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Amazone

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Against a white ground, stylized figures in riding costumes, horse, and dog alternate with large plant forms with spear-shaped leaves. Printed in green and black. Half-drop repeat. Printed in margin: Andre Groult, Paris.

The old and young Amazon: Dung beetle biomass, abundance, and species diversity

Smithsonian Libraries
The Amazon Basin can be divided into two geomorphological regions based on the age of its soils: young ( 300 mya). We tested the effects of soil age on dung beetle communities by comparing biomass, abundance, and species between reserves in Ecuador on young soils and reserves in Brazil on old soils. Beetle biomass in the old Amazon was one-third that in the young Amazon, and beetle abundance in the old Amazon was one-fourth that in the young Amazon. Species richness, rarefied to equal sample sizes, was not significantly different between old and young soils. These data suggest young soils of the Amazon support a significantly greater biomass and abundance of dung beetles than old soils, but that species richness across the Basin is similar. As dung beetles are bio-indicators of mammals, our data support previous studies indicating a greater biomass of mammals on young versus old Amazon soils.

Contributions to an insect fauna of the Amazon Valley : Coleoptera-Staphylinidae / by D. Sharp

Smithsonian Libraries
Caption title.

Spine title: Staphylinidae of the Amazon.

Running title: Mr. D. Sharp's contributions to the Staphylinidae of the Amazon Valley.

Extracted from: Transactions of the Entomological Society of London, May 1876.

Also available online.

Elecresource

Browse Though the Amazon's 12,000 Tree Species in This New Master List

Smithsonian Magazine

Naturalists and botanist have spent countless years in the Amazon rainforest cataloging every tree, vine, orchid and scrap of moss they could find. But after over three centuries of almost continuous exploration, there’s one problem: no one kept a master list of all the tree species.

That’s why a new project led by Hans ter Steege of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands recently tallied up all the species he and his team could find. The final count was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Before this paper we didn’t have a list of Amazonian trees,” co-author Nigel Pitman, a tropical forest ecologist at the Field Museum in Chicago tells Nicholas St. Fleur at The New York Times. “With this list we are answering ‘How many species have been found?’ and ‘What are they?’”

The team looked at more than half a million digitized specimens from collections around the world collected between 1707 and 2015, coming up with 11,676 species of Amazon trees in 1,225 genera and 140 families.

Pitman admits the checklist isn’t as accurate or meticulous as one that would be constructed by a formal taxonomist. But he says the team hopes it will be a jumping off point for the scientific community who can amend and refine it. “What cracks me up about this paper is that it’s a bunch of ecologists who got impatient and said ‘Let’s see if we can make a quick checklist and see what we get,’” he tells Le Fleur.This is an effort to pull together this 300-year-long research on this incredibly diverse region and convert it into a simple tool that anybody can use.”

The tally wasn’t completely unexpected. In 2013 Steege conducted another study, looking at 1,170 Amazon forestry surveys. Based on that data, he estimated the Amazon basin holds 16,000 tree species and about 390 billion individual trees. Half of those trees, however come from just 227 hyperdominant species. About 6,000 of those species have only 1,000 individuals or less, which would automatically place them on the endangered list—that is, if researchers could locate them. It's a phenomenon Wake Forest researcher Miles Silman dubs “dark bioversity.”

“Just like physicists’ models tell them that dark matter accounts for much of the universe, our models tell us that species too rare to find account for much of the planet’s biodiversity,” Silman says in a press release. “That’s a real problem for conservation, because the species at the greatest risk of extinction may disappear before we ever find them.”

Several researchers criticized that original paper, estimating that the Amazon only held roughly 6,000-7,000 total species. “We interpret this [new paper] to mean that our 2013 estimate of 16,000 species is good, and that about 4,000 of the rarest Amazonian trees remain to be discovered and described,” Pitman says in the press release.

Some of those missing trees may eventually show up in forgotten botanical collections or at institutions that have not yet digitized their specimens. Many are probably hiding among the rainforests billions of trees. Pitman points out that since 1900, botanists have discovered 50 to 200 new trees per year in the Amazon. It may take centuries, he said, to eventually find them all.  

