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Brazil's Ecosystems: Amazon Rainforest, Cerrado, Atlantic Rainforest, Pantanal, Caatinga, Pampas, Mangroves, and Restingas

May 24, 2021
Atlantic Rainforest in Florianopolis

Brazil's diversity is not only shown culturally but above all in the richness of species in the unspoiled nature of the country's different ecosystems. A Brazil trip usually combines several of these natural paradises and travelers can always be impressed anew. Because the jungle of Brazil varies from savannahs, barren mountain regions, and steppes to wetlands, mangrove forests, and dense forests full of giant trees.
Those who want to experience Brazil's natural paradises on a round trip usually think of Brazil's most famous ecosystems, the Amazon Rainforest, and the Pantanal. But unspoiled nature and unique animals and plants can be found in all other ecosystems.

The Amazon Rainforest - The Green Lungs of the World

With about 1,930,510 square miles (5 million square kilometers), the Amazon Rainforest occupies 60 percent of Brazil's territory and is located in the states of Acre, Amapá, Amazonas, Mato Grosso, Maranhão, Pará, Roraima, Rondônia, and Tocantins. It is the largest tropical forest on Earth and, thanks to the Amazon River Basin, contains one-fifth of the world's fresh water in a liquid state. The forest itself is not as uniform as it may seem, as the Amazon ecosystem is characterized by three types of vegetation. These include the Igapó forests, which are located in low areas along rivers and are constantly flooded. The trees are about 66 feet (20 meters) high and adapted to life on flooded land. The best way to explore these forests is by kayak.

Furthermore, there are the Várzea areas, which are located on slightly higher ground and are flooded only intermittently. Home to giant trees and distinctive for their closed-canopy are the Terra Firme forests, also known as dry forest, in Portuguese Mato Seco, because they are not flooded, but are anything but dry. The trees have an average height of 98 feet (30 meters) and form compact forests, whose interior is moist and dark, and which make up about 80 percent of the Amazon Rainforest.

Like other Brazilian ecosystems, the Amazon Rainforest has been the victim of major environmental degradation due to deforestation, fires, mineral extraction, road construction, and the expansion of intensive agriculture. It is estimated that the forest loses an area equivalent to a soccer field every five seconds.

The Cerrado - The source of Brazil's largest rivers

The Cerrado, Brazil's second largest ecosystem by area, is located mainly in the Midwest in the states of Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso, São Paulo, Goiás, Bahia, Piauí, Tocantins, and Maranhão. The climate of the region is tropical, with a dry season lasting five to seven months. Unlike in the Caatinga, the rivers do not dry up here but supply all the surrounding regions with water. Even the headwaters of Brazil's largest rivers are located in the Cerrado.

The predominant vegetation of the Cerrado consists of shrubs and small trees with twisted trunks, thick bark, and leaves typical of the dry climate.

The Cerrado is also known as the "upside-down forest" because about two-thirds of the plant mass is underground as root systems. Alongside the upper river courses, buriti palms typically line up surrounded by steppe landscape. Lower lying regions are home to the dense tropical forest with trees up to 98 feet (30 meters) high.

Starting in 1975, the Cerrado began to be used for agriculture. This requires chemical correction of the soil, usually by spreading lime, to make it suitable for planting. However, the use of pesticides, indiscriminate logging, improper use of heavy equipment, and invasive plant species have put this ecosystem in danger, causing the area to shrink by nearly 60 percent in the last 20 years.

The Atlantic Rainforest - The Forest with the World's Highest Biodiversity

The Atlantic Rainforest, like the Amazon Rainforest, is a tropical rainforest. The climate is hot and there is a lot of rainfall throughout the year. The forest may appear less lush on the map than the Amazon, but its trees, which grow to about 98 feet (30 meters) high, are very diverse and grow into true giants. In fact, the Atlantic Rainforest, or Mata Atlântica in Portuguese, is the most biodiverse forest in the world. About 200,000 different tree species grow here, among which Pau-Brasil, Ipê, and Jacarandá stand out, which are already almost extinct due to intensive exploitation.

At the time of the discovery of Brazil, the area was 135,135 square miles (350,000 square kilometers). The forest stretched from Rio Grande do Norte to Rio Grande do Sul, following the mountain range that exists along the Brazilian coast. Today, only about 5 percent of the original forest remains, scattered throughout the country. This remaining 5 percent is mainly located in some national parks and protected areas, but unfortunately remains threatened.

Currently, the largest protected area of the Atlantic Rainforest is the Serra do Mar National Park, located in the state of São Paulo between the cities of Ubatuba and Peruíbe.

