The Brazilian Atlantic Coastal Forest.

Month: February 2020

February 25 2020 – Research projects

Emma, Darcey, Alex and Allen

We woke up this morning to a clear sky and bright sunshine. After a delicious breakfast of freshly cut mangos, bananas and coffee, the class met to discuss our plans for the day. Drs. Lougheed and Carvalho told us to observe the environment around us and conduct preliminary studies to develop research questions, hypotheses and study designs. After our professors left for town to work and buy groceries, each group split up and went along the local trails and road to come up with studies.

My group, which includes Emma, Darcey, Alex and I (Allen), is interested in the micro-environments found in certain bromeliad species which hold water. As road development is a well known source of disturbance to forest habitats in the forms of fragmentation, soil disruption, canopy disruption, exposure and traffic, we want to test if there is a significant difference in the water quality of roadside bromeliads compared to those located deeper in the forest. We hiked down the Osvaldo Cruz road at 10:45 AM from the field station to gain some background knowledge on our planned study. After several minutes of fruitless walking without a single bromeliad, they began appearing in the more shaded areas of the roads. In total, we found 11 of the type of bromeliads we wanted (a variety with bright red leaves in the center that we’ve yet to identify) on 10 trees after close to 2 km of hiking.

After everyone returned from our morning explorations, had lunch and rested, our guide, Will, took us on a 2 and a half hour long, 4.8 km hike to two waterfalls on the Paraibuna River. We reached the first waterfall, Cachoeira do Salto Grande (Big Jump Waterfall), at 2:45 PM, a beautiful, perilous promenade of bare rock constantly splashed by the spray. Several of us slipped into the water with a guide rope on the safer side of the rocks for a quick swim. We reached the second waterfall, Cachoeira do Saltinho, a gentler set of drops upriver approximately an hour later. After another swim and photo session, our guide told us that our professors had returned, and we hurried back to the field station.

We recovered from our hike after showering, naps and dinner, and met to review each others’ studies at 7 PM. Each group pitched their ideas and proposed studies to the rest of the class and received feedback and criticism. A heavy thunderstorm began during our meeting, setting a dramatic atmosphere to our debate. After two hours of intensive discussion, we ended the day with new, eager plans for tomorrow.

February 24 2020 – Power of place and designing research projects

Sierra, Cheyenne, Sean, & Maleeka

Today was a bit of a quieter day. We started with a morning of a few student seminars about diversity hotspots and agriculture. This sparked discussion about the influence of foreign authorities on industrial agriculture and the high diversity among microclimates in Brazil. As the morning progressed, the sun broke through the clouds. We finally were able to dry our clothes and after a string of rainy days that left the air heavy with moisture, (a characteristic of the Coastal Atlantic Forest).
Today we photographed a horn leafed frog, and tree frogs Scinax rizibilis and Dendropsophus microps, larger and smaller respectively. While on a walk along the nearby river Arjun, Emma, Allen and Amelie were lucky enough to spot a lizard (Portugese: teiu) Salvator meriannae, and snap a photo before it dashed off. We then picked seminars back up with the topics of carbon credit and green emission, as well as biodiversity and climate change. This prompted a discussion of the ‘nowhere to go hypothesis’ in which animals that are already restricted to specific climate regimes localized on mountains, arctic environments or other ‘islands of occurrence’, so to speak, will be in serious trouble as their ranges will be unable to track their climate envelope if it disappears from the Earth altogether.

With the nice weather, some took the opportunity to soak up the sun in hopes to return to Canada with some colour. We spent some time catching up on work and hanging out, enjoying the rest and relaxation in contrast to the busy days we’d had before. We then broke into research groups and discussed our research questions, hypothesis testing, directional predictions, and pseudo replication. Several students went with Steve down the mountain to use the internet, checking on application statuses and interview appointments, and also helping get groceries. After this, we enjoyed dinner with a traditional Brazilian dessert made with corn and sweet condensed milk.

In the evening, we heard student seminars on ‘ecotourism’ of Brazil and Canada, ‘feeding the world: crops’, and ‘CITES’. We discussed whether or not ecotourism is really benefiting the locals of a community, as well as the positives and negatives it brings economically, socio-culturally, and environmentally. We revisited industrial agriculture and were quite surprised by new vs. old world crop origins, such as the Irish staple of potatoes being new world. Our last discussion of the night brought forward the concern of countries not properly following the appendices of CITES allowing flora and fauna to be exchanged illegally. A storm rolled in, filling the sky with gorgeous streaks of lighting which we watched from a safe distance before calling it a night.

See you back in Canada soon!