This New Tower Gives Scientists a Bird's Eye View of the Amazon

Smithsonian Magazine

The Amazon rainforest is sometimes called the lungs of the planet thanks to the massive influence it has on the gases swirling through the atmosphere.  Now, reaching above the dense tangles of the rainforest towers a structure that will help scientists keep on eye on that vital, changing ecosystem.

The Amazon Tall Tower Observatory is 1,066 feet tall, beating the Eiffel Tower by 3 feet, reports Donna Bowater for The Independent, and is now the tallest structure in South America. However, the structures purpose isn’t to break records. Instead, it gives researchers the ability to see how the atmosphere above the rainforest and the photosynthesizing planets within respond to climate change, deforestation and severe weather.

Researchers at the Natinoal Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) in Brazil and the Max Planck Institute in Germany teamed up to build the tower.

“For science, this is a very big and complex piece of work,” Antonio Manzi, a researcher at INPA told The Independent. Bowater writes:

Stefan Wolff, from the Max Planck Institute, said that in the past decade, the state of Amazonas had seen two severe floods and two severe droughts. There are currently 39 districts of Amazonas in a state of emergency because of annual floods caused by rises in river levels, affecting almost 320,000 people.

Meanwhile, Sao Paulo has been suffering a historic drought, which some have attributed to deforestation in the rainforest. “When the temperature increases, we have more energy in the atmosphere,” Mr Wolff said. “And when we have more energy in the atmosphere, a part of this has to be released. A good way of releasing this is a strong rain so there’s a great probability that some rains will be even heavier.”

Another tower, located in Siberia will offer similar data from the other side of the world. Together, the observatories will help build a global picture of climate change over the next 30 years, Manzi told Bowater.

For more perspective on what a towering structure like this looks like in the midst of the jungle, check out the photos Alan Taylor pulled together at The Atlantic.

Warming climate unlikely to cause near-term extinction of ancient Amazon trees, study says

Smithsonian Insider

A new genetic analysis has revealed that many Amazon tree species are likely to survive human-caused climate warming in the coming century, contrary to previous findings that temperature increases would cause them to die out.

The post Warming climate unlikely to cause near-term extinction of ancient Amazon trees, study says appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

Synergisms among fire, land use, and climate change in the Amazon

Smithsonian Libraries
The Amazon is being rapidly transformed by fire. Logging and forest fragmentation sharply elevate fire incidence by increasing forest desiccation and fuel loads, and forests that have experienced a low-intensity surface fire are vulnerable to far more catastrophic fires. Satellites typically detect thermal signatures from 40000 to 50000 separate fires in the Amazon each year, and this number could increase as new highways and infrastructure expand across the basin. Many are concerned that large-scale deforestation, by reducing regional evapotranspiration and creating moisture-trapping smoke plumes, will make the basin increasingly vulnerable to fire. The Amazon may also be affected by future global warming and atmospheric changes, although much remains uncertain. Most models suggest the basin will become warmer throughout this century, although there is no consensus about how precipitation will be affected. The most alarming scenarios project a permanent disruption of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, leading to greatly increased drought or destructive synergisms between regional and global climate change in the Amazon.

Three Things to Know About the Fires Blazing Across the Amazon Rainforest

Smithsonian Magazine

Since January, a staggering 74,155 fires have broken out across Brazil, the country’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported Wednesday. This figure—an 85 percent uptick from the same point in 2018—includes more than 9,000 blazes spotted within the past week and represents the highest rate recorded since documentation began in 2013.

Crucially, environmentalists point out, the vast majority of the infernos are not wildfires, but rather intentional land clearing attempts undertaken by farmers and loggers emboldened by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s pro-business policies. Regardless of origin, the blazes, now large enough to be seen from space, pose a significant threat to the Amazon, which is popularly known as the “lungs” of the planet due to its capacity for storing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. As Terrence McCoy writes for the Washington Post, the rainforest is “one of the world’s greatest defenses against climate change.”

Why fires are raging on such a large scale

According to McCoy, infernos have razed 7,192 square miles of Brazil’s Amazon region this year to date. Comparatively, Amazonian fires caused roughly half this damage—cutting through 3,168 square miles—over the same period in 2017. Andrew Freedman reports for the Washington Post that the number of fires recorded in 2019 greatly surpasses the 67,790 seen at this point in 2016, when a strong El Niño event created severe drought conditions in the area.

