Biodiversity, biogeography, conservation and restoration of isolated inselberg vegetation in the dry biomes of Latin America

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Geography


The dry biomes of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay are regarded as a hotspot for biodiversity conservation because of their species-rich, unique biota. For example, the two million km2 of savannas in the Brazilian "cerrado" contain >11,000 flowering plant species, more than the Brazilian Amazon rain forest. 30% of these species are found nowhere else, but massive industrial agriculture expansion has destroyed 50% of the cerrado in the past five decades. High diversity in neotropical savannas and dry forests is a function of landscape heterogeneity, with small areas of vegetation on different substrates contributing to total biodiversity. Within the dry forests of the Bolivian Chiquitania and Brazil's cerrado savannas, "inselbergs" - raised metamorphosed sandstone and granitic rock - house large numbers of endemic species. This project will document inselberg floras and their biogeographic history, knowledge that is lacking but essential to prioritise conservation and restoration. It will therefore contribute to determining the conservation value and scope for restoration in some of the most species-rich, yet poorly known, neotropical habitats.

Aim: To understand the conservation value and scope for restoration of vegetation formations on inselbergs in the Chiquitania dry forest and cerrado through evaluating the distribution, diversity and evolutionary history of plants across inselbergs in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay.

To map the occurrence and distribution of inselbergs in the Bolivian Chiquitania and Brazilian cerrado
Determine the variation in climatic and soil conditions which exist across inselbergs
Evaluate plant species diversity and distribution across inselbergs
Use DNA-based phylogeography to investigate the genetic diversity and evolutionary history of inselberg species
Apply different approaches and biodiversity metrics for ranking the conservation value of inselbergs
Determine scope for active versus passive restoration on inselbergs

Research approach: On largely intact inselberg vegetation this project will: a) map and document the floristic composition and endemism on inselbergs, alongside the association of these variables with soil and environmental conditions and; b) use molecular phylogeographic approaches to infer the genetic diversity and evolutionary/biogeographic processes that underlie their historical assembly. This will allow us to understand what patterns of floristic and phylogenetic diversity on inselbergs in the seasonal Neotropics. Combining this information with an evaluation of the degree of degradation on inselbergs, the proximity of suitable habitat to allow restoration to occur, and the ecological nature of this habitat, we will determine what vegetation types may be most adequate for restoration and whether active or passive restoration techniques are most likely to be viable.


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