23 February 2020 – Exploring Nucleo Santa Virginia & environs

Hayden, Amelie, Arjun & Kristen

We had another later start this morning with breakfast being served at 8am. Our day was overcast with light rain for most of the day (surprise surprise). Undeterred by the lackluster weather, we met our guide for the day, Cristiano, at 9:30am. Cristiano guided us on a walk through the Santa Virgina forest. We learned about the Mamaca da Serra tree that produced beautiful white and purple flowers. This is a fairly common species in the area and is an example of a pioneer plant in the region’s successional forest. Most of the forest around the station is considered secondary (i.e. regrowth after disturbance). Christiano also pointed out that there were galls on the leaves of the Mamaca da Serra tree. This is an immune response that the tree produces when certain insects deposit eggs on the leaves.

Cristiano led us down to the Paraguana River, which runs by the back of the field station. This river is the main source of water for Rio de Janeiro state. Interestingly, this river has no significant sources of pollution and is the cleanest in the state. Near the river was an example of the Jaborandi plant, which is often used by local community members to treat kidney stones (& also bad hair via jaborandi-infused shampoo) when the leaves are boiled as a tea. As we continued our walk through the secondary forest, the canopy began to close in, leaf litter thickened along the path, and there were more epiphytes and vines hanging from the trees. In this more mature forest, we found a number of small (~1 cm in length) pumpkin toadlets. They were bright orange and found among the leaf litter on either side of the trail. We also found a juvenile venomous pit viper, which we made sure to treat with due respect.

We spent the afternoon around the field station at Santa Virgina catching up on sleep and assignments while doing some casual birding. Parakeets and rufous collard sparrows were among the most common species sighted. Hayden and Riley presented their respective seminars on coevolution and latitudinal gradients. Amelie also presented her species account on the Proceratophrys appendiculata (horn-leafed frog) which was found on yesterday’s night hike. To celebrate the end of the day and the end of our first full week in Brazil, we had a barbeque with a variety of local vegetables and meats. What a great way to cap off a lovely and fascinating day!

February 22 2020 – Stoking the competitive fire, new species, and student seminars

Group 5. Kayleigh, Emily, Riley and Ani

Birdathon – On your marks, get set, bird! This morning started off with a bang as we competed in our first (but hopefully not the last) birdathon of the trip. For those who aren’t aware, a birdathon is when individuals (or teams) try to find and identify the most bird species they can in a given time period. We only had one hour to identify species among our five groups, and the group who had correctly identified the most birds would receive a prize. After all was said and done, the five groups identified a total of 42 species. The winner of the birdathon was a group who identified 14 species, and they won a box of chocolates!

Pumpkin Toadlet – During our birdathon today, Dr. Clemente-Caralho found a pair of red pumpkin toadlets (Brachycephalus pitanga). These tiny, bright orange amphibians grow to 10-12 mm in length and have red spots on their backs. Interestingly, they are micro-endemic to this park, meaning they are only found here in Serra Do Mar in Brazil! These tiny toadlets live in the leaf litter on Atlantic coastal forest floors, and do not seem to have many natural predators (likely due to the fact that they are poisonous and have warning colouration). Unfortunately, not much is known about their life histories, population size, or distribution, as they are understudied and difficult to find. Thankfully, we had a complete camera team available at the drop of a hat to capture such an exciting event.

Species accounts and seminars – Today was a pretty rainy day in Brazil. To give our hiking boots a chance to dry, we listened to some species account and various seminar topics. The species accounts we heard focused on the black-footed piping guam (Pipile jacutinga) and the red pumpkin toadlets (B. pitanga). In today’s seminars, we heard from a number of students who covered topics such as birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, DNA barcoding, intermediate disturbance hypothesis, intertidal zones, mangroves, and epiphytes. Night walk After finishing up our seminars for the night, some of the group joined Dr. Lougheed and Dr. Clemente-Caralho for a night walk on the trail around the station. We suited up in our rain gear and headlamps to brave the night and check out the herpetofauna. We were able to catch 4 different species of amphibian and one snake (a pit viper Bothrops jararaca).

A great way to end off the day!

February 21 2020 – Intertidal zones

Today, we headed back to the Parque Estadual da Serra do Mar in Picinguaba. Our first lesson? Field work goes on rain or shine.

