Nordeste: New science for a neglected biome

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh
Department Name: Tropical Biology

Abstract

The northeast region of Brazil is relatively dry compared to the rest of the country, with unusually irregular rainfall patterns and associated frequent droughts. The soils there tend to be relatively fertile and so, despite crop failures sometimes occurring in drier years, the area is reasonably densely populated with about 15% of Brazil's population living there; but under what are generally impoverished conditions. This has led to extreme land-use pressures on the natural vegetation and widespread degradation of remaining lands.
As in other parts of the world with similar soils and climate, the natural vegetation of the area is a form of deciduous scrub, known locally as Caatinga. Probably because Caatinga typically lacks the complexity and grandeur of moist tropical forests, this vegetation type has been to a large extent neglected to date both in terms of conservation programmes and scientific enquiry. This neglect has serious consequences given the enormous destruction of the Caatinga, which exceeds that of the neighbouring biomes of Amazonia and the Cerrado. Because of their potential importance in future warmer and drier climates in Brazil, conservation of the plant species of the Caatinga, which are adapted to high temperatures and seasonally erratic rainfall, is vital.
Designed as an integrated research program involving both Brazilian and UK researchers 'Nordeste' will attempt to redress this neglect:
1. Through the establishment of a permanent plot network similar to that existing in moist tropical forests, allowing measurements of Caatinga canopy structure and dynamics and both their short- and long-term responses to climate change to be evaluated for the first time.
2. With the aid of new DNA barcoding measurements designed to better quantify the biodiversity of the region.
3. Through a comprehensive analysis of the biogeochemistry of natural and disturbed ecosystems to develop an understanding of how nutrient cycling processes vary in response to variations in soils and climate and human activity
4. Via a series of detailed structural, physiological measurements across the wide range of different Caatinga sub-types found in the region. These will be made both above- and below-ground and in natural and degraded ecosystems of the region. A special emphasis will be placed on measurements designed to help us understand why it is that under certain circumstances it is that very high biomass stands of Caatinga occur despite the very low rainfall.
5. Glasshouse experiments comparing water stress responses of seedlings native to moist forest, savanna and caatinga will also be undertaken in order to try and understand what specific metabolic adaptions are involved in plant adaptions to frequent and/or erratic conditions of extreme soil water deficit.
6. Via an integrated modelling program to provide new parameterisations of surface fluxes for semi-aid ecosystems in general and to provide new insights into variations in woody plant shoot: root allocation patterns in response to variation in precipitation regime.
To achieve these aims, the project has been designed as a series of six inter-related field-based workpackages, with a seventh workpackage focussed on modelling of species distributions, ecosystem fluxes and developing a mechanistic understanding of caatinga vegetation functional responses to both variations in climate and soil properties.

Designed with a view to also producing a series of well-defined products to assist both policy makers and local communities to better manage this unique resource - for example, online guides to ecologically dominant and economically useful plants, the study will serve to provide a valuable first step towards a better understanding of Caatinga vegetation and its responses to anthropogenic and land-use change pressures.

Planned Impact

Most conservation and science projects in the tropics focus on the rain forest biome, neglecting the fact that 50% of the lowland tropics is covered by dry biomes such as dry forests or savannas. These dry areas are home to 30% of the global population, and are hence massively impacted by human activity. This project focuses on the dry forests of the Caatinga region of North East Brazil, which have suffered from scientific neglect, destruction, and lack of conservation attention, with only <1% of these forests included in Brazil's National Protected Area Network. Despite this, the dry forests of the Caatinga house a high level of unique (endemic) plant species that are adapted to the region's severe and erratic droughts. These plants will be a valuable resource as climates change especially for the 15% of Brazil's population that lives in the Caatinga region who depend on these woodlands for ecosystem services and more specific needs such as firewood.

Our project will increase our understanding on how dry biomes contribute to global biogeochemical cycles and how their unique species react to environmental changes, expanding ecological and biodiversity monitoring in Brazil beyond Amazonia and into the Caatinga. The project will build a platform from which Brazil, and Latin America more generally, can monitor more effectively biodiversity and ecosystem services in dry biomes.

We aim to develop whole-system knowledge for the Caatinga to inform responsible management of this unique environment at national and regional political level in Brazil. Brazil has an obligation to monitor its biodiversity and carbon stocks under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Aichi 2020 Biodiversity Targets, but most previous work has been focused on Amazonia. In particular, this project is relevant to achieving Strategic Goal 3 ('...safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity through direct interventions such as increasing the coverage, effectiveness and representativeness of protected areas and other area-based conservation measures...') and Strategic Goal 4 ('...safeguarding and enhancement of the benefits of biodiversity and ecosystem services to human societies') of the Aichi targets.

