“Home to 35% of the South American population, the Atlantic Forest is one of the most fragmented tropical/subtropical forests in the world, which may well represent the present or future of other tropical forests worldwide.”
— Renato A. F. de Lima, Departamento de Ecologia, Universidade de São Paulo
When we hear the word “forest” in South America, the first place that usually comes to mind is the Amazon. Many people have never heard of the biodiversity hotspot that is the topic of today’s post: the Atlantic Forest. This is surprising, given that the biodiversity of the Atlantic Forest is on par with the Amazon.
The Atlantic Forest extends 656,374 square miles along the eastern coast of Brazil and inland through parts of Argentina and Paraguay. With elevations that range from sea level to over 5,900 feet, the Atlantic Forest boasts a wide variety of habitat types, including mangrove forests, restinga (a type of moist broadleaf forest found in sandy soils), deciduous and semi-deciduous forests, Araucaria forest (a type of evergreen subtropical moist forest), and high-altitude grasslands.
With such a diverse landscape, it’s not surprising to learn that the Atlantic Forest supports a wide variety of wildlife and plants. An estimated 7% of the world’s plant species and 5% of the world’s vertebrate species are found in the Atlantic Forest, which includes many species that are not found anywhere else. It is home to over 250 mammal species (55 endemic), 340 amphibian species (90 endemic), over 1000 species of birds (188 endemic), and approximately 20,000 species of plants (half are endemic). In the past 30 years, scientists have discovered 9 new species of birds, 30 new species of mammals, and ~100 new species of frogs.
The Atlantic Forest is home to a famous tree called the pau brasil (Caesalpinia echinata) or Brazilwood. Portuguese traders valued the pau brasil as a source of reddish colored dye. These traders called the area the “Land of Brasil”, which was the origin of the country name of Brazil. The forest is also home to many charismatic animals such as jaguars, sloths, toucans, and tamarins.
The Atlantic Forest is one of the most threatened forests in the world. The region is home to over 148 million people, including the cities of Sao Paulo, Porto Alegre, and Rio de Janeiro. The region generates an estimated 70% of Brazil’s gross domestic product. Infrastructure development, agriculture, and tree plantations have taken a major toll on the area. Less than 12% of the original forest remains, much of it in small and unconnected fragments.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Given the amazing diversity of wildlife and plants, the Atlantic Forest receives a lot of attention from non-government organizations, governments, and the private sector. Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay have increased the total protected forest area by more than 20%, thanks to efforts to protect the existing forest and recover lost areas of the forest.
Travel and Tourism
Given its proximity to large cities, ecotourism opportunities abound in the Atlantic Forest.
In Brazil, the Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves located in the Brazilian states of Paraná and São Paulo offer some of the best examples of Atlantic Forest habitat. The Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes over 1.1 million acres spread across 25 protected areas.
In Paraguay, two of the most important areas of remaining Atlantic Forest can be found in Mbaracayú Forest Nature Reserve and San Rafael Lagoon (a proposed National Park).
In Argentina, the northern province of Misiones has the has the world’s largest continuous area of Atlantic Forest, and most of it is formally protected as national and provincial parks such as Iguazu National Park, Urugua-í Provincial Park, and Cruce Caballero Provincial Park.
I hope you enjoyed this brief overview of the Atlantic Forest biodiversity hotspot! For our next post, we’ll be heading to the western United States for an overview of the California Floristic Province biodiversity hotspot.
Thanks for reading!