The hyperdiverse solution
Thousands of new species are described by scientists every year, most of them from tropical regions. Although it may seem inexhaustible, biodiversity is fragile, and the future of humanity depends on knowing and protecting it
Text: Ronaldo Ribeiro
Investigation: Alan Azevedo e Letícia Klein
Photos: João Marcos Rosa
Among the diverse biomes of Brazil, each environment’s peculiarities provide for a unique experience. A largely untouched natural landscape is not only a precious reservoir of biodiversity – it can also be a feast for the senses. In the superlative Amazon Rainforest, sounds radiate from all levels, and life abounds from the carpet of fungi and organic matter in the soil to the top of the tallest trees. Its vast rivers stretch towards the infinite horizon – turtles, dolphins and thousands of species of fish and aquatic invertebrates live their lives in the flooded forest. This complex web of life is like an amphitheater in which animals and plants both respond to and create all kinds of evolutionary pressures.
In the Atlantic Forest, bromeliads, orchids and ferns drip from the humid jungle dotted with waterfalls and are known for its high endemism of both fauna and flora. Occupying a vast territory between the two forests, the Cerrado is the richest savannah in the planet, where the unique blue of the sky adorns natural rows of buriti palms – immortalized in the books of Guimarães Rosa, one of Brazil’s greatest writers of all time – or grasslands and gnarled trees are an appealing stage for iconic animals like rheas, seriemas and manedá wolves. And the Caatinga, the only exclusively Brazilian biome, which surprises scientists every year with its ability to hide new life forms in its dry forests or shrubs that cover rocky outcrops.
Brazilian biomes, in short, are exuberant displays of the planet’s biodiversity. Combined with other tropical ecosystems around the globe, they collectively host the overwhelming majority of Earth’s biodiversity.
Biosphere World Map
But what is the secret behind the profusion of life forms in the tropics?
Biodiversity increases as we move from the poles towards the equator – an effect known as the latitudinal diversity gradient. The heat and humidity supports the development of countless life forms: the tropical zone occupies 40% of the planet’s surface and spans forests (the Amazon being the largest tropical forest of all), savannahs (like the Brazilian Cerrado), freshwater bodies (which receive half the world’s rain), and shallow-water coral reefs, bursting in colorful life forms. Notably, these environments are home, at least seasonally, to over 90% of all terrestrial birds, 85% of insect species and over 75% of amphibians, terrestrial mammals, freshwater fish, flowering plants (known as angiosperms) and marine fish. Tropical latitudes are also home to almost all zooxanthellate corals – corals that have a type of algae inside their tissue. In addition, a disproportionate number of species are unique to the tropics; endemism in terrestrial birds is six times greater than in temperate regions, for example.
Between 15,000 and 19,000 new species are described by taxonomists annually, most of them from the tropics. “For instance, while 500 new spiders are described each year, this is only a small fraction of the estimated 150,000 tropical species,” says Jos Barlow, a researcher from the Lancaster University in England with nearly two decades of experience in the Brazilian Amazon. Barlow was the coordinator of the study “The future of hyperdiverse tropical ecosystems,” published in 2018 in Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world.
In the paper, an international team of researchers including members of the Sustainable Amazon Network (RAS) and collaborators analysed the effects and threats of human and climatic actions on the tropical environment. At the same time, they pointed to the need for coordinated strategies between various social actors and governments in the search for policies and projects to prevent the collapse of this natural heritage. In Brazil, “the warmer climate and changes in rainfall patterns are already manifesting in events such as the desertification of the Caatinga and droughts that favour fires in the Amazon Rainforest and Pantanal, and could culminate in the extinction of countless species in the tropics,” says Barlow.
Brazil alone accounts for 17% of all terrestrial land in the tropics, an area equivalent to that of Oceania. And it is home to tremendous biological wealth: the diversity registered here is richer than that of some entire continents. More than 20% of the planet’s freshwater fish (3,600 species) and 17% of all birds (1,900 species) are found in the country. Together, the Brazilian biomes – Atlantic Forest, Amazon Forest, Cerrado, Caatinga, Pantanal, Campos do Sul (or Pampa) and Coastal-Marine – contain 12% of the planet’s surface freshwater. Additionally, Brazil’s vast tropical biomes are natural repositories of carbon, giving the country a fundamental role in the stability of the global climate.