“This is without any question one of only two times that there have been fires like this [in the Amazon],” ecologist Thomas Lovejoy tells National Geographic’s Sarah Gibbens. “There’s no question that it’s a consequence of the recent uptick in deforestation.”

The Amazonian fires are so large that they can be seen from space (NASA Earth Observatory)

Speaking with Reuters’ Lisandra Paraguassu, INPE researcher Alberto Setzer explains that the blazes cannot be attributed to the dry season or natural phenomena alone. “The dry season creates ... favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident,” he adds. (Christian Poirier, program director of the non-profit organization Amazon Watch, tells CNN’s Jessie Yeung that the humid rainforest is generally less likely to catch on fire than, say, the dry bushlands of California and Australia.)

Since taking office in October 2018, Bolsonaro has emphasized economic development over environmental concerns—a policy pattern that has led to an uptick in agriculture, mining and deforestation across the Amazon. According to the Post’s Freedman, farmers use forest fires, often illegally, to clear land for cattle ranching and growing soybeans, as well as paving the way for future development. A report published by the local Folha do Progresso newspaper earlier this month suggested that farmers in the state of Para were planning to hold a “day of fire” August 10. As the individuals behind the initiative explained, they hoped to “show the president that we want to work” to advance regional production.

In total, Setzer tells the Wall Street Journal’s Samantha Pearson and Luciana Magalhaes, he estimates that 99 percent of the fires are the result of human activity.

Who is affected and how parties are responding

Per Reuters’ Paraguassu, the current surge of fires has enveloped the northern state of Roraima in black smoke and led states such as Amazonas, Acre, Rondônia, Mato Grosso and Para to declare emergencies or remain on environmental alert. On Monday, a mixture of clouds, smoke and a cold front actually plunged the city of São Paulo into total darkness during the middle of the day. As local resident Gianvitor Dias says to BBC News’ Kris Bramwell, “It was as if the day had turned into night. Everyone here commented, because even on rainy days it doesn’t usually get that dark.” Although many have connected the unsettling incident with the recent wave of fires, the New York Times’ Manuela Andreoni and Christine Hauser note that researchers are still working to determine whether the two are directly connected.

According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, the Amazonian fires have generated a discernible spike in carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions, threatening human health and exacerbating the effects of global warming. In the long run, deforestation-driven fire could prove devastating to the carbon-absorbing rainforest.

Among the groups most likely to be affected by the fires are the Amazon’s indigenous populations. Per Alexis Carey of Australia’s news.com.au, up to one million indegenous individuals constituting some 500 tribes live in the region and are at risk of losing their homes to infernos or encroaching cattle ranchers. In a video posted on Twitter by the activist Sunrise Movement, a Pataxó woman decries the illegal land clearing, saying, “They are killing our rivers, our sources of life, and now they have set our reserve on fire.”

Facing heavy criticism from those who say his economic policies are driving the crisis, Bolsonaro opted to accuse nongovernmental organizations of setting the fires. “It could be, it could, I’m not saying it is, a criminal action by these N.G.O. people to call attention against me, against the Brazilian government,” he said, as quoted by the Times. “This is the war we face.”

According to the Post’s McCoy, Bolsonaro further stated—with no supporting evidence—that “The fire was started, it seemed, in strategic locations. There are images of the entire Amazon. How can that be? Everything indicates that people went there to film and then to set fires. That is my feeling.”

Per Reuters, Bolsonaro also attributed the fires to the time of year, saying that “queimada,” or the annual clearing of land by burning, is currently underway. “I used to be called Captain Chainsaw,” the president reportedly said. “Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame. But it is the season of the queimada.”

Bolsonaro’s comments arrive just weeks after he fired INPE’s director, Ricardo Galvão, over data the agency published regarding rising deforestation. Dismissing the figures as “lies” and positing that the INPE was working “at the service of some N.G.O.,” the president replaced Galvão with a military official. The fired scientist, meanwhile, criticized Bolsonaro’s “vile, cowardly attitude” in an interview with the Post’s McCoy, adding, “This was a defense of the dignity of the Brazilian science, not only for Brazilian scientists, but for all scientists. Our data should never be curbed by political interests.”

