Tropical dry forests have received little conservation and research attention as compared to their rainforest cousins, leaving these ecosystems to become gravely threatened while still largely unknown to the public and scientists. A new study in mongabay.com’s open access journal Tropical Conservation Science finds that the Caatinga, a seasonally dry tropical forest, is the least-known forest in Brazil.
“In the last five decades [less than 20 percent] of the articles on tropical forest have addressed seasonally dry tropical forests, most of them from a limited number of sites […] Moreover, elevated economic appeal, limited knowledge and reduced conservation effort have driven many dry forests to become extremely threatened,” the authors of the paper note, pointing out that only one percent of seasonally dry tropical forests are under protection in Central and South America.
Comprising around 10 percent of Brazil’s land, the Caatinga is threatened by industrial and agricultural development as well as widespread desertification linked to climate change. Still the Caatinga ecosystem, made up of shrubs and forest, supports a large variety of life.
The authors point out that Caatinga contains “over 1,000 vascular plant species in addition to 187 bees, 240 fish species, 167 reptiles and amphibians, 516 birds, and 148 mammal species, with endemism levels varying from 9 percent in birds to 57 percent in fishes.” The region is especially known for birdlife, including the Lear’s Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari), listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, and Spix’s Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii), Extinct in the Wild.
Comparing insect-knowledge between Caatinga and other ecosystems in Brazil, the study finds that Caatinga has been left behind.
“From 1945 to 2008, 3,472 insect-related papers from our targeted ecosystems were recorded in the ISI Web of Knowledge, but only 32 (less than 1 percent) referred to Caatinga specifically. It is worth mentioning that just a single paper addressed Lepidoptera [butterflies and moths] in the Caatinga, an insect group considered as bio-indicator across tropical ecosystems. Even Coleoptera [beetles], the most speciose group of insects have been poorly examined, with only 2 studies published up to 2008,” the authors write.
The lack of knowledge about the Caatinga came out in the 1990s when the Brazilian government sought information on biodiversity in order to establish new protected areas, but “it was revealed that 50 percent of the entire Caatinga territory has been neglected by biodiversity surveys, and estimates of total species richness for many taxonomic groups remain missing,” the authors write, despite the fact that Caatinga was Brazil’s first ecosystem to see large-scale development.
Not surprisingly, the study also found that the Caatinga has received a dearth of funding compared to other ecosystems.
“Between 1985 and 1996, Caatinga captured only 7.2 percent of millions of U.S. dollars made available for Brazilian environmental agencies, the worst score across Brazilian ecosystems  and less than what Caatinga represents in terms of national territory,” the authors note.
Arguing that the Caatinga suffers from an ‘information gap’, they scientists say that baseline research on species and ecology is needed to set-up conservation plans.
CITATION: Santos, J. C., Leal, I. R., Almeida-Cortez, J. S., Fernandes, G. W. and Tabarelli, M. 2011. Caatinga: the scientific negligence experienced by a dry tropical forest. Tropical Conservation Science Vol. 4(3):276-286.
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