Neotropical seasonal ecosystems

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Seasonally dry tropical forest, Oaxaca, MexicoLarge areas of the tropics are subject to long dry seasons, and the forests and woodlands which grow in these areas are quite different from the rain forests which attract much greater attention from both scientists and conservationists. Such seasonal areas are more suitable for agriculture and human settlement, and consequently deforestation there has been much greater than in the rain forests. Few areas are protected and more floristic information is necessary to identify priority conservation areas.Cerrado, Alter do Chao, Pará, Brazil

The RBGE has studied seasonally dry tropical forest and savanna in South and Central America for more than four decades in projects first co-ordinated by Jim Ratter and now by Toby Pennington.  Our work has lead to some major syntheses of the floristic diversity and geographic patterns of the savanna and seasonally dry forest floras of the Neotropics: 

Pennington, R.T., Lewis, G. & Ratter, J.A. (eds.) (2006). Neotropical savannas and dry forests: plant diversity, biogeography and conservation. CRC Press, Florida. 484 pp

Seasonally dry forests

Seasonally dry tropical forest, Mantaro valley, PeruThese occur on fertile soils, and are found in many disjunct areas throughout South and Central America. The largest single area of this forest is the Caatingas region which extends over 850,000 km2 of north-east Brazil, but similar vegetation is also found on many other areas where the soils are suitable, ranging in size from a few hectares to 40,000 km2.
We have been carrying out floristic inventories in the poorly characterised dry InterAndean valleys of northern (the Jaén-Bagua, Tarapoto and Marañon areas) and southern (Mantaro and Apurimac valleys) Peru. The principal aim of this work is to assess the phytogeographic affinities and conservation status of these areas. Our collections have uncovered new species in the genera Celtis (Ulmaceae), Caesalpinia (Leguminosae), Ruprechtia (Polygonaceae), and Cedrela (Meliaceae). They also demonstrate that Peruvian inter-Andean dry forests are rich in endemic species and should be priorities for conservation.

With support from a recent grant from the Leverhulme Trust, our work on seasonally dry tropical forests has been expanded to cover the entire New World Tropics by the foundation of an international network of researchers.  The "Latin American Seasonally Dry Tropical Forect Floristic Network" (DRYFLOR) is coordinated from RBGE and includes Partner institutions from five Latin American countries that support significant areas of dry forest: Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Columbia and Mexico.  The DRYFLOR network aims to pinpoint areas of high plant species diversity and endemism that are an essential basis for conservation strategies.  For more details click here:

Anew species of Caesalpinia, Marañon valley, Peru

Results of inventory work in Peru are summarised in Reynaldo Linares-Palomino a checklist of the woody plants of Peruvian dry forests,

Recent publications

Pennington, R.T., Lavin, M., Oliveira-Filho, A.T. (2009). Woody plant diversity, evolution and ecology in the tropics: perspectives from seasonally dry tropical forests. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 40: 437-457.

Linares, R., Oliveira-Filho A.T. & Pennington, R.T. (2011). Neotropical Seasonally Dry Forests: Diversity, Endemism and Biogeography of Woody Plants.  In R. Dirzo, H. Mooney, G. Ceballos, H. Young )eds). Latin American Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests.  Pp. 3-21. Island Press


Cerrado, Chapada dos Veiadeiros, Goiás, Brazil
Cerrado, Chapada dos Veiadeiros, Goiás, Brazil

This savanna woodland is the natural vegetation of about two million km2 of central Brazil where it occurs on well-drained, infertile soils. The cerrado is of enormous ecological importance, containing over 5000 species of higher plants, many of whichVellozia squamata only occur in Central Brazil. Isolated areas of cerrado-like savanna vegetation also occur within the Amazonian rain forest, in Venezuela, and in Guyana, and also in Central American countries such as Belize.
Despite the fact that it covers an area equal to that of Western Europe (2 million km²), the cerrado's importance has been overshadowed by its more emotive neighbour, the Amazon rainforest. Caryocar brasiliense, characteristic species of the cerradoSince the late 1960s, there has been a drive to open up the cerrado territory for agriculture, and vast areas have been cleared. In addition to agricultural development, much of the charcoal used in the Brazilian steel industry is derived from native cerrado trees, putting further pressure on this vegetation. It is estimated that an area of about 70% of the cerrado has been destroyed to date. The urgent need for conservation is now being recognised by the Brazilian authorities and the wider scientific community.

RBGE's role in this project

A team from the RBGE and Brazil have collaborated to:

  • provide essential information on the flora. A comprehensive survey programme of the vegetation of the poorer known cerrado areas has since 1992 provided over 200 new floristic surveys covering a wide range of the cerrado biome.
  • evaluate conservation areas. The biogeographical patterns of the cerrado flora were analysed to provide information for the establishment of protected areas.
  • Click here for the results of our work and much more information about the cerrado.

Recent publications

Ratter, J.A., Bridgewater, S. and Ribeiro J.F. 2006. Biodiversity patterns of the woody vegetation of the Brazilian Cerrado. In Pennington, R.T., Lewis, G.P. and Ratter, J.A. (eds) Neotropical savannas and seasonally dry forests: plant diversity, biogeography and conservation. CRC Press, Florida.

Bridgewater, S., Ratter, J.A. & Ribeiro, J.F. 2004. Biogeographic pattern, beta-diversity and dominance in the cerrado biome of Brazil. Biodiversity and Conservation, 13. pp. 2295-2318.

Ratter, J.A., Bridgewater S, Atkinson R.& Felipe J.F. 2003. Analysis of the Brazilian cerrado vegetation III: comparison of the woody vegetation of 376 acres. Edinburgh Journal of Botany, 60. pp. 57-109.

Oliveira-Filho, A.T. & Ratter, J.A. 2002. Vegetation physiognomies and woody flora of the cerrado biome. In Oliveira, P.S. & Marquis, R.J. (eds.). The Cerrado of Brazil: Ecology and Natural History of a Neotropical Savanna. Columbia University Press, New York. Chapter 6, pp. 91-120.

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