Botanists race to understand and conserve plant species of the Amazon
Pristine Amazon rainforest seen during a 2016 RBGE expedition
As a record number of fires continue to burn in the Amazon, the largest area of tropical rainforest in the world, concerned scientists at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) face a race against time to quantify the vast number of plant species in the biodiversity hotspot and determine their distributions and to support urgent conservation plans and action.
RBGE’s Dr Tiina Särkinen and Brazilian colleague Dr Domingos Cardoso of the Universidade Federal de Bahia recently led an international effort to quantify the plant species in the Amazon. Their list, published in PNAS, includes 14,003 species, around 14 times as many plant species in Scotland. This number is increasing almost daily as new species are discovered. Just last week, RBGE’s Dr Peter Moonlight described a new Amazonian species, Diastema Fimbatiloba, in the African violet family, Gesneriaceae.
Diastema fimbratiloba (Moonlight & J.L.Clark), a species of Amazonian Gesneriaceae
An unknown number of plant species and animals which share the forest are under threat as swathes of Amazon rainforest in Brazil are destroyed by thousands of fires. Maintaining a richly biodiverse planet is crucial to mitigating the effects of the climate emergency, and the Amazon rainforest stretching across nine countries, holds significant amounts of carbon. Threats from fire, drought and logging all release carbon into the atmosphere and they are encouraged by the removal of legal protection for indigenous forest reserves.
However, it is believed there are ways forward. For instance RBGE and University of Exeter scientist Dr Toby Pennington, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (Global Challenges Research Fund), are working with local non-governmental organisation, Instituto Ouro Verde, “Institute of Green Gold’’, to develop small-scale farming systems based around native Amazon tree species in one of the most heavily deforested areas of Brazilian Amazonia. These systems of land use maintain tree cover and offer an alternative to large-scale soy or cattle farms, whilst providing the small-holder farmers with improved incomes.
Elsewhere around the world, RBGE – a member of the Ecological Restoration Alliance of Botanic Gardens – is working with local institutes from Peru, Chile and Brazil to Africa and the Middle East to build skills and capacity to restore degraded forests and improve their potential as carbon sinks, biodiversity reserves and providers of natural capital and ecosystem services.
Read more about our Conservation work here.
From baseline biodiversity research, through practical support for stakeholders, to large-scale protection and restoration programmes, there are many ways to prevent biodiversity loss in Amazonia and the destruction of forests around the world. RBGE scientists and horticulturists are working with decision-makers and local people to implement them.
You can support RBGE’s work in the Amazon and elsewhere by making a donation.