Our project will provide impetus and build capacity for conservation action in the Caatinga. We aim to build bridges between scientists and policy makers who can influence their protection and sustainable management at federal and state level via two policy meetings in Brasilia and Salvador. We will also build environmental science capacity in Brazil for undergraduate and postgraduate students in cutting edge methodologies in biodiversity and ecological science, and involve local communities in the collection of our biodiversity and ecological data. Our project will therefore build long-term capacity to monitor species composition, carbon stock, biogeochemical cycles, vegetation dynamics, and biodiversity loss in the Caatinga.

The project will also benefit local people in NE Brazil through delivery of user-friendly information about plant species useful for ecological restoration, crop wild relatives, minor crops, and useful plants. In the long-term, our science will provide information essentially to successful restoration of Caatinga, for example by a better understanding of the genetic diversity of its plants. Such restoration could have major regional and global ecological effects - for example it has been estimated that large scale dry forest restoration in Latin America could generate up to 8Pg of carbon storage. In the long-term, the knowledge of biome-level ecological processes gained during the project will enable the sustainable management of ecosystem services that underlie human wellbeing in Brazil and more widely.

Publications

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Cardoso D (2017) Amazon plant diversity revealed by a taxonomically verified species list. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

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Dick C (2019) History and Geography of Neotropical Tree Diversity in Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics

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Moonlight P (2019) A NEW SPECIES OF TUBEROUS BEGONIA (BEGONIACEAE) FROM ANDEAN PERU in Edinburgh Journal of Botany

 
Description BioResilience: Biodiversity resilience and ecosystem services in post-conflict socio-ecological systems in Colombia
Amount £1,117,675 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/R017980/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2018 
End 07/2021
 
Description FAPESP - Restoring Neotropical dry ecosystems - is plant functional composition the key to success?
Amount £669,278 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S000011/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 12/2022
 
Description Newton Fund Regional Latin America Biodiversity Programme
Amount £63,000 (GBP)
Organisation British Council 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2018 
End 07/2018
 
Description Conference poster, Ground Penetrating Radar International Conference, Zurich Switzerland 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Conference poster: Almeida ER, Porsani JL, Booth, A, Brunello AT, Sarkinen T "Analysis of GPR field parameters for root mapping in Brazil's caatinga environment."
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description DRYFLOR network meeting, Piura, Peru 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact Toby Pennington and Peter Moonlight participated in an invited workshop by the DRYFLOR network in Piura, Peru. Topics discussed included finalising the publication of the forest monitoring protocol developed by the NordEste project as a paper, in collaboration with the DRYFLOR and RainFor networks. This paper was recently submitted and includes >10 NordEste authors.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description DRYFLOR network meeting, Quito, Ecuador 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact Toby Pennington and Peter Moonlight participated in an invited workshop by the DRYFLOR network in Quito, Ecuador. Topics discussed included the publication of the forest monitoring protocol developed by the NordEste project as a paper, in collaboration with the DRYFLOR and RainFor networks. This paper was recently submitted and includes >10 NordEste authors.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Interview with "In Defense of Plants" Podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Peter Moonlight was interviewed for the podcast "In Defense of Plants", and the episode was downloaded >30k times. A segment of the interview focused on the work and potential outcomes of the NordEste project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.indefenseofplants.com/podcast/2018/12/30/ep-193-begonias
 
Description Invited conference talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited talk at International Congress for Conservation Biology, Cartagena, Colombia: "Plant diversity, biogeography and conservation of neotropical seasonally dry forests"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Invited lecture, University of Exeter Global Challenges Symposium, "Addressing global challenges from the University of Exeter" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited lecture by Toby Pennington that shared experiences of best practice around global challenges related research. Broad themes related to building partnerships across different geographies and sectors, coupled with personal reflections on the GCRF agenda and what it has meant for your research (e.g., promoting interdisciplinarity and engagement with the humanities and social sciences). This stimulated diverse questions, especially around building sustainable partnerships and what constitutes effective capacity building in the global south.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Invited plenary address, Sympsoium "Los bosques secos latinoamericanos: entenderlos para conservarlos" (Latin American dry forests - understanding for conservation", University of Piura, Peru 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk by Toby Pennington, "Los trópicos secos: ciencia, conservación y restauración" (The dry tropics, conservation and restoration) to a mostly Peruvian audience, but also international participants. The goal was to increase awareness of the importance of conservation and restoration in the dry tropics. Questions focused on the viability of restoration. There was a subsequent interview based on the presentation (see url)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://udep.edu.pe/hoy/2019/las-personas-deben-conocer-los-bosques-secos-para-que-puedan-cuidarlos/
 
