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Research on biodiversity and conservation of the Atlantic Rainforest at Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Volume 5 Number 1 - January 2008

Rejan R. Guedes-Bruni and Tânia Sampaio Pereira


The Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden (RJBG) is one of the most important scientific institutions in Brazil. Its research is focused on the management of Brazil’s plant diversity and in 2008 it is celebrating its 200th anniversary. Its scientific resources count amongst others, a collection of more than 453,000 herbarium specimens covering almost 5,000 species, including a large number of type specimens. This collection has been digitised since 2005.

The botanical garden has a public visiting area of 54 ha and its ex situ collections include around 7,900 samples of 1,443 species, growing in gardens and greenhouses. In addition, there is an in situ conservation area of forest which is contiguous with the National Park of Tijuca. This provides an excellent opportunity for visitors to experience one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots – the Atlantic Rainforest.

Located within the city of Rio de Janeiro, the RJBG receives nearly 300,000 visitors every year, and is particularly popular with students from all regions of Rio de Janeiro state. The garden also has an active exchange programme for national and international scientists in a range of subjects, including taxonomy, systematics, wood anatomy, ecology of ecosystems and populations, genetics, molecular biology and ethnobotany. This dynamism, together with the Masters degree in plant biology offered by the National School of Tropical Biology (NSTB), enhances the effect of research efforts towards biodiversity conservation, especially within the remaining areas of the Atlantic Rainforest.

The Atlantic Rainforest

Currently the Atlantic Rainforest is reduced to a mere 8% of its original area (Conservation International do Brasil, 2000), and is the typical forest landscape of the Brazilian lowlands and mountains from Rio Grande do Norte to Rio Grande do Sul. The southeast region of Brazil is believed to contain the largest remaining area of Atlantic Rainforest and this ecosystem is distributed through most of Rio de Janeiro State, in different successional stages and levels of use and exploitation. In 2000, the Atlantic Rainforest covered 817,788 ha, representing 18.76% of the total area of the State, with 29.8% of this area being protected within conservation units. During the 5-year period between 1995 and 2000, 3,773 ha of native forest were destroyed and by 2006, a further 630 ha had been lost (Fundação SOS Mata Atlântica, 2006). The forest is distributed in the most populous area of Brazil, where 85% of the Brazilian population live and where the biggest cities such as Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Recife and Salvador are located.

Initial studies on the Atlantic Rainforest

Since 1988, the RJBG has concentrated its efforts on improving awareness of the Atlantic Rainforest and promoting conservation, especially in the remaining areas of forest in Rio de Janeiro State. These include lowland forests (Reserva Biológica de Poço das Antas), lower montane forests (Estação Ecológica Estadual de Paraíso), and finally montane and upper montane forests (Área de Proteção Ambiental Macaé de Cima e Itatiaia). The programme “Linhas de Ação em Botânica” supported by CNPq (Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico) was an important project aimed at increasing knowledge of the flora, ecology and conservation needs of the Atlantic Rainforest.

Through the Programa Mata Atlântica (PMA), the RJBG has attempted to evaluate existing plant diversity and compare this with the diversity represented in herbarium specimens collected mainly during the 19th Century, focussing on areas most threatened for conservation. Based on this, the central highlands of Rio de Janeiro, more precisely the Rio Macaé basin in Serra do Mar in the Nova Friburgo County, was selected as the PMA pilot area. According to Guedes- Bruni (1998), that region was explored by renowned foreign naturalists whose botanical collections are mostly deposited in international herbariums such as St.Hilaire (1818), Schott (1820), Lund (1825-1828), Riedel (1831-1833), Gardner (1841), Peckolt (and the zoologist Deske em 1848), Burmeister (1853), Glaziou (1861), Saldanha (1866 -1884), Mendonça (1884) and Dusén (1902-1904).

Five interdisciplinary research themes were implemented: taxonomy, community ecology, ecological anatomy, phenology and seed germination. The scientific expeditions to Macaé de Cima resulted in the collection of more than 5,000 samples, from more than 1,300 taxons representing the different vegetation types of the area. A total of 462 samples were taxonomically described, and published in two volumes, including floristic and ecological studies (Lima & Guedes-Bruni, 1996) and anatomical studies (Barros, 1997, 2001).

The interaction among the teams promoted a series of research projects based on the PMA’s main objectives. As an example of success, 54 species were identified during the taxonomic survey, 9 of them located in the Macaé de Cima site. Eight of the nine species had been discovered by Glaziou in the past but one was new to science – and was described by Gomes. (Lima & Guedes-Bruni 1994a, Peixoto & Pereira 1994). Similar results were found by Gomes (1996) for Rubiaceae, increasing from 45 to 53 the number of known species, of which two had not been described before. Species only known by type specimens, such as Miconia breviflora Cogn. collected by Glaziou in Macaé de Cima, were shown after the inventory of that area not to be extinct, but instead occurring in high density in Macaé’s mountains at over 1,200 meters of altitude (J. F. A. Baumgratz, pers. comm.). According to the assessment of geographical distribution of 874 taxa, Lima et al (1996), described the occurrence of 26.9% of the vascular species as endemic to Southeast Brazil, 26% endemic to Serra da Mantiqueira and Serra do Mar, in Rio de Janeiro, and 7.8% endemic to Macaé de Cima region. This data provided the basis for the county to establish conservation units to ensure the conservation of significant forest fragments. The establishment of the ecological reserve of Macaé de Cima in 1989, with an area of 7,000 ha, initiated a process of awareness raising for the remaining fragments of the Atlantic Rainforest in Nova Friburgo. Some years later, the conservation of the mountain areas increased with the implementation of two other State conservation units: Environmental Protected Area of Macaé de Cima in 2001 and State Park of Três Picos in 2002. The establishment of these conservation areas however made the management of the conservation units difficult, since the status of the two units were legally contrasting: the first one allowing the management of natural resources by the local community and the second one forbidding this.

