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Amid challenges, ideas and threats

Biologists give teachers and high school students an overview of the effects of fragmented ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity in Brazil

Illustrations from the 10th edition of the book Systema Naturae, by Carl Linnaeus

GUILHERME KRAMERIllustrations from the 10th edition of the book Systema Naturae, by Carl LinnaeusGUILHERME KRAMER

When the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) proposed that he alone create a hierarchical classification of all species of living organisms in the world, he certainly had no idea of the actual scope of biological diversity with which he was dealing. His major work, Systema Naturae, in its tenth edition by 1758, had cataloged a total of 7,700 plant species and 4,400 animal species. It is now known that half of the organisms classified by Linnaeus as animals were insects — and less than 100 years later 400,000 new insect species had already been identified. “That was the last time one person, working alone, tried to catalog every species in the world.” It was in jest that Thomas Lewinsohn, a biologist at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) Institute of Biology, initiated the first meeting of the BIOTA-FAPESP Education Cycle of Conferences, held in São Paulo on February 21, in which Jean Paul Metzger, a biologist with the University of São Paulo (USP) Biosciences Institute, and Carlos Alfredo Joly, a botanist with Unicamp’s Institute of Biology and coordinator of the BIOTA-FAPESP Program, also participated.

The cycle of conferences, whose theme is The commitment to improving the teaching of biodiversity science in Brazil, is an initiative coordinated by BIOTA-FAPESP in partnership with the magazine Pesquisa FAPESP as a contribution to improving the quality of science and environmental education in Brazil. There will be eight more lectures between now and November, and each will address one of the major Brazilian biomes: Pampa, Pantanal, Cerrado, Caatinga, Atlantic Forest, Amazonia, marine and coastal environments and biodiversity in anthropic environments – urban and rural.

According to Lewinsohn, despite the exponential increase in cataloged species in the last 280 years, there is still a dearth of information about the varieties of organisms. “In São Paulo, which probably has the largest concentration of botanists in Brazil, the volume of flora studies is very uneven, as most have concentrated on certain regions of the state, such as São Paulo, Campinas, Campos do Jordão and Ubatuba.” he said. Also little is known of many categories of living things. Such is the case of weevils (Curculionidae), for example, the largest family of beetles on the planet, with 62,000 species described and named. It is estimated, however, that the number of species of this family yet to be described may exceed 800,000, according to Lewinsohn. “This means that as far as smaller organisms such as insects and mites are concerned, our main challenge is not that we don’t know where they are, but that we don’t know who they are. The collection and recognition of these new species are two of the major challenges facing humanity,” he explained to an enthusiastic audience made up of high school teachers and undergraduate students, in addition to researchers interested in the topic.

From left to right: Thomas Lewinsohn, Jean Paul Metzger and Carlos Alfredo Joly

Léo RAmosFrom left to right: Thomas Lewinsohn, Jean Paul Metzger and Carlos Alfredo JolyLéo RAmos

The magnitude of this still little known universe grows to incalculable proportions when its focus shifts to the study of the diversity of microbial organisms — such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and unicellular algae. In past projects, developed under the BIOTA-FAPESP Program, researchers were able to identify about 20,000 new types of bacteria on the surface of leaves of just nine species of trees of the Atlantic Forest. Therefore, Lewinsohn says, “It is extremely difficult to try to estimate how many species share the world with us. That is because the information is still scattered in many places, such as repositories, databases, publications etc., which complicates the organization of this huge catalog of living beings.” Lewisohn estimates that there are at least 1.75 million known and 12 million yet to be discovered species, despite some disagreement on the size of that number. He thinks that, if the work continues at this pace and with the current human, financial and technical resources, the mapping of all biological diversity — the result of nearly four billion years of evolution and species interactions — could take anywhere from approximately 200 to 2,000 years. And this takes into account only the species that researchers believe exist in Brazil. And so, Lewinsohn concludes, there is a clear need to prioritize the study of certain groups of organisms, by their functional importance, while knowledge about more known groups, such as plants and vertebrates, can be used to formulate more urgent policies of conservation management.


In fact, it was the challenge of creating an integrated information system, linking taxonomic, ecological and biogeographical knowledge to bioinformatic tools, which laid the foundation for the BIOTA-FAPESP Program, started in 1999. Today, joked Joly, “despite constant efforts, knowledge of Brazilian biodiversity can be summed up as an ocean of data, rivers of information, streams of knowledge, drops of understanding and droplets of sustainable use.” For this reason, the common goal of all research projects undertaken within BIOTA is to understand the processes of generation, maintenance and loss of biodiversity in the state of São Paulo.

