Scientists set out to understand how regenerated Atlantic rainforest areas help protect biodiversity
March 04, 2020
By André Julião | Agência FAPESP – Four research projects funded by FAPESP via its Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA-FAPESP) and by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) will study the ecosystem services provided by the Atlantic rainforest in São Paulo state, Brazil, including protection of biodiversity and water resources. One of the projects will study the functioning of forests that have appeared in recent decades in response to restoration initiatives or natural regeneration of abandoned areas. The researchers involved hope the knowledge generated will contribute to restoration of the biome, which has dwindled to only 12% of its original size.
Similar project aspects were discussed by researchers from São Paulo state and the Netherlands when they met at FAPESP. The idea is for areas to be analyzed simultaneously by some or even all four research groups to generate a robust dataset that can later contribute to the formulation of public policies for conservation and restoration.
“One of the possibilities is data sharing. Measurements are made at different points in the state, and these data can benefit all the projects. Another idea is to see whether there’s a location at which all four projects can operate. If so, we can consolidate multiple observations of the various supported facets,” said Marie-Anne van Sluys, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Bioscience Institute (IB-USP) and a member of FAPESP’s Life Sciences Adjunct Panel.
The research projects, to be conducted collaboratively by institutions in São Paulo and the Netherlands, were selected in a call for proposals issued in 2018 by FAPESP and NWO as part of a joint effort to foster research in this field and to convey the results to academics and other sectors of society.
The meeting held on February 5, 2020, was the first of a series planned by a task force set up to oversee the projects approved in the call, comprising members of BIOTA-FAPESP’s steering committee and experts appointed by FAPESP and NWO.
“This is an important collaboration for us, as FAPESP is a partner we’ve worked with for many years. Biodiversity is a research focus for scientists all over the world. Accordingly, it’s enriching to contribute to the protection of the Atlantic rainforest, a highly endangered type of forest, so little of which remains,” said Ron Winkler, a senior project manager at NWO.
Carlos Alfredo Joly, a professor at the University of Campinas’s Biology Institute (IB-UNICAMP) and a member of BIOTA-FAPESP’s steering committee, explained that when researchers supported by the program helped produce the map of priority conservation areas in São Paulo state in 2008, they also selected the sites to be prioritized for restoration of native vegetation.
“At the time, we concluded that it was necessary not just to conserve what we have but also to restore the connections between Atlantic rainforest fragments in order to enhance their conservation capacity,” Joly said. “To work on this rewilding, we used the knowledge that had been accumulated since the mid-1980s by several research groups.”
According to Joly, the achievements of the past two decades serve as the basis for an approach to restoration that recovers genetic diversity and ecosystem functionality.
“We’re now starting to use nature’s own potential. In areas where natural regeneration is under way, we’re learning how to speed the process up by planting seedlings, for example,” he said.
The role of the “new forests” that have appeared in the last 30 years as a result of rewilding or natural regeneration is the focus for one of the projects selected in the call.
“We’re going to map all the forests that have come up in São Paulo in the last 30 years with the aim of understanding their contribution to the conservation of nature and also to human well-being. In some cases, we’ll analyze the multiple functions they perform, such as infiltration of water into the soil, carbon storage, production of timber, and conservation of biodiversity, to provide only a few examples,” said Pedro Henrique Santin Brancalion, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ-USP) and principal investigator for this project, a collaboration with the University of Wageningen (WUR) in the Netherlands.
Brancalion plans to carry out several types of measurements in 1,000 forest areas, each with an area of 900 m², across São Paulo state from the coast to the borders with Mato Grosso do Sul and Paraná states. In some of these areas, other measurements will be made by a group led by Marina Corrêa Côrtes, a professor at São Paulo State University’s Rio Claro Bioscience Institute (IB-UNESP).
“We’ll select a region, probably in the Cumbataí River basin, and pick a number of areas in which to perform exhaustive sampling of the wildlife in order to analyze the interactions between fauna and flora. A database produced by another project will enable us to identify tree species, measure their density and collect other information, which we’ll supplement with data mainly on birds and mammals,” said Côrtes, who is collaborating on this project with researchers from Utrecht University.
According to Côrtes, the goal is to understand how the interactions between plants and seed-dispersing animals are shaped in forests with different regeneration ages.
“We want to see how these animals are helping the forest regenerate naturally,” she said. “We’ll compare different forests of different ages located in different environments, such as sugarcane plantations and pasturelands. On this basis, we can see how animal species diversity is doing and how it interacts with plant diversity in the environment concerned.”
Water and soil
In the Upper Paranapanema region, Alexandre Camargo Martensen, a professor in the Federal University of São Carlos’s Center for Natural Sciences (CCN-UFSCar), is the principal investigator for a project that is evaluating the capacity of regenerated forest areas to restore biodiversity and ecosystem services.
To do this, the CCN-UFSCar group will measure biodiversity and water quality in several ways. One will involve the installation of recording devices at various locations to capture the sounds of animals at different times of day. A computer program will later identify the animals using artificial intelligence. The outcome will be high-precision data on existing species produced at a low cost.
The researchers will also measure levels of carbon, nitrogen, sediments and agrochemicals entering the forest in water courses.
“The measurements will give us a number of parameters with which to understand how the system is working,” Martensen said.
The fourth project, led by Tsai Siu Mui, a professor affiliated with the University of São Paulo’s Center for Nuclear Energy in Agriculture (CENA-USP), will study plant-soil interactions in the Atlantic rainforest and how they influence the restoration of tree species diversity and ecosystem functioning. The findings will include information that can be used to formulate a plan to upgrade restoration programs for the biome.
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