Brazil ecology: the editors’ perspective

Associate Editors, Rafael D. Zenni, Tadeu Siqueira and Ricardo Solar provide insights into their nominated papers for our recent Ecology in Brazil Virtual Issue.

A version of this post is available in Portuguese here.

Brazilian ecological science has grown immensely in the past few decades, with flourishing graduate courses across the country dedicated to the topic and an increasing number of researchers focused on understanding many aspects of the country´s immense biodiversity. In 2008 there were 35 graduate-level ecology courses in Brazil, increasing to 59 graduate and eight undergraduate courses in 2014. As of 2019, 68 graduate courses in ecology exist in Brazil. While this is still a very small percentage (1.5%) of the 4,581 graduate courses in Brazil overall, that exist in Brazil, the growth observed in the past decade is astonishing. Brazil now has more trained ecologists than ever.

Brazil is the most biodiverse country in the world, hosting 20% of the world´s plant species, 14% of the amphibians, 17% of the birds and 14% of the fish just to name a few groups. With its vast area ( Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world), Brazil also hosts six distinct biomes (Amazon, Cerrado, Caatinga, Pantanal, Atlantic Forest and Pampa). It also has one the largest agricultural systems on the planet and a growing human population, with increasing demand for infrastructure, natural resources and waste management. Thus, there are great pressures for conversion of natural habitats, ecosystem fragmentation, emission of pollutants and introduction and spread of invasive species. Clearly, there are great challenges and no shortage of work for ecologists in Brazil.

Ecologists in Brazil work on a myriad of research and management fronts and there numerous wonderful projects and initiatives are being carried out by researchers, both within the country and internationally. With the Ecology in Brazil Virtual Issue, the British Ecological Society recognises and values the contributions that Brazilian-based ecological research have made to the global advancement of ecology and environmental management. As Associate Editors  of Journal of Applied Ecology, we contributed to the Virtual Issue and have selected a few recently published papers that we believe showcase the landscape of applied Ecology in Brazil today from both a research and practitioner perspective. With this, we salute all tireless, creative and enthusiastic researchers, students, and professionals working with ecology in Brazil.

A new approach to map landscape variation in forest restoration success in tropical and temperate forest biomes

Brazil has a plan to restore approximately 170m ha of deforested lands by 2030, and a group of Brazilian and international researchers has recently proposed ways to maximize the effectiveness of restoration outcomes towards that end. This is very welcome as previous evidence indicates that variation in forest restoration outcomes can be so high that in certain circumstances it can be considered almost unpredictable. Crouzeilles and colleagues  developed an approach to identify deforested landscapes where biodiversity recovery would be maximized by forest restoration. They analysed 135 landscapes in tropical and temperate ecosystems around the globe and found that the amount of forest cover remaining within these modified landscapes can be used to explain and predict variation in forest restoration success. The explanation for this is straightforward. More forested areas within landscapes increases the chance of restoration success as these remaining forest patches can act as sources of propagules, enhancing spatial connectivity. The authors used this knowledge to map priorities for forest restoration that would maximise cost-effective outcomes in specific biomes in Brazil, Uganda and the USA – countries where restoration implementation costs were available. In Brazil, the Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact aims to restore 1m ha in tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests. Crouzeilles and colleagues found that the Atlantic Forest is among the biomes with the largest potentially restorable areas and lowest landscape variation in restoration success. The main implications of this study are clear: 1) Forest cover can be used to identify landscapes with the greatest potential to be restored. It is important to note that we are talking about landscapes that were naturally covered by forests in the past. The findings of this study should not be extrapolated to non-forest biomes such as the Brazilian Cerrado; 2) Areas with the greatest potential to be restored can be prioritized to reduce the risks of implementing restoration projects. It is also worth noting that the authors recognise that landscapes with low forest cover should not be completely disregarded as targets for restoration; they suggest that planning restoration initiatives in these areas should be done more carefully and by considering aspects beyond biodiversity recovery.

