Plant Ecology in Brazil

Brazil offers great opportunities for plant ecology and the chance to understand the huge diversity of ecosystems that exist there. The country is home to an incredible number of plant species (32,109 according to Zappi et al. 2015) with around 57% of them endemic. In the heart of the country is the Amazon rainforest which at 7 million km2 is the largest tropical forest in the world.

Brazil has six different types of biomes; Amazonia, Cerrado (savannah), Atlantic forest, Caatinga (tropical semi-arid vegetation), Pampas (grassland), and Pantanal (wetlands).

The state of Amazonas in north-western Brazil is the one of the most botanically rich, and least explored of the Brazilian States, and almost completely covered by rainforest. Expeditions here are often rewarding with new species found on a regular basis. However, although research in the Amazon is perhaps better known, the Atlantic Forest is by far the most studied biome in Brazil in terms of plant ecology. This is partly as it is the most degraded biome in the country, but also because some of the biggest and best universities in Brazil (USP, UNICAMP, UNESP, UFRJ) are very close by.

In the fire adapted vegetation of the Cerrado, more than 30 plant species can be found per square meter. This is due to the great diversity of habitats in the Cerrado, comprising of woodlands, grasslands, wetlands, and even peatlands and peat-swampy forests. The Cerrado is also home to the richest, but also most threatened, savannah in the world, with more than half of it already lost to other uses.

Notable tree species include the Brazilian pine (Araucaria angustifolia) and Brazilwood (Paubrasilia echinata), both of which are endangered and have previously been pushed to the brink of extinction due to logging. More recently – due to the fast land conversion to make way for crops, eucalypt plantations, and African grass pasture for cattle grazing –  huge numbers of non-tree species such as, Actinocephalus cipoensis, Ipomoea macedoi, Trimezia fistulosa, have also become endangered, particularly in the cerrado.


Right: Brazilwood, Left: Brazilian pine

A key focus of plant research in Brazil is on the anthropogenic impacts on biodiversity and natural communities, including plant functional traits and how they may help to predict the responses to anthropogenic disturbances. There is also a lot of research into human-caused disturbances, ecological restoration and sustainable use of natural resources due to large levels of habitat destruction and fragmentation, particularly in the Cerrado, where a lot of the restoration ecology work is focused (Overbeck et al., 2013). This type of work has increased a lot in recent years and is reflected in this year’s World Conference on Ecological Restoration (SER2017) which played host to over 500 Brazilian ecologists in Iguassu.


World Conference on Ecological Restoration (SER2017)

Other areas widely studied include plant populations and communities, ecophysiology, and plant-herbivore interactions. There is also a need for plant systematics and taxonomy as there is no comprehensive species list for different biomes across the country. Several initiatives are addressing this such as the Reflora Initiative from the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden which provides high quality information on plant species and their spatial distribution and could provide a solid base for future plant ecology studies.

Notable Brazilian ecologists include Valerio Pillar (University of Rio Grande do Sul – UFRGS) who is a general ecologist, studying the management and conservation of grasslands, as well as theoretical issues, quantitative ecology, paleoecology, and functional ecology. He was amongst the first ecologists to highlight the importance of non-forest ecosystems and the threats to their conservation. (Pillar et al., 2009). The work of Marcelo Simon (EMBRAPA Recursos Genéticos e Biotecnologia) is also well known. Originally a plant taxonomist, Simon is responsible for discovering many new species in the Cerrado and Caatinga biomes, and his work in phylogenetics and evolution of plants have changed the general belief that Cerrado species were ancestors of forest species (Simon et al. 2009). Exciting work is also being carried out by Rafael Oliveira (UNICAMP, Campinas, SP) on water use by plants and adaptations to drought (Oliveira et al., 2005).

We asked some Journal of Ecology authors for some tips about how to be successful working in Brazil. Advice included to publish as soon as possible, and to be sure to build networks and collaborate as much as possible, including with groups outside academia such as government, politicians, managers of protected areas, and indigenous populations. It is also important for young researchers to investigate the different funding options available and make use of student fellowships at State Research Foundations (FAPs) and the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), as well as the increasing number of post-graduate programs in Ecology, Plant Biology and Biodiversity offered by different universities around the country (UNICAMP, INPA, USP, UFRN, UFAL, UFLA, UFMS, UFMG, UFRGS, UFPR, UEL).

A key challenge researchers may have to overcome is the logistics of research expeditions. Money and planning is required to reach the more remote areas which are useful for study such as the Amazon or Pantanal. Obtaining licences to work in certain areas can also be challenging.


You can read some of our recent papers by Brazilian ecologists and people working in Brazil: 

Precipitation mediates the effect of human disturbance on the Brazilian Caatinga vegetation, Rito et al. 2017

Biotic drivers of seedling establishment in Neotropical savannas: selective granivory and seedling herbivory by leaf-cutter ants as an ecological filter, Costa et al. 2016

Effects of landscape configuration and composition on phylogenetic diversity of trees in a highly fragmented tropical forest, Matos et al. 2016

Influence of plant–pollinator interactions on the assembly of plant and hummingbird communities, Wolowski et al. 2016

Conservative species drive biomass productivity in tropical dry forests, Prado-Junior et al. 2016

Forest structure along a 600 km transect of natural disturbances and seasonality gradients in central-southern Amazonia, Schietti et al. 2016

Loss of secondary-forest resilience by land-use intensification in the Amazon, Jakovac et al. 2015

Functional attributes change but functional richness is unchanged after fragmentation of Brazilian Atlantic forests, Magnago et al. 2015

Differential seedling establishment of woody plants along a tree density gradient in Neotropical savannas, Salazar et al. 2012

Fine-scale changes in connectivity affect the metapopulation dynamics of a bryophyte confined to ephemeral patches, Zartman et al. 2012


A big thank you to all the Journal of Ecology authors and editors who helped with the writing of this article, in particular, Giselda Durigan, Felipe Melo, Charles Zartman, Kátia Rito, and Alexander Christianini. 

James Ross, Assistant Editor, Journal of Ecology

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