Continuing the inventory of different areas, from 1995 the PMA started its activities in the Itatiaia National Park (INP) which was created in 1937 as the first National Park in Brazil. The INP was in the past a research station of the RJBG where researchers developed long-term studies – such as those of Alexandre Curt Brade, who worked there for 30 years collecting a significant part of the Itatiaia collection held in the RJBG herbarium.

Biological Reserve of Poço das Antas

The studies developed in Macaé de Cima, and afterwards, from 1992 in Paraíso, at Serra dos Órgãos basin, in Guapimirim, enabled the PMA to initiate studies in a new area in 1993. This new area was the Biological Reserve of Poço das Antas (POA) located in the lowlands of Rio de Janeiro where the forests were practically extinct, over swamp areas and low hills (not higher than 200 meters).

Besides the research lines developed by the researchers, the PMA accepted the challenge of developing extension programmes to complement the field experiments and the ecological restoration, promoting not only experimental planting in different conditions, but also integration with the traditional rural community established in the POA surroundings.

New inventories were established in order to study variation in plant physiology, floral behaviour at different altitude gradients, the phenology of arboreal species for potential restoration, population studies of arboreal species, seed production and the germination process, the efficiency of establishing connectivity corridors between the islands of forests in the interior of the POA and finally the growth of tree species, evaluating the anatomy of the wood growth rings.

Experimental seeding of native tree species was the main action derived from the research on forest restoration; various models were used and the results published (Moraes et al, 2002 and 2006(a); Moraes & Pereira 2003 and 2007). Every year, approximately 10,000 seedlings of tree species are produced, 6 ha are monitored and 1 ha planted.

In order to promote the integration among the institutions working inside the POA, and the assimilation of conservation concepts by the local community (regarding the value of the forest tree and animal species), an average of 4,000 seedlings are produced annually by the PMA to support education and environmental awareness, through the reforestation of degraded areas in that region. The identification of the strong appeal of this kind of action among the local population led to the publication of a technical reforestation manual for Atlantic Rainforest areas (Moraes et al, 2006 (b)).

Working with the local community

The interaction between the RJBG and the local community aims to support the development of a scientific culture in an area where education is not a priority. As an example of this interaction, educational activities have been developed with the rural community of Macaé de Cima. During these activities people from the community have the opportunity to visit the scientific installations, which are very near their homes, but very far from their normal daily lives. Among the aims of the PMA are the production of seedlings in cultivated areas of RJBG and guided visits for students and visitors to the arboretum during special days such as: Atlantic Rainforest Day, Environment Day, RJBG Anniversaries and Tree Day.

In addition, the activities of RJBG are integrated into the National Science Week, promoted since 2004 by the Ministry of Science and Technology.

In the past, the opposing interests of researchers and farmers from the local community resulted in damage to the scientific experiments and penalties to farmers. The intensification of contact between RJBG and the communities located in the areas surrounding the conservation units has solved this problem and led to the development of partnerships between researchers and local people. Most importantly, the recognition of the traditional knowledge of the people from the community about the use of plants and the dynamics of the forest has promoted the self-esteem of the local community (Christo et al, 2006, Sobrinho, 2007).

Other activities of the PMA

In 2000, when Brazil celebrated its 500th anniversary, PMA produced the CD-Rom Atlantic Rainforest 500 years (Guedes-Bruni et al, 2000). The CD records the history of forest occupation and the scientific perceptions of those who recorded the forest and nature. The most important tree species are identified both from an historic as well as an environmental perspective. The CD was developed to reach a range of different audiences for various educational purposes. A second, more scientific CD was also produced to support responsible tourism in Brazil’s natural areas.

In 2002, following a request from the Ministry of Environment, the PMA started an inventory of the Tinguá Biological Reserve, in collaboration with the Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro. Tinguá is an important urban forest fragment of 26,000 ha located between the two largest cities of the Rio de Janeiro lowlands – Nova Iguaçú and Duque de Caxias.

In 2003, before RJBG had developed a post-graduate programme, various staff undertook training in Atlantic Rainforest ecology and floristic resources. A total of 17 MSc dissertations and 7 PhD theses were developed from the data produced by the PMA.

During 2004-5, the PMA was selected as an educational area for the National School of Tropical Biology (NSTB) and fieldwork methodologies developed by the PMA were taught as part of the degree programme.


Through its work on the Atlantic Rainforest, the RJBG is working to achieve the goals of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC). Specific targets being addressed are: (i) to consolidate an accessible list of identified plant species as a step towards the creation of a list of Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest species; (ii) cooperating with the preliminary evaluation of the current conservation status of the plant species of the Atlantic Rainforest at the regional level; (iii) providing examples of how to secure the protection of Atlantic Rainforest areas important for plant diversity; and (iv) collaborating on the conservation of threatened species of the Atlantic Rainforest.

The RJBG was originally built 200 years ago with a strategic aim to protect the economic interests of Brazil, through the acclimatization of plant species introduced for commercial purposes. Today the strategic vision of the garden includes not only economic alternatives, but also the sustainable use of natural resources in support of improved human well-being and environmental protection. Conserving the Atlantic Rainforest is a strategic mission which the RJBG assumes and emphasises in this important anniversary year, a year dedicated to all the botanical scientists who devoted their lives to the understanding and conservation of Brazil’s unique and diverse floral heritage.


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Rejan R. Guedes-Bruni and Tânia Sampaio Pereira
Jardim Botanico do Rio de Janeiro
Rua Pacheco Leao 915, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.