The Caatinga - The Dry Savannah of the Northeast

The Caatinga is the characteristic vegetation of the Brazilian Northeast. This region is very dry due to the low rainfall and, except for the Rio São Francisco, rivers do not carry water most of the year. The climate is hot and the soil fertile, although unproductive due to the lack of water.
The plants of the vegetation adapted to the lack of water have long roots, so they can extract a maximum of water from the soil. They are also characterized by succulent stems that store water and small leaves, often transformed into thorns, that fall off during drought to reduce water loss through transpiration.
Low trees and shrubs predominate, along with a large number of cacti. Species found in the region include the barriguda, catingueira, umburana, juazeiro, and mandacaru.

The Pantanal - One of the largest inland wetlands in the world

The Pantanal occupies an area of approximately 84,942 square miles (220,000 square kilometers) and extends across the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. The lowlands of the Pantanal have an average elevation of just over 328 feet (100 meters) and are surrounded by higher elevation areas. Therefore, the rivers of the surrounding regions meet here and form the wetland, which is mostly flooded during the rainy season.

Different types of vegetation can be identified in the Pantanal, as some higher areas are almost always dry and the vegetation is similar to that in the Caatinga and Cerrado. But the Pantanal ecosystem is best known for its constantly flooded areas, where rivers form a labyrinth of waterways. Brazil travelers from all over the world come to this region to experience its extraordinary natural beauty and the spectacular variety of wildlife found there. Unfortunately, despite this unique treasure, the Pantanal natural paradise is threatened by climate change, illegal slash-and-burn agriculture, and the draining of land for cattle ranching.

The Pampas in the South of Brazil

This ecosystem is typical of Rio Grande do Sul and extends into Argentina and Uruguay. The pampas have a cold, subtropical climate with an average annual temperature of 19 degrees Celsius and well-defined four seasons. The vegetation consists of grasses, shrubs, and small trees that grow sporadically without forming contiguous forests. Today, there are large pastures in the pampas for bred cattle herds.

Mangroves and Restingas - The Endangered Coastal Ecosystems

Mangrove forests grow all along the Brazilian coast, from Amapá to Santa Catarina, when river and ocean waters meet. The mangrove trees have adapted to tidal inundation with buttresses and table roots, and benefit from nutrients carried inland by the rivers. Among the plant species, Rhizophora Mangle, the red mangrove, stands out, as well as bromeliads, orchids, algae, and lichens.
Unfortunately, the mangroves have been destroyed to a large extent, as they are located in strategic points. Examples of this are the mangroves in Santos near São Paulo, in the Bay of All Saints in Salvador, in Rio de Janeiro, and Paranaguá, which have practically disappeared today.

The Restinga is a sandy coastal strip formed by the movement of water along the coast. Found in Bahia, Espírito Santo, Minas Gerais, and São Paulo, this ecosystem is characterized by moderate tree growth.
Restinga sandbars are threatened for the same reason as mangroves, as they are located in regions of high commercial interest. Real estate speculation and road and port development, in particular, have taken a toll on the restingas.

Cocais Zone - The Region of the Palm Trees

The Cocais Zone is located in the states of Maranhão and Piauí in northeastern Brazil. The vegetation is characterized by palm trees, among which Babaçu, Carnauba, and Buriti stand out. These palm forests have great commercial importance and form the basis of the traditional local economy. From Babaçu, oil, fibers, and glycerine are extracted. From the Carnauba palms the Carnauba wax, which is used in the food and cosmetics industries, in medicines, and as an ingredient in car waxes and polishes. The Buriti palm is a supplier of fruits, edible oil, and wood used for light construction and handicrafts.

Araucaria Forests - Fertile Soil in Southern Brazil

The Araucaria forest is located in the states of Paraná and Santa Catarina, a region with a temperate climate and regular rainfall. The plant species that gives it its name is the Araucaria Angustifolia or Paraná pine. Alongside these impressive trees grow cedars, gameleira, angico, imbuia, podocarpos, and yerba mate, among others.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Araucaria forest occupied 9,884,215 acres (4 million hectares). Today, unfortunately, only 494 acres (200 hectares) of the original forest remain, since the Paraná pines were cut down for their good wood without being replanted. Most of the nutrient-rich soil has been converted to farmland or planted with faster-growing trees for timber production, such as eucalyptus and pines.

Pure Diversity - Experience Brazil's Ecosystems

The diversity of Brazil's landscapes and nature never ceases to impress visitors from all over the world. It is the country's greatest treasure and the processes in the coexistence of flora and fauna are far from being fully explored. The various ecosystems are home to countless endemic plants and animals and hold many surprises in store.

Whether on a safari tour in the Pantanal, a kayak tour in the Amazon Rainforest, on foot during a hike in the Atlantic Rainforest, on horseback in the mountains of the Serra Geral, or by boat on the winding water arms of the mangroves. On a Brazil vacation, travelers can experience many natural wonders, as Brazil's ecosystems hold a small or large adventure for everyone!

Source: Aventura do Brasil