The purpose of this trip was to further expand our knowledge about intertidal zones and to explore the Atlantic Rainforest that follows the coastline. We arrived slightly soggy, but ready for an adventure. We were led by Cristo, a local guide who presented traditional ecological knowledge passed down through familial generations in combination with scientific knowledge. We were also accompanied by Lao and Francisco, our guides who have been with us throughout the week. After arriving at the station, around 9 AM, we headed to the beach for a nice walk in gentle rain in the direction of an area where the intertidal zones are clearly visible. On the way to this area, we identified sand dollars, crab carcasses, jellyfish, a lively blue crab and even found a stingray egg case! Occasionally during the walk, we stopped to enjoy the local birdlife that feeds and nests near the Brazilian Coast. We spotted several species of tanagers, as well as frigate birds soaring overhead in the wind, and sandpipers scavenging the shore. After witnessing the tanagers flittering through the trees, Emily Landon had the opportunity to give her assigned species account for the green headed tanager (Tangara seledon). She educated her fellow students on natural history traits of the bird, as well as phylogenetic relationships and their conservation status.

Once we reached the intertidal zone, Cristo demonstrated his Traditional Ecological Knowledge on the species found in the intertidal zones and the information that has been passed down from his father. He managed to detach a small mussel that was latched onto one of the granite rocks of the infralittoral zone (the top zone). He explained how these creatures are able to survive ~6 hours without water, which is one of the reasons they are able to survive on the top zone in this type of habitat. He handed the mussels to the students and allowed us to look at it in more detail. Other organisms that were found around the rocks were snails, barnacles, crabs, and insects. We were allowed to explore the rocks for around an hour and then climbed a series of rocks and headed into the forest. Several stops were made along the way when Cristo identified plant species that are used for traditional medicine. For example, the black coconut tree (Pulmeria brejauva), is a large tree that is easily identified by the large black spines along the trunk and the small coconuts it produces. The medicinal uses of this tree include the leaves, which are used for acupuncture, and the coconut milk, which is used to treat hepatitis. We also learned a fun fact about how the trunk spikes were used by indigenous people in the past as arrow tips. These individuals would dip these spikes in poison to enhance their effects and ability to take down game. Unfortunately, due to a sudden downpour, our adventure was cut short and we headed back to the visitor’s station of the park to dry off and eat traditional Brazilian food.

After eating and experiencing the unpredictable weather that São Paulo is known for, we headed back to the Nucleo Santa Virginica for some free time! Some of the students took the opportunity to catch up on some schoolwork, but most enjoyed a well-deserved nap. Tonight, we had the first of our seminars that each student had prepared before the course. We were educated on the geology of the Brazilian coast by Emily P., and the phytogeography of the Atlantic coastal forest by Amelie. Tomorrow, students will continue to present their presentations with a focus on the Brazilian coast. These seminars will form the “bedrock” (geology joke!) of our education on the geography, biology, and history of Brazil and the Atlantic Costal Rainforest, which we will use to form our research projects in the coming days.

February 20 2020 – Fazenda da Quilombolo

We left the Nucleo Santa Virginia field station at 7:40 to sunny, hot weather, and arrived at the visitor centre of the Quilombo community known as the Casa da Farinha (House of Flour) located approximately 5 km north of Picinguaba. One of several communities of Quilombolo in the State of Sao Paulo, the Casa da Farinha is named for its production of cassava flour and consists of 53 families – approximately 260 people. There, we met the community elder, Joseph Pedro, father of 11 children, and a community leader and our guide for the day, Feliciano. The Quilombo community was established in 1888, when slavery was abolished in Brazil, by Joseph Pedro’s father and several other former slaves. These slaves were used to farm sugarcane, which was processed into sugar and then cachaça alcohol, which was then transported by ship to Africa (or Europe) to buy more slaves. After slavery was abolished, these slaves were left to fend for themselves and formed tight knit communities, called Quilombo. Pedro told us that this is the essence of the Quilombo – because they have little, they must work together and put the community first.

Nowadays, due to regulations placed upon them by the government limiting their economic activities, Casa da Farinha produces cassava flour to sell, made from manioc roots that they grow in their agroforestry farm. This process is powered by a large watermill, located on the site of the former distillery. The manioc root is first washed in a large tumbler powered by the watermill. This removes the skin. It’s grated to produce a mash, which is then pressed to remove the toxic sap. The toxic sap is used as a natural pesticide, which also serves to dispose of it without polluting the river. Finally, the mash is dried, resulting in a starchy, rich flour. This, along with fish and bananas, are the staple foods of the Quilombo community.

We then embarked on a 1.5 km walk on the Trilha Corisco. This trail links the Quilombolos of Casa da Farinha to the large town of Paraty, approximately 20 km north on the Baia Carioca. It cuts across the valley and the border between the states of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, transecting the Atlantic Coastal Forest and ending at the Estr. Velha do Corisco. We learned about plants such as the inhame – an inedible cousin of the manioc which has heart shaped leaves, and taioba – an edible relative that has split leaves. As the restinga transitioned to hill forest, the soil became thin and poor, called sega pehira. We saw tube roots, known as sapopemba, and learned about the medicinal uses of the nutmeg tree.

