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New guidebook for Brazilian biodiversity hotspot

D. Zappi & W. Milliken
12 February 2014
Blog team: 
Daniela Zappi and William Milliken describe Kew's latest contribution to our knowledge of the Brazilian flora.

The book

January 2014 heralded the publication of Kew’s latest contribution to our knowledge of the Brazilian flora: a full-colour manual to the plants of the Northwest sector of the Serra do Cipó. The product of a four-year collaborative project with the University of São Paulo and a number of other Brazilian botanical institutions, this stunning 312-page Portuguese-language production features illustrated descriptions of all the principal vegetation types in the region, and portraits of over 1,000 species, a great many of which have never been photographed before.


Cover page spread showing Encholirium agavoides, a new species of Bromeliaceae discovered by the project.

The book, designed to be accessible and informative for specialists, lay readers and ecotourists alike, includes vegetation maps, comprehensive indices, and useful information regarding each of the species featured, such as altitudinal range, flower colours, and type of leaves, to assist the reader to correctly identify the plants.

The project

This field guide is one of the principal products of Kew’s Toucan Cipó Project which, over a period of three years, conducted several plant-collecting expeditions to the northwest of the Serra do Cipó. The project, supported by a generous donation from the Rufford Foundation, aimed to support conservation planning in an area of great importance for its botanical diversity, while adding to our scientific knowledge of the Brazilian flora and communicating this to a wide range of stakeholders.

In addition to the immediate project area, the guide can be used to understand the habitats and plants from two important protected areas that lie further to the southeast: the Parque Nacional da Serra do Cipó and the Parque Estadual da Serra do Intendente.

Species portraits: over 1,000 species are illustrated in the book.

The region and its flora

The highland locality of Brazil known as Serra do Cipó has all the necessary elements of a dreamland. Its remarkable landscapes and unpolluted rivers and waterfalls support well over 1,200 different species of plants (roughly equivalent to the whole flora of Britain!). Campo rupestre vegetation - natural rocky fields where grasses and sedges share their space with everlasting flowers (Eriocaulaceae) and extraordinary daisies - occupies the higher points of the ranges, reaching 1,400m above sea level.

Typical view of Campo rupestre vegetation

Rugged rock outcrops are bordered by orchids, cacti and many flowering shrubs, among which the most iconic are the canelas-de-ema belonging to the family Velloziaceae. Meanwhile the lowland is home to lush woods carpeted by ferns bordering the river Cipó, and broad expanses of tree savanna (known locally as Cerrado). The word cipó means 'liana', and gives the name to the local river either because it is an old river that meanders in the plain resembling a liana when seen from above, or because of the abundance of lianas growing in the woods found along the river margin.

Barbacenia plantaginea, one of the many beautiful species of Velloziaceae found in the region.

The sheer diversity is difficult to grasp at first, but staff involved in this project systematically collected and photographed all the plants encountered during three years of fieldwork covering the rainy and the dry seasons. A surprising number of new species (over 15) were found, and others that were thought to be lost or extinct were rediscovered by the project.

Fieldwork in the Serra do Cipó

Preparing the guide

The extraordinary biodiversity of the region provided the main challenge in compiling this work. To guarantee the accurate identification of the plants featured in the photographs, herbarium specimens for all the species were prepared, identified by specialists and carefully cross-referenced with the images. Systematic photography of plant specimens in the field is relatively new to Kew’s work, and has been greatly facilitated by digital cameras. Over 12,000 photos were taken in the course of our fieldwork, each of which had to be databased and checked.

Langsdorffia hypogaea, named for the 19th Century botanical explorer Langsdorff (and one of the weirdest plants encountered during the project).

In the course of this process we occasionally found differences, obvious in life but less so in the dried herbarium specimens, which led us to take a closer look at, and in some cases re-identify the species concerned.It is interesting to compare our work methods in the digital era with the plant collections made by earlier botanists such as Riedel and von Martius, who travelled in that region of Brazil and discovered and described a large part of the local flora.

While their challenges were primarily linked to transport, survival in remote regions, language difficulties and losses of shipments, our recently-gained ability to record plant data in a much more precise manner (including GPS coordinates, images, databases etc.) creates a proportionally much larger volume of information. The old botanists had a collecting book and perhaps a travel diary, while we are now laptop-dependent expeditioners. But when faced with these amazing plants, we get every bit as excited as they did 200 years ago.

- Daniela Zappi and William Milliken -


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