichal and it had water. We looked at the water from the edge which to our surprise was not at water level. The water was almost 9 feet under us, below a small vertical cliff like bank. The water looked clear but full of hair like algae which covered the floor, making it impossible to see how deep the water was and what was under it. All we could see was about 1 foot into the crystal clear water before the algae started but there were many fish!

Again, we analyzed the situation and decided that the only way to get down to the water was jumping down the cliff and falling 9 feet into the water. You may think this is actually a fun thing and that 9 feet is not high at all but we could not see if the water was 2 feet deep or 50 feet deep, if there was a large anaconda or croc under the algae, or what worried me the most… a vertical piece of wood with a fine point that could stab you as you landed over it. I decided that finding some isolated new fish species was worth taking all the risks and I jumped in. Once I splashed in the water, George asked me if I was standing or swimming and I said, it’s almost shoulder deep which seemed like all the info he needed and he jumped in landing right next to me. Again, we analyzed the situation and realized we could not move much around due to the large amount of algae, plus the banks where 9 feet tall from the already shoulder deep water! How where we going to get out of this morichal?

Speaking of morichales, I have never found medium or large rocks in them. The benthic sediments are mostly composed of thin white silica sand, mixed with plant litter. In spots where the moriche palm trees are spaced out and a lot of sunshine hits the water, large amounts of freshwater plants colonize the sand. It is common to find large patches of short green Eleocharis which seem like underwater lawns. In deeper areas, diverse types of Ludwigia create an underwater jungle and in some places filament algae grow in excessive amounts, below the crystal clear water. Some of the rarest fish I have found in morichales are the Dwarf Cichlid Apistogramma nororientalis, Freshwater Needlefish Potamorrhaphis guianensis and Parotocinclus eppleyi. Some of the most popular aquarium fish also live in morichales, such as Neon tetras, Rummy Nosed tetras, Motoro sting rays and Twig-Catfish.

We wondered who could help us, probably the man at the guard post, but he was too far away and as we hid the car he or any other car would have never stopped or thought we were there. George decided to collect fish with his fishnet while we came up with an idea. He is a true FISH GUY! I was starting to get a little worried as my imagination was now starting to take over and feeling like anacondas and crocs were touching my feet which made me forget about turning the video camera on and getting some footage. George, on the other hand, was showing me some sort of tetra he had caught which he baptized the Tiger Hyphessobrycon, saying he had never seen something like it before. He kept on catching fish with his net and placing them in the small plastic bag. He was super happy, smiling from ear-to-ear. I could not believe he was not worried about attracting some sort of piranha or other animal with all the blood that was seeping out from the hundreds of cuts on his legs, which he could not even see due to the massive amount of filament algae.

In my opinion, morichales are one of the most wonderful ecosystems I have explored. They thrive in life from top to bottom. Above, in the moriche palm trees, innumerable toucans, parrots and colorful birds fill the air with their incredible songs. In the middle, you can find many species of beautiful orchids that cling precariously to their trunks. On the bottom, underwater, where most of us aquarists belong is the other world, the flowing one, which sustains all the rest above.

After a couple of minutes that seemed like hours to me, George was done collecting fish. We decided that I would submerge myself into the algae, George would climb on my back and then stand on my shoulders. The plan worked, as I came up out of the water and stood up with George on my shoulders, he successfully held on to a tree root near the top of the cliff and got to the top. He then looked for a long branch and pulled me up. I still thank him for not leaving me in that 9 foot deep ditch.

The walk back to the car was as jolly as the walk to the morichal. George and I still cannot remember what happened to the Tiger Hyphessobrycon.

I wish I had taken a picture of it right after we got out of the morichal so I could show it to you.

 

This article has been published at:

  • Practical Fishkeeping Magazine – Spring 2018 Issue 5