Brazil’s contribution to global biodiversity
The richness of the Amazon
The forest biomass of the Amazon is estimated to retain 100 billion tonnes of carbon, the equivalent of over ten years of global fossil fuel emissions.
So wild in its depths, the Amazon Rainforest is such a vast natural heritage that, centuries after the first naturalist expeditions, it still holds countless secrets for science to uncover. And the documentation of its life forms has only just begun.
“When scientists describe a new species, they open doors to a world of other related data,” says Barlow. For instance there have been 20 new species of primates described from Amazonia in the last twenty years, including the Parecis titi, (Plecturocebus parecis) in 2016 from the Chapada dos Parecis, a plateau in southern Rondônia. Taxonomic studies reveal the fascinating complexity of evolution and the historical connections between living creatures, which scientists never tire of investigating. Taxonomy is thus the backbone of the biological sciences.
“Even places close to human communities hide unknown lifeforms, hence the importance of field studies,” says Filipe França, a senior researcher at Lancaster University and a member of RAS. In 2019, researchers identified a new species of marmoset in an area already altered for decades by a heavy human presence in the southeastern part of the state of Pará, on the banks of the Tapajós River, within the so-called “arc of deforestation.” Christened Mico munduruku – in honour of the region’s Munduruku indigenous people – it is distinguished from the other small primates of the Amazon in that it has a white tail. Projects for new hydroelectric power plants may cause further loss of habitat for the species.
The two largest Brazilian biomes, the Amazon and the Cerrado, cover an area of 7 million square kilometers. The largest rainforest in the world is home to huge animals such as the harpy eagle, and biomass estimated to retain 100 billion tonnes of carbon. The Cerrado – home to iconic species such as the maned wolf and the pampas deer – also contains around 10,000 plant species, of which over 40% are endemic. The Pantanal, despite being the smallest biome in the country, is recognized by Unesco as a Biosphere Reserve and protects 2,000 species of plants.
New descriptions in more poorly known groups of species are far more frequent. “It is essential to remember that very often ‘new’ species are already known by local populations – they are simply new to scientists”, emphasizes Erika Berenguer of RAS, a senior researcher associated with the UK universities of Lancaster and Oxford. In 2018, a new family of fish was described in Amazonia – the Tarumaniidae, a species with a habit of hiding deep in foliage accumulated at the bottom of pools and rivers in flooded forests. It was the first description of an entire family of South American fish for 40 years. And the most surprising part: in the biome that contains the most extensive and complex river system on Earth, specimens of the only species in the family, called tarumania (Tarumania walkerae), were collected by the banks of the Tarumã-Mirim River, on the left bank of the Rio Negro, a few miles from Manaus – the largest city in the Brazilian Amazon.
But the richness of the Amazon is not restricted to its wild species. A view less based on the premise of European colonizers has, over the years, gained scientific consistency from studies that have led to the understanding that the tropical forest is not simply a virgin and untouched Eden, but rather “a forest that has also been shaped by humanity” over millennia. In other words, traditional Amazonian populations have in places altered the forest, either by domesticating plant species or by daily interactions with the diverse ecosystems around them.
The legacy of indigenous populations clearly demonstrates that the forest is not static or a mere source of resources – humans are an extension of nature, of the land itself. We belong to the land, and are only a mere part of it. Pretensions of possessing it are misguided. According to the Yanomami people, a profusion of animals inhabits the forest in the form of ancestral spirits, the xapiri. Serving as game at times and protectors at others, they are incarnated as tapirs, deer, monkeys, macaws, puma, jaguars, and others. “Thanks to these xapiri, wind and rain descend from the heights to spread throughout the forest, making it cool and humid,” says shaman Davi Kopenawa in the book A Queda do Céu [The Falling Sky].
“We are inhabitants of the forest. We were born in the centre of ecology and grew up there. We have heard its voice since time immemorial, as it is the same voice as the xapiris.
