The moist tropical Atlantic Forest hotspot, or Mata Atlántica, stretches from the northeastern to the southern regions of Brazil into northern Argentina, southeastern Paraguay, and narrowly along the coast of Uruguay. In the northeastern part of Brazil it occupies a thin strip of coastal plains not exceeding 40 miles in width, while in the south it extends from the coast to as far as 200 miles inland occupy the foothills of the Serra do Mar and related coastal mountain ranges. It is separated from the Amazon by the drier Cerrado hotspot.
The Atlantic Forest harbors a range of biodiversity similar to that of the Amazon. It is also home to around 20,000 species of plants, representing 8% of the Earth’s plants. In fact, researchers in the 90s counted 458 tree species in 2.5 acres – more than double the number of tree species in the entire U.S. eastern seaboard. New species of flora and fauna continue to be discovered.
The forest structure of the Atlantic Forest contains multiple canopies that support an extremely rich vegetation mix. This includes an astonishing diversity of ferns, mosses and epiphytes (“air plants” or plants that attach to other plants), including lianas, orchids and bromeliads.
Altitude separates three vegetation types: the woodlands of the coastal plains, the slope forests, and the high altitude woodlands.
The Atlantic Forest harbors around 2,200 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians – 5% of the vertebrates on Earth. This includes nearly 200 bird species found nowhere else, and 60% of all of Brazil’s threatened animal species call this forest home.
Brazil as a whole is the world’s leader in primate diversity, with 77 species and subspecies identified to date. Of these, 26 are found in the Atlantic forest, of which 21 are found nowhere else in the world.
Some of the Atlantic Forest’s most charismatic species include the golden lion tamarin, wooly spider monkey, red-tailed parrot, and the maned three-toed sloth, an unusual larger relative of the widespread three-toed sloth.
The eastern seaboard of Brazil has been the main locus of population and industry since colonization in the 1500s. Today it includes 70% of Brazil’s population with two mega-cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
In addition to being the center of population and industry, the Atlantic Forest is also home to poorer traditional rural communities whose livelihoods are directly linked to the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.
The Atlantic Forest is among the world’s most threatened biodiversity hotspots. Once stretching more than 330 square miles across Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, the forest retains only 8 percent of its original extent and much of it is found in only tiny and isolated fragments. The main threats include illegal logging and extraction of valuable timber, land conversion to pasture, agriculture, and forest plantations, and expansion of urban and suburban areas.
The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and WWF as well as local NGOs and conservation groups are working in the Atlantic Forest to preserve what is left. Reforestation efforts are attempting to create forest corridors of connected habitat throughout the hotspot. According to The Conservancy “In order to build forest corridors it is necessary to first identify key areas for biodiversity conservation, then re-establish connection among isolated forest patches through creating public and private protected areas and restoring deforested zones.”
Conservation efforts in this area of high population also involve development of economic alternatives that are compatible with forest protection.
The Nature Conservancy: http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/southamerica/brazil/placesweprotect/atlantic-forest.xml
Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund: http://www.cepf.net/where_we_work/regions/south_america/atlantic_forest/Pages/default.aspx
Hotspots Revisited: Earth’s Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions © 2004 by CEMEX