Description Invited plenary talk, Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests (STDF ) in Northeastern Brazil symposium, Fortaleza, Brazil 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited plenary talk, "Seasonally dry biomes: a global and Latin American view". The goal was to raise awareness of the importance of dry biomes in the tropics for biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Invited presentation, Latin American Botanical Congress, Quito, Ecuador: "Greater spatial turnover in species composition in tropical dry forests than tropical savannas" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited presentation, allowing presentation of outcomes from three NERC funded grants. The major impact was increasing the size of the collaborative network that is now monitoring forests beyond Amazonia.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Invited presentation, Plants, People, Planet Symposium, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited presentation "The dry tropics: science, conservation and restoration". This generated considerable questions and discussions, especially around the validity of planting trees in the dry tropics as a means of C sequestration. The talk is available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYagysOIvT8 so can potentially reach a very borad audience
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYagysOIvT8
 
Description Invited presentation, Sympsoium "Los bosques secos latinoamericanos: entenderlos para conservarlos" (Latin American dry forests - understanding for conservation", University of Piura, Peru 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk by Peter Moonlight, "Grupos de interes: Begonias" (Groups of Interest: Dry Forest Begonias) to a mostly Peruvian audience, but also international participants. The goal was to increase awareness of the the diversity of plant groups found within the dry tropics, and the mechanisms by which they have evolved to live there. Questions focused on the viability of restoration.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Invited presentation, Sympsoium "Systematics for Conservation", Systematics Association Biennial, Bristol, UK 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A presentation by Peter Moonlight titled "using species distribution models to define conservation units". The goal was to increase awareness of the diverse and highly-effective ways systematists can interface with and provide data for third parties working in conservation. This was followed by a short panel discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Invited presentation, WWF UK, "Why is the cerrado amazing?" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Prof Toby Pennington was invited to speak to WWF UK at their headquarters in Woking. They are initiating a major campaign on conservation of the savannas of the Brazilian cerrado in 2019, and wish to link this to ongoing science in this biome. This was a great opportunity to develop plans to increase future impact of NERC funded research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Invited public event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interactive discussion about the environmental costs of soy cultivation in the tropics as part of the Power of Food Festival, Edinburgh: "The real price of food"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://poweroffoodfestival.wordpress.com/
 
Description Invited seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited seminat, Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana, "A diversidade florística, biogeografía filogenética e conservação das florestas estacionalmente secas neotropicais (SDTF)" (given in Portuguese)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Invited seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited seminar, Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden, "Maximising synergy between systematics and ecology in the tropics via long-term monitoring plots" (given in Portuguese)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Invited seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited seminar, University of Exeter, "Tropical plant diversity: 19th- 21st century approaches to biogeography and conservation"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Invited talk, VAluing biodiversity and developing ecosystem service delivery models in densely inhabited Latin American dry and montane forests workshop, Lima, Peru, July 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited workshop talk, "Forest Plot networks in seasonally dry forests in Brazil". The aim of this Newton Funded workshop was to build a new collaborative network across Latin America to value biodviersity and ecosystem services in neglected ecosystems such as dry forests, the focus of our original grant. The main outcome in the long term will be a larger network that can deliver more ambitious projects.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Media intervew: Radio 5 Live and "In Short" podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Media interview covering the potential problems in tree planting as a climate change solution, especially in dry biomes of the tropics
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.thenakedscientists.com/podcasts/short/why-planting-trees-isnt-always-good-idea
 
Description Public Lecure, Royal Geographical Society with IBG, University of Exeter, "The forgotten forests of Latin America" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Invited public talk by Toby Pennington that aimed to raise public awareness of the conservation importance and plight of tropical dry forests. Numerous questions afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Species Distribution Modelling Workshop, Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana, Bahia, Brazil 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited workshop by Peter Moonlight on the uses of Species Distribution Modelling in Systematics and Conservation for the postgraduate program at the State University of Feira de Santana.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Student Training in Botanical Collection for Forest Plot Inventories 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Training provided to 5 Brazilian undergraduate and postgraduate students in botanical collection for permanent forest plot networks by Peter Moonlight, Tiina Sarkinen and Toby Pennington.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019