Pleistocene climates help scientists pick out targets for conservation in Brazil’s forests

  • A team of scientists looked for places in the Amazon and the Atlantic Forest that have had stable weather patterns for a long time — going back to the Pleistocene Epoch — but that don’t fall within the boundaries of existing parks or reserves.
  • They measured the efficiency of the current network of protected areas in these areas, and they also came up with a prioritization scale for conservation efforts that incorporated the locations of intact forest landscapes.
  • The team reports that protected areas in the Amazon are four times as efficient at safeguarding these “climatically stable areas” as protected areas in the Atlantic Forest.

A team of researchers has pinpointed new areas for conservation in the rainforests of the Amazon and the Atlantic Forest by looking back in time to find the spots that have had the most stable climates.

“The regions that have suffered least from climate change in the last 21,000 years are those in which the fewest local extinctions have occurred,” biologist Thadeu Sobral-Souza of São Paulo State University and the study’s lead author said in a statement. “These regions stand out for their higher species richness ratios [and] genetic diversity among species.”

Past research has sought to gauge how effectively protected areas safeguard biodiversity primarily by looking at changes to habitats over time. With the knowledge that climate change, along with other human changes to the landscape, are significant factors in the survival of species living in a particular habitat, Sobral-Souza and his colleagues decided to look for places that have had stable weather patterns for a long time, but that might not fall within the boundaries of parks or reserves.

A stream in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

In fact, they used models to try to determine what climates were like stretching back to the Pleistocene, when giant sloths and glyptodonts lumbered around what is today South America. With that information, combined with the locations of blocks of relatively untouched forest known as intact forest landscapes, the researchers designated the stable areas as very high, high and medium priority for future conservation efforts.

In their paper, published recently in the journal Acta Oecologica, the team reports that protected areas in the Amazon are four times as efficient at safeguarding these “climatically stable areas” than protected areas in the Atlantic Forest.

The Atlantic Forest, which is home to around 100 million people and has less than 12 percent of its historical forest cover, did not have any high or very high priority spots for protection, “because no more forest areas exist there,” Sobral-Souza said.

“No intact forest or even fragments are left,” he added. “Everything has been cleared in the last 500 years.”

The team did find three segments of climatically stable standing forest along the Atlantic Ocean that they classified as medium-priority areas. The team’s findings in the Amazon, however, painted a different picture, ecologist and co-author Milton Cezar Ribeiro said.

A cattle ranch in the Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

“In the Amazon, the climatically stable areas are broad and continuous, covering most of the currently existing biome,” Ribeiro said in the statement. “Most of them occur in eastern Amazonia, although smaller remnants were identified along the western and southern boundaries of the forest.”

Locations in the state of Amazonas along the border with Colombia, Peru and Venezuela qualified as very high priority for conservation, the authors found. Many of these climatically stable but as-yet-unprotected places sit near established park and preserves, which means that expanding those parks’ boundaries could be a potent tactic for conserving biodiversity-rich habitats, Sobral-Souza said.

The more fragmented areas of the Amazon that fell into the high priority category might require some reforestation to bolster the habitats there, Ribeiro said. Still, the team’s work indicates that there’s hope for critical forest habitats in the Amazon, given the right strategy.

“The Amazon still has a major opportunity to expand conservation areas,” Ribeiro said.

Banner image of a howler monkey in Brazil by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


Sobral-Souza, T., Vancine, M. H., Ribeiro, M. C., & Lima-Ribeiro, M. S. (2018). Efficiency of protected areas in Amazon and Atlantic Forest conservation: A spatio-temporal view. Acta Oecologica87, 1-7.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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