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Inventory of Brazilian species

Book summarizes cataloged knowledge on biodiversity

JOHANN B. VON SPIXBrazilian biodiversity must comprise something like 2 million species, of which only 10% are known. Each year, the total of cataloged species grows 0.6%, a pace imposed by the reduced number of specialists in activity and that can condemn Brazilian science to at least ten centuries of work until it describes all the families of taxons existing in the country. “It would of course be impossible to inventory everything, even if a substantial amount of additional resources were brought in. The great challenge lies in knowing where to concentrate efforts”, says Thomas Michael Lewinsohn, from the Biology Institute of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp).

Lewinsohn coordinated a wide-ranging national inventory on the current state of knowledge of Brazilian diversity and produced the first estimated total of the species, described or as yet unknown in the country, for the Ministry of the Environment (MMA), with the objective of providing input for the National Policy on Biodiversity, and with the support of Conservation International of Brazil. Concluded in 2000, the main results of the research have just been published, under the title of Biodiversidade Brasileira: Síntese do Estado Atual do Conhecimento – Brazilian Biodiversity: a Synthesis of the Current State of Knowledge, by Editora Contexto.

Written in co-authorship with Paulo Inácio Prado, of Unicamp’s Nucleus for Environmental Research, the book incorporates the conclusions of seven documents produced by specialists, as part of their research, on the biodiversity of fresh water organisms, marine and terrestrial invertebrates, vertebrates, and microbial diversity. It also brings graphs and tables that analyze replies from 400 researchers to a questionnaire drawn up by Lewinsohn, besides the first compilation of data on the biological diversity of all the taxonomic groups in Brazil and of estimates for those on which there was no information available. The book also brings a set of recommendations for making headway in knowledge on biodiversity. All of this in 176 pages. The full text of the research, with some one thousand pages, is shortly to be published by the MMA.

The result is an unprecedented and detailed balance of the current knowledge and qualification about biodiversity. “One of the conclusions is that we know much about some groups of species in some ecosystems”, he explains. This is the case of the majority of the vertebrates, with the main exception of freshwater fish. There are, though, groups of important organisms, like bacteria, fungi, nematoids and acarids, still little known.”Today, we are getting to know certain ecosystems reasonably”, Lewinsohn carries on, citing the biomes of the southeastern, southern and Amazonian regions.

On the other hand, the Caatinga (the semi-arid scrublands) and the Pantanal (swampy lands), and even the southern prairies, remain very little known. However, the indications are that the knowledge of diversity in the major biomes is still inadequate for the majority of the groups of organisms. Only flowering plants in the Atlantic Rain Forest, in the assessment of the specialists consulted, were awarded an average mark of a “good” knowledge. The regional differences are also to be noted in the lack of qualified researchers. The institutional conditions in the south, southeast and north are more favorable to research being carried out than the rest. “At least 50% of the inventories published are concentrated in the southeastern and southern regions, where the majority of researchers and institutions is also concentrated”, he observes.

The lack of knowledge about biodiversity is not a Brazilian problem, but a world-wide one. “A brutal effort is made and billions of dollars invested to investigate whether life exists on Mars, before inventorying life here on Earth. The last frontier is here”, says Lewinsohn. There are exceptions, particularly among some European countries, like Great Britain, Holland and Finland. Great Britain, for example, has had, for 40 years, and Atlas of British Flora, with all its plant species identified mapped in units of 10 by 10 kilometers. The difficulties are far greater when dealing with nations with megadiversity, as is the case of Brazil, whose biodiversity represents something like 14% of world-wide biodiversity. “The majority of megadiverse countries are from the Third World. But Brazil, just like Mexico, South Africa and India, enjoys an institutional capacity of its own: museums, postgraduate courses and courses for training specialists”, he adds.

The current knowledge and capacity of Brazilian specialists has to be used. “Any policy for investigating biodiversity and its application will have to be multiple and flexible, taking advantage of specific possibilities and defining realistic short and medium term targets”, he suggests. The groups of acarids, soil nematoids, fungi and bacteria, with little known taxonomy, for example, would deserve special incentive programs for specialists to be trained and settled, intensive inventories in chosen locations, and a stimulus for the formation of reference collections, amongst others.

The research has also made it possible to find that the quality and usefulness of the existing biological collections is jeopardized by the lack of professional curators, actually employed with this attribution, by the lack of technicians and support personnel for the indispensable routines for the conservation and organization of the collection, besides the lack of stable funds for paying for supplies for their maintenance, just to mention a few problems. “Some of these difficulties may be overcome with relatively small investments, provided that they are applied competently”, he adds.

But, besides investing in quality, cataloging and studying the collections already catalogued, there is a need for strengthening and creating new research nuclei focussed on investigating biodiversity. “The critical factor is to settle minimum contingents of competent and active professionals in each institution”, he concludes.