Recognising and supporting Brazilian ecological science in uncertain times

Incoming Executive Editor, Jos Barlow, introduces this collection of articles that celebrates ecological research in Brazil. All articles in this Virtual Issue are free to read for a limited time.

Read this post in Portuguese here.

This Virtual Issue celebrates over 70 years of Brazil-based or Brazil-led research in British Ecological Society (BES) journals. Although the first manuscript led by a Brazil-based scientist was published in Journal of Ecology in 1948, it took another 40 years before the next manuscript involving a Brazilian institution to be published. However, since 1988 there has been a rapid increase in the input of Brazilian science into BES journals – to date we have published 286 manuscripts involving authors based at Brazilian institutions, with 42 in 2018 alone. This represents 2.1% of all publications in BES journals in that year, a percentage that is close to Brazil’s contribution to the global population (2.7%) and GDP (2.4%), but which falls far short of its contribution to global land area (5.7%) or species diversity (at least 13%). We have also seen increased participation of associate editors and reviewers; Journal of Applied Ecology alone now has five Associate Editors based in Brazil. In a world where ecological science has been dominated by the Global North, Brazil has stood out as a remarkable success story.

These advances in Brazilian science have resulted from sustained investment in research and training, marked improvements in the number of ecology courses and their quality, and an international and collaborative approach to science that has enabled a high level of leadership within global initiatives such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

This investment is vital. Brazil has incredible ecological wealth, holding all of the Caatinga biome, the vast majority of the Cerrado, Atlantic Forest and Pantanal, and 60% of the Amazon. Yet these ecosystems also face many threats. Land-use change is ongoing, and is compounded by multiple other threats from climate change to the spread of invasive species. Brazil has the unwelcome honour of holding the highest number of threatened or extinct bird species – a worrying indicator in a continental country, especially as it is likely to be an underestimate of true threat status.

Fortunately, Brazilian ecological science is playing a key role in understanding these threats and evaluating the effectiveness of existing policies – for example, Ribeiro et al. examine how chronic disturbances are structuring the Caatinga’s biota, while Leal et al. highlight the inadequacy of environmental legislation for conserving the incredibly diverse fish assemblages found in small Amazonian streams. Brazilian ecology is also providing novel solutions and guiding better management, including developing cost-effective approaches for restoration, changing fire management paradigms in the Cerrado, informing effective pest control within coffee , and even highlighting the important role that contact with nature can play in guiding people’s perceptions about conservation.

Turning good science into policy requires reaching out beyond academia and engaging with politicians and practitioners. This is crucial in countries like Brazil, where changes to some of the most important environmental legislation occurred without consulting a wealth of scientific evidence. It is therefore fitting that the 2019 BES Ecological Engagement Award has been given to Dr. Joice Ferreira, based at EMBRAPA in the eastern Amazon. Dr. Ferreira has led the integration of ecological science into agricultural and land-use management policy making in Brazil over the past 10 years, and has been an active voice in debates around Brazil’s environmental decision making.

In the 19th Century, Brazil’s hyperdiverse ecosystems were key to many of the ecological and evolutionary advances made by Bates, Darwin and Wallace. Today, Brazilian researchers excelling at addressing these fundamental questions, providing globally-relevant insights into key ecological processes and theories. Recent research has helped understand the role of hydrological niche segregation or soil characteristics in supporting plant coexistence and spatial turnover (Brum et al., Abrahão et al.) and the seasonal variation in complex plant-pollinator networks. The complexity of ecological systems has been exemplified by studies demonstrating the context-dependency of individual niche specialisation, the potential for indirect interactions to regulate populations, and the relationships between food‐web topology and population stability. Brazilian scientists have also been at the vanguard of novel methodological advances, from automating the detection of ships in marine monitoring to using species occurrence records to map soil gradients in data‐poor areas.

With so many articles now published by scientists based at Brazilian institutions, it has been hard to bring together this shortlist of ecological science, and we are very grateful to Tadeu Siqueira, Ricardo Solar,  Rafael Zenni, Elizabeth Nichols, Julio Louzada , Gabriela Bielefeld Nardoto, Mariano Rodriguez-Cabal, Luísa Carvalheiro, Pedro Peres-Neto and Enrico Rezende for selecting the 23 articles featured in the Virtual Issue.

Yet ecology and ecologists across the world face an increasingly uncertain future, and amid enormous budget cuts and reprisals against dissenting voices, there is growing concern about the future of Brazilian ecological science and environmental protection. In our rapidly changing world, we believe that good science is needed more than ever. We therefore hope that Brazil’s talented community of ecologists will continue to be supported so they can provide innovative solutions to environmental issues and unlock the ecological secrets of some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems.

All articles in the Ecology in Brazil Virtual Issue are free to read for a limited time here.


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