Many environmental activists have spoken out against Bolsonaro’s claims, describing them as deflection from the pressing environmental concerns at hand. In a statement, Amazon Watch director Poirier argued, “This devastation is directly related to President Bolsonaro's anti-environmental rhetoric, which erroneously frames forest protections and human rights as impediments to Brazil's economic growth.” Speaking with the Guardian’s Jonathan Watts, Danicley Aguiar of Greenpeace Brazil echoed this message, saying, “Those who destroy the Amazon and let deforestation continue unabated are encouraged by the Bolsonaro government’s actions and policies.”

What will happen next?

NASA’s Earth Observatory explains that the Amazon’s dry season—aggravated by farmers clearing out land—typically begins in July or August, peaks in early September, and mostly stops by November.

“I’m concerned,” Ane Alencar, science director of Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research Institute, tells the Times’ Andreoni and Hauser. “We are at the beginning of the fire season. This could still get much worse.”

Expanding on this line of thought in an interview with Mongabay’s Ignacio Amigo, Alencar said that rainfall will not resume until late September, or even later in the more northern regions of the Amazon. “It could mean that there is going to be a lot more fire ahead,” she notes.

According to National Geographic’s Gibbens, Amazon deforestation occurs in a cylical pattern: Forest loss, spurred by economic activities including harvesting timber, planting soy and building cattle pastures, leads to a decline in rainfall, which in turn engenders more deforestation. Eventually, experts say, this cycle could transform the lush rainforest into a dry, savannah-like ecosystem.

Deborah Lawrence, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia, tells Time’s Mahita Gajanan that clearing forests shifts their dynamics. “There’s no trees to pump moisture into the atmosphere,” she explains. “Rain fall is going to either settle into the soil and stay there, or, if there’s a lot, run off into rivers and end up far away.”

Per the Post’s McCoy, fire and subsequent deforestation could make it nearly impossible to limit global warming to levels called for by the Paris Agreement. Although the Amazon currently accounts for roughly a quarter of the 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon absorbed by all global forests, changing weather patterns, deforestation, tree mortality and other factors are hampering its ability to serve as an essential carbon sink.

If deforestation continues at the rate seen today, climate scientist Carlos Nobre tells Gajanan, more than half of the Amazon will have a climate similar to a savannah within the next 25 to 30 years. If deforestation increases, as indicated by the ongoing surge of forest fires, this scenario could become reality in just 15 to 20 years.

“This is very sad,” Nobre says. “We usually would see this surge of fire in very, very exceptionally dry years. The fact that this record-breaking figure comes out in a relatively un-dry dry season shows that deforestation is increasing.”

Will Brazil’s World Cup Stadium in the Middle of the Amazon Pay Off?

Smithsonian Magazine

In a competition for most improbable place to host the World Cup, the city of Manaus would surely make the finals. Its Arena da Amazônia sits in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest, 900 miles up the Amazon River in Brazil’s isolated Amazonas state bordering Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru. “The Amazon Arena”  will host four matches next month– including one featuring the English team, whose coach got into a spat with the mayor of Manaus after complaining about the prospect of having to play “in the middle of the Amazonian jungle.” So perhaps more than any other of Brazil’s 12 World Cup host cities, Manaus faces a Sisyphean task during next month’s influx of futebol superstars and their rabid fans: prove that it was worthwhile to build a $300 million, 42,000-seat stadium in an isolated port city lacking a serious futebol culture, or experience hosting major events. 

"I didn’t have any idea how difficult this would be,” said Eraldo Boechat Leal, executive coordinator of the Unidade Gestora do Projeto Copa (“UGP Copa”), the project management unit overseeing all World Cup preparations for the state of Amazonas. "It was a huge, huge, huge challenge."