Heather, Megan and Emma gave their species accounts today, on Dicksonia sellowiana, Psidium cattleyanum, and Hymenaea courbaril respectively. Dicksonia sellowiana is an endangered slow growing tree fern that is exploited as fertilizer for orchids (another highly endangered and exploited group). P. cattleyanum is an often invasive, fast-growing tree that thrives in poor soils and a wide range of environments. H. courbaril is a nitrogen fixing tree that produces large red pods filled with an edible, musky pulp that is high in protein and starches.

After our hill forest hike, we swam at a waterfall pool for 15 minutes, and enjoyed a lunch cooked for us by community members back at the Casa. We then listened to a talk on the Quilombo community by Joseph Pedro, and then visited the agroforest, where the community grew most of their food. Agroforestry in the Quilombo community began with fields stripped of their nutrients and microbiota by monoculture sugarcane farming and clear burning. The ruined fields were initially treated with green fertilizers and planted with fruit trees (such as banana) for shade and moisture, potato for stabilizing the soil, and herbaceous plants to restore the microbiota of the soil. These plants are not harvested, only used to restore soil quality. Cassava, corn and beans are then planted, in a partnership similar to the three sisters of Canada’s indigenous peoples. The cassava provides structural support for the beans and winter shelter for the corn, while the beans enrich the soil with nitrogen fixation. Two crops of beans and corn are harvested for every cassava harvest. Our trip to the Quilombo community then ended with a traditional song and dance, led by the community’s children (a group called the Jongo no Quilombo da Fazenda).

February 19 2020 – Coastal waters of Picinguaba

Maleeka, Sean, Chey, Sierra

Experiential Learning Where the Land Meets the Sea

Today started early with a quick breakfast and pink sunrise at 5am, before heading down to a beachside marina in downtown Ubatuba. The swell was big in Ubatuba harbor, but our guides managed to shuttle all of us out to large anchored catamaran that was to be our travelling field station for the day. On our sail out of Ubatuba harbor, our guides talked about the infra-, meso-, and supralittoral zones (the zoning above, transitioning in, and below the water in intertidal zones respectively) in reference to the shores we cruised past. We observed mussel farms and learned about the threats of human-caused contaminants like petrol and risks of red tide in the area (due to high productivity). Our guides described the protective effects of the continental shelf reaching 200 miles off the Brazilian coast that buffers any big weather episodes, such as typhoons. As the trip went on, a brown booby (Sula leugastor) flew directly over our boat and our guide described its particularly adept diving abilities. Magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) circled over the harbor, looking for other seabirds from which to steal their catch. Flying fish skipped in near sight.

We spent much of the afternoon at Îsle des Couves (“Collard Green Island”), the beaches of which previously were open to the public but were restricted due to misuse by tourists and multitudinous visitors. The diminished human impact since then, (and since previous centuries of local habitation), have benefited the ecological and community composition of the locality. However, bottom trawlers, such as one we passed, continue to wreak havoc on the ocean floor and threaten the diversity of this archipelago, and are additionally a big source of mortality for sea turtles.

We anchored the catamaran, and while some of our guides prepared a magnificent spread of grilled soy meat, fresh octopus, and fresh fish (gotten from a nearby fishing boat), we explored the rocky bottom between the islands. The shelter from the open ocean gave rise to a magnificent diversity of corals, fish (such as mackerel and sergeant major), and urchins that we observed near the shore with scuba gear and a paddle board. Some of our group were even graced with the sight of a young sea turtle and stingray!

The second island we visited by was Îsle de Prumirin, where we quickly swam a lap between the catamaran and the sand. On the return to Ubatuba harbor, our guides and Rute broke out into song, Demonios da Garoa, a popular traditional Saõ Paulo song playing over the ships radio. It was delightful to see them come together over this cultural touchstone and provide us with a little sample of Brazilian music in the process. A royal tern (Thalasseus maximus) dove and resurfaced periodically in the distance. A little sunburnt and a lot more knowledgable, we returned to Núcleo Santa Virginia where the station cooks prepared soup and pumpkin dessert flavoured with clove.