Brazilian biodiversity map
Stretching far beyond the physical limits of the forest itself, ecological processes driven by the planet’s largest tropical forest are responsible for maintaining the balance of different natural systems at local, regional and global scales. One good example is the so-called “flying rivers”phenomenon, whereby enormous quantities of water vapour are released by the vegetation into the atmosphere and regulate climate at hemispherical scales. According to data from the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA), a tree with a 10 meter-wide canopy releases approximately 300 litres of the water that it captures from the soil each day. Every year, up to 8 trillion tons of water circulate over the Amazon in the system of evapotranspiration. This tremendous humidity is returned to the soil in the form of rain over the forest itself or carried by currents of air onto the glaciers and springs of the Andes.
In another direction, the flying rivers guarantee the maintenance of the rains and feed the river basins of Southern Brazil and neighboring countries. “It is estimated that 70% of the rainfall in the Rio de la Plata Basin, in the south of the continent – which covers an area of 1.25 million square miles and is shared by five countries – comes from water evaporation from the Amazon”, says Erika Berenguer.
The rains guarantee Brazil’s agribusiness production, directly revealing the value of a healthy Amazon. In agriculture, examples of this economic value of biodiversity abound. Through ecosystem services such as pollination and biological control, insects contribute to the production of the meat, fruits and vegetables that feed us. According to calculations from the Brazilian Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (BPBES) published in 2018, “the value of the pollination provided by the ecosystem for food production is around R$ 43 billion [USD 8.25 billion] per year” nationally.
Crops important to the Brazilian economy, such as oranges and coffee, are pollinated by bees. Beetles, among the most diverse group of animals on the planet, and the most species rich “are insects that occupy practically all terrestrial and aquatic freshwater environments and bring several benefits to natural ecosystems and agriculture,” says Filipe França. RAS studies have found evidence that dung beetles contribute significantly to the spread of seeds and nutrients in the Amazon. By feeding and nesting in dung, they help forests regrow and are useful in suppressing parasites that could be harmful for people and animals. A recent survey coordinated by França revealed that dung beetles suffered a reduction in diversity and population as a result of the drought and forest fires exacerbated by the intense climate phenomenon known as El Niño in 2015 and 2016.
LANDSCAPES OF DIVERSITY
Over evolutionary time, the tropics have acted as both a source of and a refuge for extra-tropical terrestrial and marine species. Brazilian biomes – with the exception of the Pampas, located in the subtropics – contribute to making the tropics the region with the greatest biodiversity in the world, even though this hot and humid belt of the world occupies 40%of the earth’s surface. Red guarás and hyacinth macaws grace the skies of the coastal zone and the Caatinga, and waterfalls and lush forests stand out in the Atlantic Forest.
A delicate balance
We are living at a delicate time in Earth’s history, and hence our own. Season after season, the 21st century has been laying bare the symptoms of our activities in the Anthropocene – the geological era characterized by the effects of human activities on the planet, many of which have accentuated exponentially since the Industrial Revolution, and especially after World War II. As the coiner of the term, Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen anticipated, these effects will be evident in the geological record even after we as a species are long gone.
Today’s radical anthropocentrism exposes extreme denials of science and reason, giving way to urgent questions: what are the benefits for urban human populations when nature’s heritage is understood and protected? What does the average citizen in a big city, immersed in a daily existence of economic demand, gain from an animal being described or the discovery of a plant’s pharmacological value?
The answer should be simple: the right to life, now and in the future.
Animals and plants represent the living legacy of the planet’s transformations ever since the constitution of its earliest life forms, mainly after the Cambrian Explosion, about 530 million years ago. “Species are products of evolution, and they have been moulded according to various changes, such as the climate, over geological time,” says Joice Ferreira, a researcher at Embrapa Amazônia Oriental and RAS.
Future generations will always depend on new technologies to face challenges related to health and food, for example. And the solutions are in the natural world, which is, above all, a substantial genetic bank. “We didn’t create anything ‘from scratch’,” says Alexander Lees, of RAS and the Department of Natural Sciences of Manchester Metropolitan University. “Agriculture and often medicine is dependent upon our utilisation of the immense genetic resources that exist in nature.”
“The important crops we have today came from the genetic improvement of plants in nature, not from synthetics in a laboratory,” Joice Ferreira explains. “With climate change, this heritage is important for adapting crops to new conditions. Just consider, for example, the genes contained in the Cerrado species that have lived with drought for thousands of years. And what about the trees in the Amazon, which grow so large, even in soil that is poor in nutrients? The gene and ecology bank of natural ecosystems is priceless.”