Leal and I had lunch recently at a restaurant on the banks of the Rio Negro, an Amazon tributary that had supplied our spread of baked tambaqui fish and bolinhos de bacalhão (fried codfish). Outside the windows, an afternoon monsoon obscured the view onto an inlet littered with refuse, filled with fishing boats, and surrounded by colorful pink and orange shanty homes. The previous evening, Arena da Amazônia had hosted the top-flight Brazilian team Santos, giving Leal and his team a final chance to iron out the wrinkles before Manaus hands the stadium keys to FIFA at the end of May.

But “wrinkles” may be an understatement, considering that Arena da Amazônia saw three construction-related deaths—out of the eight total deaths that have occurred during Brazil’s $11 billion World Cup preparations. This is four times as many deaths as South Africa experienced during its preparations for the 2010 World Cup. Leal, however, was nonplussed. “We had almost four years of building and construction from the bottom until the stadium was ready,” he said. “We’re saying close to 1,500 days, with workers every day. At least eight hours a day and, in some months, three shifts of eight hours. Imagine how many events happened without accident.” 

Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. Construction work at Amazon Arena. (original image)

Image by Reuters/Corbis. Workers rest at the entrance to the Amazon Arena three days before its scheduled inauguration. (original image)

Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. The Amazon Arena Stadium under construction. (original image)

Image by BRAZIL/Reuters/Corbis. Haitian construction worker Milice Norassaint carries mason's supplies through the Amazon Arena stadium. (original image)

Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. Construction work at Amazon Arena. (original image)

Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. Arena Amazonia under construction. (original image)

Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. Arena Amazonia under construction. (original image)

Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. Arena Amazonia under construction. (original image)

Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. The Arena Amazonia stadium under construction. (original image)

Image by Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis. "Brazuca," the official match ball for the 2014 World Cup, in Arena Amazonia stadium. (original image)

Image by Reuters/Corbis. Workers look out over the Arena Amazonia soccer stadium three days before its scheduled inauguration. (original image)

Image by BRAZIL/Reuters/Corbis. Fans arrive for the inaugural match of the Arena de Amazonia soccer stadium. (original image)

Image by Reuters/Corbis. An aerial view of the Arena Amazonia soccer stadium two days before its scheduled inauguration. (original image)

Image by BRAZIL/Reuters/Corbis. Players from the Nacional of Amazonas soccer club warm up in the Arena Amazonia stadium before the its inaugural match between the Nacional and Remo clubs in Manaus. (original image)

Image by © BRAZIL/Reuters/Corbis. An overview of the stadium on the day it was inaugurated in Manaus. (original image)

Not that all the work is done. Manaus is still rushing to complete sidewalks and roads outside the arena, while other stadiums such as the Arena de São Paulo are yet to be completed. I wanted to see these last-minute preparations first hand, and so I arrived to Manaus in late April to live here for three months while reporting on the tournament and more generally about the dynamics between environment and industry for The Christian Science Monitor, where I am a correspondent and an editor. I’d lived in Rio before, but never been to Manaus before, which people in Rio consider a continent away. 

I was at the May 8 test-run match between São Paulo state’s Santos (the most-winning team in Brazilian history) and Amazonas state’s Princesa do Solimões (whose team highlight is having once been good enough to compete in the Serie B division, which is a full division below the Serie A). And, admittedly, I was also one of many people posing for photos outside and inside the beautiful white stadium, designed to resemble a traditional indigenous straw basket.

The stadium stands in juxtaposition to most everything else about this unruly and unplanned city, constantly clogged with cars and buses because of the absence of ring roads or bypasses. Many people in Manaus work jobs related to the free trade zone created in 1967 under the military government as a geopolitical strategy to populate and guard this porous border region. Since then Manaus has become the nation’s fastest-growing city, with a population of 2 million, and third-largest industrial hub, a base for 550 major companies from Samsung to Honda assembling pieces of TVs and motorbikes that are shipped in from around the world and then shipped 900 miles back downriver to the Atlantic Coast for distribution to Brazil’s more populous southern states.

The future of the city is inextricably tied to the future of the free trade zone, which the Brazilian Congress is currently debating whether to extend by 50 years to 2073. Arena da Amazônia is a symbol that Manaus is here to stay, regardless. Some 20,000 people had quickly snatched up tickets for the sold-out May 8 match (only half the arena was opened) and there was a palpable excitement that the famed Santos – the team forever associated with Pelé – had deigned to fly 1,700 miles to the Amazon. Even the police on guard couldn’t take their eyes off the field, stepping forward to the guardrail whenever Princesa managed to mount an attack against the visiting Goliath. 