A landscape approach for cost‐effective large‐scale forest restoration

Achieving global targets for forest restoration requires cost‐effective strategies, while minimising implementation costs and negative outcomes for agricultural production. Paulo Molin and colleagues present a landscape model for optimising the cost effectiveness of large‐scale forest restoration across three different landscapes within Brazil’s Atlantic Forest biodiversity hotspot. Their model provides a novel approach for estimating the total cost of forest restoration at large landscape scales. They also give clear evidence that prioritising low‐cost restoration is an essential approach for upscaling restoration from the site level to the landscape level. Even in landscapes with low levels of forest cover, prioritising low‐cost restoration through natural regeneration could increase cost effectiveness.

Landscape structure regulates pest control provided by ants in sun coffee farms

Discussions about the ecosystem services provided by insects in agroecosystems are a very important topic for Brazil, given it is a key producer of agricultural crops in the world .However, landscape change and habitat degradation causing by humans have been causing severe losses of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Pest control stands out among the ecosystem services that agroecosystems benefit from, and understanding the effects of landscape integrity on this service is crucial to correctly manage the land and profit from biodiversity conservation. In their study, Aristizábal & Metzger analysed the effect of landscape structure (in terms of forest and crop cover) on the pest control provided by ants to the coffee crops in Brazil. The study presents experimental evidence. using long-term branch exclusion of ants and shows that, when ants are present, there is a 40% reduction in the coffee berry borer (CBB) presence and damage. Surprisingly, this benefit is higher in landscapes with less than 40% forest cover in a 2km buffer and increases with distance from the forest edge, demonstrating that matrix-adapted ants are in fact responsible for the CBB control. Despite such unexpected results, the authors’ work uncovers the importance of ants for CBB control in sun-coffee farms and highlights the value of landscape planning for farmland management in Brazil. The authors also highlight that farms can securely sustain c. 35% of forest and still maintain this important service provided by ants.

Fire management in the Brazilian savanna: First steps and the way forward

For many years, Brazil had a zero-fire policy for protected areas, largely driven by the view that fire was mostly human induced and therefore was a cause of environmental degradation. While true for several ecosystems, for savanna ecosystems fire has an important role in shaping structure and biodiversity. Furthermore, local communities have used fires for decades as part of their land cultivation practices. Consequently, trying to avoid all fires in the Cerrado has not led to effective biodiversity conservation. Schmidt et al.  evaluated a pilot-integrated fire management programme, carried out in the Brazilian Cerrado, aimed at improving the country’s ability to conserve biodiversity, improve communication with local communities and decreasing firefighting costs. The study demonstrates a change in paradigm for Brazilian biodiversity conservation strategies and points a way forward for advancing research, policy and management in the Cerrado.

Is environmental legislation conserving tropical stream faunas? A large‐scale assessment of local, riparian and catchment‐scale influences on Amazonian fish

Current rates of agricultural intensification and mechanisation in tropical landscapes are unprecedented. Agricultural expansion and intensification are major threats to Brazilian biodiversity, not only for the clearing of natural vegetation, but also because it elicits other human‐induced disturbances. However, the existing legislative frameworks focusing on protecting riparian vegetation seem insufficient to conserve stream environments and their fish assemblages. In their study, Cecília Leal and colleagues  used a dataset on the ecological condition of 83 low‐order streams in three river basins in the eastern Brazilian Amazon to assess the extent to which stream fish are being effectively conserved in agricultural landscapes. They found very high levels of species turnover, even within the same river basin, highlighting the importance of conservation measures beyond protected areas. They also found that changes in fish abundance were more strongly associated with instream habitat pressures than with the variables more frequently addressed by Brazilian environmental legislation, such as those related to riparian and landscape‐scale measurements of forest cover. They conclude that to safeguard the species‐rich freshwater biota of small Amazonian streams, conservation actions must shift towards managing whole basins and drainage networks, as well as agricultural practices in already‐cleared land.

There is a clear focus for applied ecology in Brazil to address questions closely related to current environmental policy. Aiming at providing facts and knowledge for well-informed decision-making and management of natural resources. Both in natural and human-dominated landscapes. Many valuable lessons have been, and continue to be learnt, as science never rests. It is our desire that applied Ecology in Brazil will maintain and sustain its spectacular recent growth and become a leading force of global applied ecology by producing high-quality research and by training, and collaborating with, world-class researchers from across the globe.

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

Read incoming Executive Editor, Jos Barlow’s introduction here.

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