Shifted Ecological Baselines in the Brazilian Savannah

Lead Research Organisation: Northumbria University
Department Name: Fac of Engineering and Environment


Savannahs are the "Cinderella" ecosystems of the tropics; overlooked and over-exploited. Despite covering almost half of South America, only a tiny fraction are protected, in comparison to the better-publicised and researched Amazon rainforest. Savannahs are heavily exploited as cattle pastures and agricultural fields in order to reduce deforestation in the Amazon, but the impacts of intensive farming on this rich and diverse environment are poorly understood. Intensive burning of the landscape to promote the growth of grasses for cattle and clearance for agriculture has been linked to the loss of plant species and the release of carbon into the atmosphere, however, recent efforts to limit fires have also seen forests begin to encroach into the savannah, further endangering savannah species. Fire has always been an integral natural aspect of savannah ecology, but both setting and extinguishing fires appears to be harmful. So what is the natural burning pattern of South American savannahs? Do natural fires balance the prevention of forest invasion but also preserve the natural structure of this globally important biome?

Here we ask, how have fire patterns changed through time in Brazilian savannahs? How have these changes affected the composition of plants in these savannahs? And, can we aid savannah conservation by establishing the most beneficial 'trade-off' between increasing tree cover and preserving the unique savannah environment? In order to answer these questions, we will examine the modern plant species from Brazilian savannahs that have experienced little, moderate and intensive human activity. Following which, the last 1000 years of fire activity and changes to savannah plant species will be recreated through the analysis of charcoal fragments and plant pollen preserved in lake sediment and the chemical signal left in soils by different plants. This combination of analyses will be done in partnership between Brazilian and UK scientists and will allow us to understand how the relationships between changes in farming, fire patterns and vegetation through time have changed the make-up of Brazilian savannahs. This understanding will then be used to create a fire management plan that will aid in the conservation and restoration of the Brazilian savannah.

Planned Impact

Academic beneficiaries

The academic beneficiaries of the research outputs will be reached using conventional routes, specifically the publication of peer-reviewed articles on savannah vegetation and fire dynamics to reach a global audience of savannah researchers. Journals will be chosen that allow for bilingual abstracts (such as Journal of Ecology) to reach Portuguese speaking scientists, and partners Neves and Fernandes will target one Brazilian journal for publication (e.g., Acta Botanica Brasilica) to maximise impact among Brazilian researchers. The impact of humans on fire and vegetation dynamics concern savannah ecologists globally, and over longer timescales, the research approach employed in SEBBS could influence the research of a broad network of savannah ecologists across the Neotropics and in Africa and Australia.

This wider network of researchers will be reached through topical sessions at ecological conferences and a targeted case study piece for scientific audiences, such as PAGES (i.e., Whitney & Cardenas [2017] Past Global Changes Magazine 25: 84-85). Furthermore, the project goals meet the aims of the newly established British Ecological Society 'Palaeoecology' Special Interest Group (BES Palaeo SIG) to 'Facilitate the development of more integrated approaches to long-term ecosystem dynamics in [...] environmental management.' The new approach of the project will be disseminated to the BES through a bespoke article for 'the Niche' (BES magazine) and the BES Palaeo SIG Twitter account, maintained by Researcher co-Investigator Loughlin.

Data generated from the project will be made available, following publication, through the Neotoma database, a National Science Foundation supported repository of palaeodata for use by the wider community.

Non-Academic beneficiaries

NB. Below are listed the non-academic beneficiaries and the rationale for their inclusion in the project. The means by which identified non-academic beneficiaries will be reached by this project are outlined in the 'Pathways to impact' document.

(i) Who: Savannah managers and conservationists. Why: Savannah ecologists have recently highlighted the need for a consistent fire management policy that balances ecosystem protection with socioeconomic need. The dissemination of project results to managers will demonstrate the benefit of incorporating historical data in the development of savannah fire management policies. Although this project is specific to one subregion of Brazilian savannah, the results will demonstrate the potential of this approach to other savannah regions. We anticipate that, in the long-term, SEBBS will highlight the potential and broaden the use of historical data in ecosystem management across the Neotropics.

(ii) Who: Public beneficiaries. Why: Savannahs and their threats are not well-known among non-specialist audiences and the environmental impacts of cattle and soya production are generally thought to be associated with the deforestation of the Amazon only. The SEBBS outreach pathway will therefore provide the opportunity to communicate this information among the wider public, especially those with an interest in natural history.

(iii) Who: School-aged children. Why: The project will support increasing awareness and participation in geography/environmental disciplines among school-aged children in the northeast of England. This project is supported by NUSTEM, an outreach and widening participation group based in the Faculty of Engineering and Environment at Northumbria University, established in 2014 from a £1.2M Higher Education Funding Council for England grant. NUSTEM aims to increase numbers of young people choosing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) careers by engaging with children and their key influencers such as teachers and parents. Engagement is ongoing, sustained and targeted at 30 partner schools, both primary and secondary.


10 25 50
Description Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES)
Amount R$ 15,000 (BRL)
Organisation Ministry of Education (Brazil) 
Sector Public
Country Brazil
Start 03/2023 
End 03/2023
Description Embrapa Pantanal - Northumbria University 
Organisation Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation
Department Embrapa Pantanal
Country Brazil 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The PI will contribute to the partnership through the direction and leadership of the multidisciplinary project that integrates fire ecology, palaeoecology and fire science.
Collaborator Contribution The partnership will allow access to field sampling locations and/or existing environmental samples for analysis. The individual academic involved in the partnership will make intellectual contributions to the project outcomes.
Impact outputs pending; multidisciplinary collaboration involving palaeoecology, soils sciences and fire ecology
Start Year 2019
Description Federal University of Mato Grosso - Northumbria University 
Organisation Federal University of Mato Grosso
Country Brazil 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Data generation on existing environmental samples, the results of which will be shared with the partnership. The PI has integrated the individual academic at UFMT into the project aims and resulting outputs.
Collaborator Contribution The partners provided access to existing environmental samples from Brazil that allowed the project to continue despite the inability to conduct field research during the pandemic.
Impact outputs pending; multidisciplinary collaboration of fire ecology, palaeoecology, sedimentology
Start Year 2020
Description Federal University of Minas Gerais - Northumbria University 
Organisation Federal University of Minas Gerais
Country Brazil 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The research team at UNN has financially enabled in-country travel (pre-pandemic) to widen engagement in the overall project outcomes to a wider academic audience. The PI's existing research network in the UK and Brazil enabled the project focus to be shifted to the use of existing samples (held in Brazil) because the pandemic curtailed fieldwork activities.
Collaborator Contribution Partners have been instrumental in establishing in-country access to field sampling locations, providing access to data, and facilitating transfer of existing environmental samples from Brazil. Covid impacts have curtailing field sampling activities and necessitated a refocus of the methods on existing samples. The partnership has enabled this necessary adaptation to the project.
Impact outputs are pending; multi-disciplinary collaboration involving macroecology, fire ecology and palaeoecology
Start Year 2019
Description Oral presentation at UFMS, Campo Grande, Brazil 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation on the PI's previous palaeoecological research in the Pantanal and the current project and goals to a group of specialists in the region, specifically botanists, ecologists, anthropologists and fire ecologists.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Workshop of the Graduate Programme in Plant Biology, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil 
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 Research Seminar on the Macroecology of plant biodiversity across multiple spatial and temporal scales. Graduate students expressed their interest on the topic after the presentation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019