During the second half, I made my way up to the security control room, escorted by two members of the military police. There, in an extra-large luxury box high above the field, I met Igor Menezes Cordovil—who will oversee all city security during the World Cup (FIFA itself is in charge of security inside all stadiums). The white-walled room was filled with desks and computers and security monitors with feeds from 107 cameras inside the stadium and 50 cameras around the perimeter. 

“Intelligence services saw you,” Menezes told me. “They asked me who you were.”

For this trial run, Menezes had deployed a veritable army of 3,500 security personnel that included police from the civil, mounted, military, federal, and special forces; a traffic unit; a bomb squad; gate stewards checking tickets and enforcing rules; and volunteers. The security room was connected in real time to the city’s command center a couple of miles away. Menezes claimed that in the event of an incident, it would take less than 8 minutes to evacuate all 42,000 spectators — though it took me 10 minutes just to walk up the long concrete ramps into the stadium, let alone reach the nose-bleed section.

So far, instead of security problems, Manaus officials have encountered cultural hurdles that would be unfamiliar to other World Cup host cities. Because Manaus doesn’t have a team of its own or a tradition of hosting big matches, Manaus fans didn’t know to arrive early to a match, which meant many were rushing into the stadium at the last minute, causing confusion over seating. Amazonian weather is another challenge. The high humidity and heat—averaging 93 percent humidity and 81 degrees in June—are more than a concern for players and coaches: the tropical weather repeatedly delayed stadium construction and caused Manaus to miss FIFA’s end-of-2013 deadline for finishing the stadium.

It rains so much in Manaus that even as the rest of Brazil is experiencing its worst drought in decades, the stadium here is recycling rainwater for both the field irrigation and sanitation systems. Recently, heavy rains caused a partial ceiling collapse at the newly upgraded international airport, according to local reports

The bigger challenge for Manaus, according to Leal, still lies ahead, in ensuring that the World Cup leaves behind a positive legacy and that the arena does not become the white elephant that critics have predicted. “We designed the World Cup in Manaus to provide a legacy to our people,” Leal said. “All the things we’re doing, every detail is connected to people.” That means using the event to attract investment and speed up construction of other planned city projects, such as a new water treatment system. It means reframing the World Cup not as a “cost,” but as an “investment.” 

Brazil already faced an uphill slog in recouping its investment. As Americas Quarterly detailed in an article three years ago, the World Cup normally only generates $3.5 billion in revenue (most going to FIFA), but Brazil would incur costs more than three times greater. The physical legacy of the World Cup, therefore, would need to yield a future stream of financial benefits for Brazil to recoup costs. 

“I think it will be a waste of money,” Eryco Gomez, a 20-year-old biology student here in Manaus, told me in one of many conversations I’ve had with disgruntled Brazilians. “We don’t have good teams in Manaus, so why do we need a good stadium? After the World Cup, this stadium will be nothing.” 

Many Brazilians have come out against hosting the World Cup because of the soaring costs and pervasive corruption. Massive nationwide protests erupted a year ago during the Confederations Cup, with fans booing President Dilma Rousseff during an opening event and later marching to the chant "Não vai ter Copa!" (“There won’t be a Cup”). Leal and Menezes told me that such protests in Manaus have been minimal and nonviolent.

“It’s going to be a strong emotion to see the World Cup open in Manaus,” Leal said. “I believe I will not hold back tears.” 

I imagine the same for many people looking upon the future shell of the Arena da Amazônia, memories fading of the highly anticipated face-offs here between England’s Wayne Rooney and Italy’s Mario Balotelli, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and USA’s Clint Dempsey. It is hard not to draw parallels to the grand opening in 1896 of the city’s Teatro Amazonas, a world-class opera house built with riches from the rubber boom to lure the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso into the Amazon. The city’s downward spiral soon began as Asia began producing rubber more efficiently, and the opera house was shuttered from 1924 until 1997.

Today, no one seems to remember if Caruso ever actually came.

