Challenges in biodiversity

Scientists at FAPESP Week emphasize the importance of producing knowledge to help establish conservation policies. US researchers highlight the increased Brazilian publication of taxonomy and systems biology

The BIOTA-FAPESP program was presented by its coordinator, Carlos Alfredo Joly, who underscored some of its scientific successes and main challenges ahead in the session on “Biodiversity and the Amazon” during FAPESP Week held in Washington, DC.

As Professor at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp) and Head of the Secretariat of Research and Development Policies and Programs (Seped) at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI), Joly opened the session that included presentations by Humberto Rocha and Paulo Artaxo from the Universidade de São Paulo (USP), Ana Carnaval from the City College of New York, and John Wenzel from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

"The BIOTA-FAPESP Program is an important example of how to translate knowledge acquired into public policy, and it has helped to bring scientists closer to public policy makers in the State of São Paulo," said Joly.

The scientist emphasized that São Paulo, known for its economic development and large population, is also a state rich in biodiversity. "For example, São Paulo has at least 7,400 species of Phanerograms," he said.

From 2006 to 2008, researchers from several institutions connected to the BIOTA-FAPESP Program conducted an extensive job of synthesizing scientific information so it could be used to public policies. The result was the identification of areas in the State of São Paulo that were deemed priorities for conservation and restoration.

Based on more than 150,000 records of upwards of 9,000 animal and plant species, these maps and a book that assembled the information was adopted by the government of the State of São Paulo to establish regulations and laws to protect the biodiversity. "There are 19 legal instruments produced from the material that the BIOTA-FAPESP researchers were able to produce," Joly mentioned further.

The coordinator also referred to the program’s high level of productivity, which resulted in the publication of over 900 scientific articles, and the training of essential human resources for the field, including 108 doctoral candidates and 79 post-doctoral candidates. He stated, "In 2009, FAPESP renewed its project funding for another 10 years, with a view to prolonging and enhancing the results and scope of the BIOTA-FAPESP program."

Rocha, Professor at the Atmospheric Sciences Department and Coordinator of the USP Climate and Biosphere Laboratory, presented FAPESP Week participants with the results of research on the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest, which includes the building of observation towers and Wi-Fi networks for environmental studies in the region.

The professor, also a member of the Coordinating Team for the FAPESP Program on Research into Global Climate Change stated, "The patterns of the water and carbon cycles help to describe ecosystem functionality, which depends on the biotic structure of communities and organisms and their relationships with the climate. Such patterns make up a number of ecosystem services and are particularly affected by disruptions caused by changes in land use and climate oscillations.”

According to Rocha, these ecosystem services include water availability for agriculture, water quality in urban areas, and carbon sequestration.

The network of geo-sensors installed in the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest by Rocha’s group measures temperature and air humidity using 156 thermometers and 52 hydrometers. The towers that make up the network exchange data through a wireless system. The project is conducted in cooperation with the Johns Hopkins University and Microsoft Research of the United States along with the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe).

The lecture by Artaxo, Professor at the Physics Institute of USP and member of the Coordinating Team for the FAPESP Program on Research into Global Climate Change dealt with the changing atmospheric composition in the Amazon.

According to Artaxo, the environment of the Amazon is a very dynamic and complex system, and to understand it, we need to understand the main processes that govern its functioning, like the carbon balance and changes in the aquatic systems. He said, “We particularly need to study aerosols, which are a critical ingredient in the functioning of the Amazon ecosystem.”

Aerosols are minuscule liquid or solid particles suspended in air that play a critical role in earth’s climate. They range in size from one hundredth of a micrometer, or the size of small bacteria, to dozens of micrometers, or the diameter of one strand of hair. "Aerosols regulate the properties of clouds, the radiation balance, the cycle of nutrients and other important ecosystem functions,” said Artaxo.

"We observed a 25% to 60% increase in cloud cover when aerosol loading increases due to emissions from biomass burning. These changes in the clouds, in terms of both coverage and microphysics, have important links to the hydrological cycle," he said.

Artaxo and his colleagues also study how a city like Manaus, with close to 2 million inhabitants, affects the production of aerosols and what impact this has on the ecosystem of the Amazon Rainforest.

Brazilian Production

Ana Carnaval discussed how collaboration between Brazilian and US scientists has helped increase knowledge with respect to biodiversity in South America.

The group she coordinates acts together with teams from the University of California in Berkley, USP, Unesp and the Universidade Federal da Bahia in researching biogeographic changes in the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest.

The researchers analyzed 28 locations, having traveled nearly 3,000 km on field studies in the Atlantic Rainforest to test the biomass forecasts according to the model developed by Carnaval and Craig Moritz from UC Berkley. That hypothesis postulates Late Quaternary climatic stability.

The session was brought to a close by John Wenzel, Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Ecosystems at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, whose expertise is in the evolution of complex behavior in insects like bees and ants.

"We cannot talk about the study of ant behavior without highlighting the importance of the research by one particular Brazilian, Carlos Roberto Ferreira Brandão (from USP), with whom I have had the pleasure of collaborating for over 30 years,” he said. According to Wenzel, the number of species of ants described in Brazil, 1,266, is much larger than that of any other country.

According to Wenzel, this important scientific production is confirmed by the large number of publications in the field. “Zootaxa is the most important scientific magazine there is on systemic zoology, at least in terms of the number of pages published, nearly 30,000 per year. Zootaxa publishes more articles by Brazilian researchers than from researchers in any other country.“

According to Wenzel, because of the richness of its biodiversity, Brazil has challenged biology for over 200 years. "As the sophistication of the community of systematists grew, the same can be said for the concepts of biodiversity. A good taxonomy should come before any measurement of biodiversity because that relationship is much deeper than the need to name the species,” concluded Wenzel.