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Arapaima gigas exclusively inhabits the Amazon River Basin of South America.
Within the Amazon basin, A. gigas is found in several different types of habitat, such as the floodplain lakes of this region, the large tributaries of the Amazon river including the Rio Madera and the Rio Machado, and the varzea or forest. The pirarucu inhabits both white water and clear water. Much of the water that comprises the pirarucu's habitat is also oxygen deficient, as it is located in swampy areas of the rainforest.
The pirarucu is one of the largest freshwater fishes in the world. At one time, there were many individuals over 3 meters in length that weighed more than 150 kilograms. The scales on a pirarucu this size can reach 6 centimeters in length. However, there are few pirarucu this size, if any, that are living currently. The average size of this species has greatly reduced due to over-fishing, though it is still common to find pirarucu over 2 meters that weigh more than125 kilograms. The pirarucu is usually grey in color with an orange speckling near its posterior end. There are also two symmetrical fins on either side of the body at the posterior end. Interestingly, A. gigas has a bony or toothed tongue, which is the source of the title osteoglossomorph and a distinguishing character of those species in the order Osteoglossiformes.
The female pirarucu is sexually mature at the age of five years old and are typically 160 centimeters in length at this point in their life.
Due to the geographic range that A. gigas inhabits, the animal's life cycle is greatly affected by the seasonal flooding that occurs. Half of the year the pirarucu experiences an abundance of water, which is a benefit to these aquatic organisms; however, the other half of the year the pirarucu experiences drought conditions. The pirarucu has adapted to this great fluctuation in many aspects of it's life, including reproduction. A. gigas lays it's eggs during the months of February, March, and April when the water levels are low. They build a nest approximately 50 cm wide and 15 cm deep, usually in sandy bottomed areas. As the water rises the eggs hatch and the offspring have the flood season to prosper, during the months of May to August. Therefore, the yearly spawning is regulated seasonally. A. gigas is a mouth-brooder.
A. gigas has been known to guard both the eggs and the offspring themselves. The parental care includes helping to aerate the water for it's offspring, which is a necessity for survival of the offspring in the oxygen-deficient waters of some habitats. Adults have the ability to exude a pheromone from their head to attract offspring and keep them in close proximity.
A. gigas is a predator that mainly eats other fish. If a bird or some other animal happens to be present, this large predator will also eat that animal. The pirarucu usually finds food near the top of the water because it is an obligate air breather that needs to surface every 10-20 min. However, the pirarucu is also capable of diving.
The pirarucu's sheer size and bony armor provide defenses against predators.