Stephen Kurczy is a Latin America correspondent for 'The Christian Science Monitor'. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

Amazon Tree Census Makes Clear Just How Many Species are in Trouble

Smithsonian Magazine

The rapid loss of the forests of the Amazon River Basin gave rise to the refrain "Save the Rainforest!" And though deforestation did slow for a time, the threat has not passed. Now scientists have offered up a more detailed picture of what is at stake if the logging and clear-cutting of forests continues.

A new study, published in Science Advances, estimates just how many Amazonian tree species are likely to qualify as threatened if deforestation continues. They determined that between 36 to 57 percent of Amazon’s trees could meet the criteria based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Already, about 12 percent of the Amazon’s forests have been lost, reports Cynthia Graber for Scientific American. By 2050, that number could include another 9 to 28 percent. The new study puts a name to the specific species that deserve attention.

"We’ve never had a good idea of how many Amazonian species were vulnerable," Nigel Pitman, a tropical ecologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, tells Nicholas St. Fleur of The New York Times. "And now, with this study, we’ve got an estimate." Pitman is one of more than 150 researchers who teamed together for the new paper.

The team looked to maps of projected deforestation but also did their own work on the ground at more than 1,700 tree inventory plots, trekking through the forest to collect leaves, count trees and measure their girth. Their model determined that 8,690 of trees growing in the forest today should be classified as threatened if business proceeds as usual and about 40 percent of the original forests fall to deforestation. If governments pass stronger regulations, and deforestation is limited to 21 percent, 5,515 tree species could be considered threatened.

Though the numbers are still worrisome, the researchers point to recent efforts in Brazil and other countries to expand parks and protected areas. Already about 52 percent of the basin is protected in some way, the researchers write.

“If we can protect these areas… the Amazon could be a showcase of large-scale conservation worldwide,” another study author Hans ter Steege said during a teleconference, reports Chelsea Harvey at The Washington Post

Yet the researchers also estimate that their forecast likely applies to other tropical forests, meaning most tropical tree species are probably threatened. Kenneth Feeley, an associate professor of biology at Florida International University co-authored a similar study in 2009 that looked at all Amazonian plants. He suspects the numbers may be even higher than his and the other researchers’ estimates.

"If we keep going in the direction we’re going," he tells The Washington Post, "we’re going to put a lot more species at risk of extinction very quickly."

Report paints a new picture of early human impact on the Amazon River Basin

Smithsonian Insider

The newly reported reconstruction of Amazonian prehistory by a Smithsonian scientist, Dolores R. Piperno, and her colleagues suggests that large areas of western Amazonia were sparsely inhabited.

The post Report paints a new picture of early human impact on the Amazon River Basin appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

The Senses: Design Beyond Vision | Visual Sounds of the Amazon (with Audio Description)

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
This video has audio description for people with limited vision. Andy Thomas went to the Amazon to collect audio. He used particle effects animation software to visualize the sounds of birds and insects. Sounds recorded by Andy Thomas and Reynier Omena Junior in and around Presidente Figueiredo, State of Amazonas, Brazil, 2016 On display at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum as part of The Senses: Design Beyond Vision.

The Supposedly Pristine, Untouched Amazon Rainforest Was Actually Shaped By Humans

Smithsonian Magazine

The way some describe it, you’d think the Amazon was a tangle of wilds, virtually untouched by human hand. “The First Eden, a pristine natural kingdom,” is how Stanwyn Shetler, a Smithsonian botanist, described this region of the world in a 1991 book marking the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World. “The native people were transparent in the landscape, living as natural elements of the ecosphere. Their world … was a world of barely perceptible human disturbance.”

But was it really? In less-rhapsodical verse, scholars in the past quarter century have shown that this mythical image of untouched nature is just that—a myth. Like humans everywhere, Native Americans shaped their environments to suit them, through burning, pruning, tilling and other practices. And the Amazon is no different: Look closer, and you can see the deep impressions that humans have made on the world's largest tropical rainforest, scientists reported yesterday in the journal Science.

Despite its vastness—the Amazon stretches more than 2 million square miles, and has an estimated 390 billion trees—this rainforest is hardly the untamable, unstoppable force of nature that the Romantics opined about, says José Iriarte, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter. In fact, humans have inhabited the Amazon for roughly 13,000 years, and have been domesticating plants for at least 8,000 years.