February 18 2020 – Picinguaba & exploration of Restinga and Mangroves

Hello from a 32°C Brazil from Hayden, Amelie, Arjun, and Kristen!
We left this morning from Nucleo Santa Virginia and travelled an hour and a half along a very, very windy highway to Nucleo Picinguano, Parque Estadual da Serra do Mar. We met Aline, Leo, and Luciano and they gave us an introduction to the park, surrounding area, and the kind of ecotypes we would be seeing on the trip.
After getting dropped off at the trailhead, we ventured into our first habitat: restinga (a lowland forest situated on sand dunes). We learned about how the area (called “borrow land”) had been heavily disturbed by the development of the nearby highway. This part of our walk was dominated by glachina (a type of fern), jaguar’s ears, and pischinca. As we hiked our way into the more dense natural/less disturbed restinga forest, we spotted many jucara palms (Euterpe edulis). Here, Sean gave his species account, in which we learned that the jucara palm is endemic to the Atlantic coastal forest, and endangered due to overharvesting of its apical meristem, also known as “heart of palm”.
 As we approached the coast there was a change in vegetation – dominated by three types of mangrove trees; Red mangrove, Black mangrove and the most common, White mangrove. Our guides (Leo, Cristinao, and Lucioano) then helped us into flat bottom river boats that we paddled through the mangrove habitat. Along the way, we spotted the beautiful roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) that sported a vibrant fuscia under-wing. Great egrets (Ardea alba), snowy egrets (Egretta thula), and cocoi heron (Ardea cocoi) were also noted within the mangrove habitat. We then pulled up to shore at a break in the mangroves and discussed the significance of each of the three mangrove species as well as the ecological and cultural importance of this habitat. These mangroves are important breeding ground for many species of crabs and fish and provide protection for young members of the species. During the last part of our hike we came across ambay pump-wood (Cecropia pachystochyai) and Riley delivered her species account. This species is a pioneer species and one of the first colonizers in disturbed or recovering habitats.
After a lovely but late lunch (around 3pm) at the Picinguaba field station (a mix of potato and cassava fries, local fish if desired, beans, quilombolo salad with banana heart)  we spent an hour on the beach before heading back to Nucleo Santa Virgina for dinner and a debrief of the day.


February 17 2020 – Trip to Nucleo Santa Virginia

By Allen Tian

Our flight ended at 10:15 PM on Monday, February 17th, 2020, at Guarulhos-Sao Paulo International Airport, crossing two time zones and 99 degrees of latitude, and after some of the heaviest turbulence I had ever experienced over the Atlantic Ocean.

Sao Paulo is one of the largest cities in the Americas, with a metropolitan population over 20 million. The capital of Sao Paulo state and situated on the Tropic of Cancer, Sao Paulo is city with the highest cost of living in Brazil, at 102 compared to Prague (the city with the median cost of living in the world). Our transit to Parque Estuadual da Serra do Mar was a 211 km drive, in two 15 person vans and a rented Fiat. A third of the way to our field station, we stopped at the city of Sao Jose dos Campos (population of 500 000), for Brazilian Reals, lunch and sim cards at the Vale Sul Shopping Mall. After a 3 hour stop (due to some difficulties obtaining sim cards), Professors Lougheed and Carvalho left us to get groceries for the next few days, and we departed for Nucleo Santa Virginia at approximately 3 PM with several thousand reals in our pockets.

The trip to Nucleo Santa Virginia was an astonishing transition from Sao Paulo suburbia, farmland, reclaimed farmland, and finally old growth coastal forest. Not only an ecological transition, we went the affluent regions of Sao Paulo to some of the poorest areas of Brazil, where workers can earn under 10 reals a day (approximately $3.5 CAD). The Nucleo Santa Virginia field station was just as Hayden imagined, with high, sloping roofs that have half hollow tubes in the roof in the cabins. The field station is situated 3 km from highway 383, on a rough road reminiscent of QUBS. Nucleo Santa Virginia is one of several conservation zones that stretch from south of Sao Paulo to past Rio de Janeiro in the north, covering over 17 500 hectares in the Vale do Paraiba. This includes the cities of Sao Luiz do Paraitinga, Natividade da Serra, Cunha, Ubatuba and Caraguatatuba. The rugged terrain here is home to fragments of the once mighty Atlantic Coastal Forest, low rising coastal mountains and lots of waterfalls, leading to heavy tourism. This was reflected in the heavy traffic in highway 383 and SP-125, despite their remoteness and distance from Sao Paulo). Interestingly, Brazilian highways have different speed limits for different vehicles. Interestingly, our road had a limit of 110 km/h for light vehicles and 90 km/h for heavy vehicles.

After arriving at the field station at approximately 6:30, we checked in. I conducted a drone flight after obtaining permission from the staff, and we settled in and explored our surroundings until our professors arrived with food after an arduous ride, at approximately 8:30. We then had dinner and ended our day with a debriefing.