Sustainable knowledge
In his lecture, Joly noted that all knowledge generated from these studies has been made available on the Internet, in transparent form and free of charge, with the aim of improving teaching standards and demonstrating to society the importance of issues related to conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity. “Every citizen needs scientific knowledge and the intellectual capacity to be able to integrate it into the natural world and also into the conscious use of technological artifacts that we encounter in everyday life,” says Joly. Hence the idea of holding a series of conferences to present the state-of-the-art knowledge of Brazilian biomes in a language accessible to different audiences. “This is an opportunity to discuss something that Brazil still lacks: education. We will only be a great nation when we have an educational system in Brazil to meet the challenges imposed by a complex world like the one we have today. It was in this spirit that we developed this series of conferences,” said Vanderlan Bolzani, a professor at the Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp) Institute of Chemistry, in the city of Araraquara, and a member of the BIOTA-FAPESP coordination group.

In its 13 years, the BIOTA-FAPESP Program has funded over 120 research projects, which resulted in more than 1,100 articles published in various scientific journals, including Nature and Science. More than 2,000 new species were cataloged during the same period, and information on another 12,000 was collected and stored in environmental information systems such as SinBIOTA, whose new prototype, SinBIOTA 2.0, is now being tested. In addition, the maps produced by the program have proven to be beneficial to decision makers, enabling them to better identify priority areas for conservation and restoration of the state’s biodiversity. “There are currently at least 20 legal instruments, including laws, decrees and resolutions, that consider the results obtained under the BIOTA-FAPESP Program as the basis for formulating environmental policies,” says Joly. Continuation of the program has been ensured until 2020. According to Joly, one of the proposals for the second phase, begun in 2009, is to cast a wider net geographically, in order to consider the occurrence limits of the Atlantic Forest and Cerrado, invest more in research on coastal and marine biodiversity and raise the priority of the educational aspect. “This is one way we hope to improve the quality of science education in Brazil.” In late January, Joly was elected as one of the five representatives from Latin America and the Caribbean to the Multidisciplinary Panel of Experts of IPBES, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services ( Created in 2012 after nearly 10 years of international negotiations, IPBES will function as the instrument to systematize scientific knowledge on biodiversity to provide input to policy decisions at the international level – similar to the work done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC.

Today more than 50% of the land area has been degraded by human activity, says Metzger. He notes that this means we are rapidly invading natural areas, by extending our encroachment either for agricultural purposes or through urbanization. “This not only leads to the disappearance of habitats, but also the fragmentation of ecosystems, that is, the spatial and functional subdivision of these areas.” Metzger also noted that this process is a major cause of the loss of biodiversity, in Brazil and the world. “The more fragmented a landscape becomes, the greater the rate of extinction of species that live there. On the other hand, the smaller this fragmentation, the lower the isolation between habitat fragments, enabling the increase or maintenance of rates of colonization and recolonization of the species in this region,” says Metzger.

According to the researchers, this is a worrisome phenomenon. In 1500, 85% of the state of São Paulo was covered by native forests. By 2000, that number had fallen to 12%. The Cerrado areas, which in 1500 covered 14% of the state, by 1960 covered only 10% of the state. “The highest rates of conversion to cultivated areas occurred with the expansion of coffee in the 19th century and sugarcane under Proálcool (Brazil’s National Alcohol Program for biofuel),” says Joly. “The good news is that over the past 10 years this trend has reversed, and since then the state has gained new areas,” he said. The Atlantic Forest, in turn, has only 12% to 16% of the remaining forests, Metzger said. “What’s most striking is that apart from a few remaining forests, 95% of the Atlantic Forest is in area fragments of less than 100 hectares.” Even so, he said, the region has few records to document species extinction. This is probably due to the latency period between the beginning of the process of fragmentation and species extinction.

The occupation of natural areas through the expansion of agricultural lands has contributed to the loss of habitat and the fragmentation of ecosystems

FABIO COLOMBINIThe occupation of natural areas through the expansion of agricultural lands has contributed to the loss of habitat and the fragmentation of ecosystemsFABIO COLOMBINI

Green corridors
Part of the solution to the problem of the degradation of the Atlantic Forest may be to identify key areas, where restoration of the landscape would facilitate biological flow between habitat fragments and take the form of biological corridors. “The notion of connectivity may contribute to integrating the understanding of structural and functional aspects of the fragmented areas,” says Metzger. Also the amount of time between the beginning of the fragmentation process and species extinctions could lead to faster and more targeted governmental action in restoring areas with biological connections between fragmented habitats. “It is essential that these areas be identified ​​not just in structural but also in functional terms,” he added.

For researchers, the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functions — nature’s contribution to our quality of life and productive activities — in addition to being complex, is also partially unknown. “It is estimated, for example, that there are about 25,000 as yet unidentified species of edible plants on the planet,” says Lewinsohn. “We also do not fully understand the roles that each species plays in various ecosystems,” he added. Thus, the accumulation of knowledge of such issues must be continuous, in order to be used as the basis for biodiversity conservation and restoration policies in Brazil. “For that, you need a well-informed science, supported by well-structured programs, such as BIOTA-FAPESP,” says Metzger.