"Recent archaeological studies, especially in the last two decades show that indigenous populations in the past were more numerous, more complex and had a greater impact on the largest and most biodiverse tropical forest in the world [than previously thought]," Iriarte says.

In 2013, community ecologist Hans ter Steege and colleagues were taking inventory of the vast diversity of the Amazon's trees. The team sampled 1,170 scattered plots far from modern human inhabitants to identify more than 16,000 different species among those 390 billion individual plants. Then they noticed something odd: Despite that broad diversity, over half of the total trees were made up of just over 1 percent (227) of the species.

About 20 of these "hyperdominant" plants were domesticated species such as the Brazil nut, the Amazon tree grape and the ice cream bean tree. That was five times the amount researchers expected if chance were the only factor. "The hypothesis came up that perhaps people might have domesticated these species a lot [...] which would have helped their abundance in the Amazon," says ter Steege says, who is the lead author of the recent study.

A rural Brazilian man holds fruit of the tucamã, a domesticated palm tree found to be hyperdominant in the Amazon. (Diogo Lagroteria / Science)

To test this hypothesis, ter Steege teamed up with archaeologists to look more closely at the number of domesticated species in proximity to where there was evidence of pre-Columbian communities. "Indeed, the distance to these archaeological sites has an effect on the abundance and richness of domesticated species in the Amazon," ter Steege says, noting that he and his team were able to plot a decrease in the number of domesticated species as the distance from archaeological sites increased. 

The researchers also found that many of these domesticated species were identified far from the areas where they first arose, leading to speculation that humans transported them to cultivate elsewhere. Cocoa, used by some native peoples for beverages and in religious ceremonies, was first domesticated in the northwestern region of the Amazon, where researchers today have identified a larger genetic diversity reflecting more time established there. But today the species is most prevalent in the southern areas of the rainforest.

Iriarte, who was not involved in this research, says ter Steege's study is the largest and most comprehensive analysis of human impact on Amazon flora ever done. He adds that the inclusion of archaeologist and soil scientists helped the study immensely, adding expertise in proving correlations and scrutinizing whether a species would be likely to grow naturally in the soil of a particular area.

"This has made the study really robust by taking into account cultural and natural features of the Amazon in the analysis," says Iriarte, who has does extensive research on the impact of pre-Columbian humans on the Amazon, including plant domestication.

The study may also have exciting implications beyond the ecological origins of this region. In the future, Iriarte hopes this research could be reverse-engineered to help archaeologists locate ancient Amazonian settlements and pinpoint artifacts. By looking for regions that have higher than expected concentrations of domesticated plant species, he says, researchers could better narrow their lens when searching for artifacts in the dense Amazon.

"Perhaps [...] the very biodiversity we want to preserve is not only due to thousands of years of natural evolution but also the result of the human footprint on them," Iriarte says. "The more we learn, the more the evidence point to the latter."

Smithsonian archaeobotanist Dolores Piperno, however, is more skeptical of the authors' conclusions. Piperno, who was not involved in the study, notes that more than five centuries took place between the pre-Columbian era and this study. In other words, a lot has likely influenced the Amazon since then.

Furthermore, researchers today can't always be sure of how plants were used in South America back then. "For some of those species there is little to no evidence for their prehistoric utilization," says Piperno, who has done extensive research on early American plant domestication through the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. "[The study's] interpretations are mainly based on modern-day usages and it's unclear for some species how extensively utilized they are even today."

Piperno also cautions drawing direct conclusions from the tree data. She points to the fact that some scientists once thought that the Mayan civilization in Central America heavily cultivated the breadnut tree based on the larger-than-expected numbers of them often found around Mayan ruins. However, later research found that breadnut tree seeds can actually be spread widely by bats, and that the trees may have started growing around the ruins to take advantage of the limestone they provided to the nearby soil.

For future research, Piperno hopes to see more work done finding and analyzing the remains of plants from prehistoric eras, such as charcoal and mineralized phytoliths and charcoal. "These are the proxies that need to be relied on," Piperno says.

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