Researchers discuss details of the project on evolution of the Amazonian biota
March 06, 2013
By Frances Jones
Agência FAPESP - Nearly 30 Brazilian and foreign specialists from various fields that range from botany and geology to paleontology and remote sensing took part in the first face-to-face meeting among members of a thematic project that will study what happened in the Amazon in the last 20 million years.
The project is supported by São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) within the framework of an agreement that entails collaboration between the Biota-FAPESP and Dimensions of Biodiversity programs. The study will also have the support of the US space agency NASA.
“This bold and immense research study is an opportunity to do something that few are able to do,” stated Joel Cracraft of the American Museum of Natural History, the project’s lead researcher on the U.S. side, before an audience of 260 at the opening of the symposium entitled “The assembly and evolution of the Amazonian biota and its environment,” held at FAPESP headquarters in São Paulo.
Among the questions the project will answer are: what was the environment like and what organisms populated the Amazon? What explains the extent of the region’s biodiversity?
The first day of the meeting (3/4) was open to the public, which was able to learn more about the group’s lines of research and work plans as well as get an idea of the field of each of the group’s members.
For the remaining four days, researchers will meet behind closed doors to determine the course of the research study in detail. Symposium organizer and lead researcher on the Brazilian side is Lúcia Garcez Lohmann, professor in the Botany Department of the Biosciences Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP) and associate researcher at the New York and Missouri botanical gardens.
“This is not a traditional symposium about the Amazon. We want to use it to bring the collaborators up to speed so that everyone is on the same page. The project is bigger than the sum of the individual research studies,” said Cracraft.
The thematic project involves institutions from several countries – six from Brazil, eight from the United States, and one each from Canada, Argentina and the United Kingdom. It also seeks collaboration from interested specialists, particularly those from Brazil.
One major challenge will be determining how to deal with the enormous amount of information that will come from the various methodologies and disciplines. “One of the goals of this meeting is to try understand how we will handle this data,” Cracraft said.
Barbara Thiers from the New York Botanical Garden was one of the first specialists to present at the symposium. She spoke about the importance of location data in conducting biogeographic studies and provided an overview of the information that already exists with regard to Amazon plant databases.
According to Thiers, there are about 120 active herbaria in Brazil that contain information on approximately 7 million plant species. Between 1 million and 1.5 million Amazonian species are recognized.
There are few collections of Amazon plant samples obtained before 1900 and these are mainly European. Most of the samples date back to after 1960 – especially between 1975 and 1984, during a binational program between the United States and Brazil.
The issue is that many of the plant samples contain no information about the latitude and longitude of where they were found. “Prior to 1980, samples did not routinely include the geocoordinates for the locations where they were found,” stated Thiers.
In an attempt to put together this puzzle, she said that the researchers will use a variety of tools, including Google Maps.
Thomas Trombone of the American Museum of Natural History indicated that his contribution to the project would be to try to answer the question of how the vertebrate biodiversity is distributed in the Amazon.
“We will be assembling the largest database of information about the Amazon – it will be an atlas of Amazonian biodiversity,” he stated, adding that the data will be placed on an Internet portal.
The researchers involved in the thematic project will try to understand the origin, structure and evolution of the organisms that populate and populated the Amazon, beginning with four large groups: plants, primates, butterflies and birds.
“In the first stage, we’ll study the evolutionary history of these organisms and describe the Amazon environment, including information about its geological history and biogeochemical cycles,” said Lohmann, a specialist in plant systematics who studies the kinship and evolutionary history of representatives of the group Bignonieae, which consists of ipês, rosewoods and several species of lianas that make up the tropical forests.
Within the model groups, the researchers hope to reconstruct the phylogeny, in other words, the evolutionary tree of these groups, as well as conduct studies on the population levels of selected organisms.
“Since we still know very little about Amazon biodiversity, we had to select model groups because it would be completely impractical to study the entire Amazonian biota during the term of this project,” said Lohmann who is also president of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC).
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