The Intertropical Convergence Zone
The tropics on the road to development
At continental scales, ecosystems all over the globe in tropical regions have been subject to man’s destructive forces over the last 150 years, repeating a pattern of habitat loss that afflicted many temperate countries millenia before.
The reasons are historical but intensified by the globalization of trade, population growth and resource demands that are generating new categories of consumers. “Brazil has an enormous potential to take a global lead in the standing forest economy, that is, an economy based on biological diversity and knowledge,” said Ricardo Abramovay, a sociologist at the University of São Paulo Institute of Energy and the Environment, in his most recent book, Amazônia: por uma Economia do Conhecimento da Natureza [“Amazon: for a nature-based knowledge economy”].
Likewise, science continues to point to ways to manage biological wealth – even though, in Brazil, cuts to funding sources and scholarships have increased in recent years. In the field, researchers work to identify the scope of species, the size of their populations and the environmental needs for their existence. “After that, we can understand how these species will respond to stressors that affect tropical ecosystems, such as deforestation and climate change,” says Cecília Gontijo Leal, a researcher at the Luiz de Queiroz School of Agriculture and member of RAS. “Science is fundamental in instigating positive changes and guiding efficient public policies for people and nature.”
Nevertheless, the present insists on repeating the past. Land ownership and concentration persist in the mindset of a new administration anchored in the most barbaric model of colonial exploitation, supporting agricultural and mining projects on indigenous lands, whilst being lenient on land grabbers and loggers and loosening environmental protection. Fires and deforestation in the Amazon reached alarming levels in the last few years. Aerial images of regions such as northern Mato Grosso and southern Pará have revealed the pressures under which many protected areas have been subjected with frightening clarity. Against the grain of science and resistant to the idea of conservation, emerging political lineages, in Brazil and elsewhere in the world, are rushing to revive an old-fashioned view of nature as merely a space to be exploited to the immediate benefit of a dominant species: our own.
The expansion of unsustainable agricultural fronts is the central driver of increased environmental degradation. “Global commodity markets can and do drive a huge loss of biodiversity, but these losses can be avoided or significantly mitigated if these same markets start to adopt more stringent environment and social standards and regulations,” says Toby Gardner, a researcher at Stockholm Environment Institute and RAS, and director of Trase (www.trase.earth), a supply chain transparency initiative that provides data and analysis to improve the sustainability in the production and trade of key commodities such as beef, soybean and palm oil.
Since the 1990s, when satellite monitoring became ubiquitous and effective, global deforestation rates have averaged 5 million hectares per year. Widely used new pesticides persist in the soil and contaminate water bodies. Plastic pollution grows every year; the large rivers of Asia dump up to 2.4 million tons of plastic waste into the oceans annually, with dire effects for marine fauna and corals. The logic of endless economic growth and the concentration of wealth is threatening biodiversity.
Never before has humanity put such pressure on natural resources. In the coming decades, inflection points will always be lurking just ahead, threatening our waters, soils, biodiversity and even the stability of the climate we live in.
In all countries, governments, the private sector and civil societies need to band together in a collective effort to change the way we live, manage resources and plan for the future. Ideas for development should abandon absolute GDP numbers and focus on models that allow for better distribution of income concerning the limits of available natural resources. However, “the application of innovation resulting from scientific research depends on building a solid interface between science and society,” as Joice Ferreira points out. There are many steps between theory and practice: qualifying actions and strategies, integrating diverse interests, promoting education and increasingly exposing the economic value of preserved biomes and their environmental services.
One of the important ways to advance knowledge of biodiversity is through connecting and synthesizing the many different scientific studies that have been conducted in Brazil and across the world. “The integration of a number of scientific investigations carried out over the last decades in the Amazon will allow a better understanding of the degree of integrity and the consequences of the degradation for Amazonian ecosystems, guiding decision-making and the promotion of sustainability in the region”, says Joice, Synergize’s coordinator, a project linked to the SinBiose initiative, from Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, which brings together 29 researchers from 17 national and international institutions. “Through the collaboration of hundreds of researchers, we are generating a large ecological database of Amazonian biodiversity.”
TROPICS, CRADLE OF LIFE
Tropical zones are home to 91% of known terrestrial birds, 83% of amphibians, 80% of freshwater fish and 77% of terrestrial mammals, according to the study “The future of hyperdiverse tropical ecosystems”, produced by scientists associated with the Sustainable Amazon Network (RAS). Brazil is home to an exceptional number of species, many of them iconic (in parentheses, the biomes in which the images were taken): tapir and red macaw (Amazon); giant anteater and golden fish (Cerrado); jararaca-ilhoa snake and muriqui monkey (Atlantic Forest); and jaguar (Pantanal). Tropical ecosystems are home to the majority of species revealed by science every year.
The diversity around us
Outdoor activities that promote interaction with natural habitats, like bird watching, “offer an opportunity to connect people with nature, resulting in positive impacts on human well-being”, says Alexander Lees. “Birds play many important roles, as predators, pollinators, saprophages and seed dispersers. Their ability to fly allows them to offer such services free of charge, and they are invaluable in helping to restore degraded ecosystems.”
However, if an ecosystem loses its primordial characteristics, habitat conditions worsen drastically for species, sometimes trapping animals in patches of suboptimal habitat. This was the case of the golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia), restricted to fragmented forests in the state of Rio de Janeiro. To make matters worse, “there is a difficult equation to be solved in the country: the capacity to invest in basic research for inventories and surveys of biodiversity isn’t enough to keep up with the speed of changes in ecosystems,” says Gustavo Martinelli, of the Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro. In other words, animals and plants are at risk of disappearing before our scientists are even able to gain knowledge of them.
“The loss of species is worrying,” says Filipe França. “When they disappear, so do the benefits they confer to nature and people.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has already assessed the conservation status of more than 134,000 animal species and aims to reach 160,000.
According to IUCN specialists, over 28,000 species are at risk of extinction – as registered in the Red List of Threatened Species. In each of the five groups of vertebrates comprehensively assessed by the IUCN, and for which spatial occurrence data exists, species classified as Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered are more dependent on tropical environments than those classified as being of Least Concern.
“The combination of influences of local factors, such as deforestation, and global agents, such as climate change, will determine whether threatened species will survive or not,” says Alexander Lees, a regular contributor to Red Listing panels. As the study published in Nature demonstrates, “more than half of all species in the tropics are susceptible to the twin influences of these factors,” he says.
The extinction of a species can be dramatic, especially when this species inspires positive emotions in people. Some of them have become symbols. Anyone in their 40s was moved by the loss of the Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii), the blue-feathered bird which disappeared from the interior of Bahia at the beginning of the century, after having been hunted to exhaustion. Its status as a rarity made the species a target, coveted by wealthy collectors around the world. Earlier this year, after 20 years of work on recovering Spix’s macaw in captivity, breeders and environmentalists coordinated the release of 52 individuals to a quarantine zone in the Caatinga of Bahia and Pernambuco. The flock had an equal proportion of males and females so that, after a period of readaptation to the environment, they will hopefully have a chance to reproduce and establish a new population. There is hope.
“Extinctions have always happened and they will continue to happen. However, what is especially worrying today is that rates of loss are much higher than in the past,” says Erika Berenguer. “A world with fewer species is not only poorer, it’s also less beautiful. For every species we lose, we also lose a part of the enchantment that the natural world can provoke in us.”
Kinds of Threat
“We have to abandon anthropocentrism; there is a lot of life besides us. The biodiversity would not miss us,” wrote indigenous thinker Ailton Krenak in his latest book, Tomorrow Is Not For Sale. Krenak’s voice comes off as essential in the madness of our present situation. “The world is now in a state of suspension. I don’t know if we are going to come out of this experience the same way we went in”, wrote Krenak about the pandemic caused by Covid-19.
If the new coronavirus does promote change, it will hopefully be in the sense of valuing a simpler way of life, a less predatory way. A way of life capable of revising the boundaries between human beings and other creatures, and changing our attitude towards the environment – otherwise the price may be exacerbating inequalities and suffering, and the spread of misery for many more. For it is time for us to understand each other again as part of a whole, a species among millions. It is time to protect the heritage of biodiversity. It is time to reconnect.