In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ecology of the Atlantic Forest

  • Introduction
  • General Overview of Forest Ecology and Forest Extent
  • Historical Background
  • Habitat Types: Present and Future
  • Biodiversity of the Atlantic Forest
  • Biodiversity Data
  • Habitat Transformation
  • Vertebrates and Habitat Transformation
  • Conservation and Policy

Ecology Ecology of the Atlantic Forest
Elise Damstra, Cristina Banks-Leite
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0233


Extending along the southern coast of Brazil, into Argentina and Paraguay, the Atlantic Forest is a domain that once covered 150 Mha and includes many distinct forest subtypes and ecosystems. Its large latitudinal (29˚) and altitudinal (0–2,800 m above sea level) range, as well as complex topography in the region, has created microclimates within forest subtypes, which has led to biodiversity specifically adapted to narrow ecological ranges. The region is incredibly species-rich and is home to charismatic or economically important species such as the black and golden lion tamarin, the red-browned Amazon parrot, and the highly prized palm heart from Euterpe edulis. Through widespread human-driven change dating back to the arrival of European settlers in 1500, this realm has been extensively reduced, fragmented, and modified. Nowadays, this region is home to about 130 million people (60 percent of the Brazilian population) and is responsible for producing 70 percent of Brazil’s GDP, putting a strain on natural resources and providing challenges to conservation. Due to its high levels of endemic species coupled with a high threat of habitat loss and fragmentation, the Atlantic Forest has been identified as a “biodiversity hotspot.” Numerous studies have assessed the effects of habitat transformation on biodiversity and the consensus is that the majority of species are negatively affected. It is puzzling however that few species have actually gone extinct in the wild, even if some extinctions might have gone undetected. Extinctions do not immediately follow habitat change, there is often a time lag of many decades between habitat transformation and extinction. This may suggest that many species in the Atlantic Forest are “living deads,” as despite their presence the available habitat no longer supports their requirements. It also suggests that there is a window of opportunity to restoring the domain to avert extinctions before they are realized. Current research and policy actions are geared toward optimizing restoration and increasing the extent of native forest cover, bringing hope to the conservation of this unique domain.

General Overview of Forest Ecology and Forest Extent

Several good sources give detailed overviews of the forest ecology. Galindo-Leal and Câmara 2003 is a good general introduction to the history, biodiversity, and human impacts in the region as well as conservation management strategies; however, certain aspects of this text pertaining to current trends and conservation management are likely outdated. Metzger and Sodhi 2009, a special issue in Biological Conservation, focuses on conservation issues in the Atlantic Forest. Joly, et al. 2014 provides a comprehensive review of the history of disturbance, the ecology, the ongoing effects of fragmentation, and how climate change is impacting and will impact the Atlantic Forest. Rates of land use change in the Atlantic Forest tend to be monitored on a country-by-country basis, with remote sensing efforts in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay revealing different levels of deforestation, as seen in Azevedo, et al. 2018; Izquierdo, et al. 2008; and Huang, et al. 2009, respectively. In Brazil, low levels of deforestation are mostly matched by reforestation, which means that the amount of forest cover has either been stable or slowly increased in the past decades. The amount of remaining forest cover in Brazil has been measured by several groups and has been repeatedly updated since the 2000s as high-resolution satellite imagery becomes available. Galindo-Leal and Câmara 2003 reported that about 7–8 percent of Atlantic Forest still remained. Ribeiro, et al. 2009 calculated the existence of 11–16 percent of native vegetation, but when secondary forest fragments are excluded, the estimated remaining forest would stand at around 8 percent. More recently, using RapidEye imagery with 5 m of resolution, the authors of Rezende, et al. 2018 have shown that there is actually 26 percent of native vegetation. Because each group used different methods to assess the extent of forest cover, these estimates cannot be compared, and do not indicate that the amount of forest has increased over time.

  • Azevedo, T., C. M. Souza, J. Shimbo, and A. Alencar. 2018. MapBiomas initiative: Mapping annual land cover and land use changes in Brazil from 1985 to 2017. American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2018, abstract #B22A-04, 10–14 December 2018, Washington D.C.

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    MapBiomas is an excellent interactive tool to visualize high-resolution land use change in Brazil as well as a reliable source of free geographical data to use in research.

  • Galindo-Leal, C. G., and I. G. Câmara, eds. 2003. The Atlantic Forest of South America: Biodiversity status, threats, and outlook. Vol. 1. Washington, DC: Island Press.

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    This book provides an excellent initial overview of the history and threats to the Atlantic Forest, divided into sections by country.

  • Huang, C., S. Kim, K. Song, et al. 2009. Assessment of Paraguay’s forest cover change using Landsat observations. Global and Planetary Change 67.1–2: 1–12.

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    This analysis of Paraguay’s forest cover shows that most forests outside of protected areas were lost by the 2000s, demonstrating the importance of protected areas.

  • Izquierdo, A. E., C. D. De Angelo, and T. M. Aide. 2008. Thirty years of human demography and land-use change in the Atlantic Forest of Misiones, Argentina: An evaluation of the forest transition model. Ecology and Society 13.2: 3.

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    This paper examines changes in forest cover in Misiones, showing that there has been increased planting of pine and eucalyptus monocultures associated with a loss in natural forest.

  • Joly, C. A., J. P. Metzger, and M. Tabarelli. 2014. Experiences from the Brazilian Atlantic Forest: Ecological findings and conservation initiatives. New Phytologist 204.3: 459–473.

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    This article provides a good discussion, with the use of conceptual models, of how large-scale landscape ecological processes can help maintain biota, as well as providing a research agenda that would conserve biodiversity of tropical forests.

  • Metzger, J. P., and N. Sodhi, eds. 2009. Special issue: Conservation issues in the Atlantic Forest. Biological Conservation 142.6: 1137–1252.

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    This special issue of Biological Conservation contains some key articles on the Atlantic Forest including the highly impactful paper Ribeiro, et al. 2009 on how much of the Atlantic Forest remains and the distribution of the remnants.

  • Rezende, C. L., F. R. Scarano, E. D. Assad, et al. 2018. From hotspot to hopespot: An opportunity for the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation 16.4: 208–214.

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    This study presents high-resolution (5-m) remote sensing data of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest to reveal that there are in fact 32 Mha of forest within the domain, which corresponds to 28 percent of the original extent (2 percent of the area is planted forest).

  • Ribeiro, M. C., J. P. Metzger, A. C. Martensen, F. J. Ponzoni, and M. M. Hirota. 2009. The Brazilian Atlantic Forest: How much is left, and how is the remaining forest distributed? Implications for conservation. Biological Conservation 142.6: 1141–1153.

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    This article provides a highly detailed analysis of how much forest cover remains in the Atlantic Forest by taking into account even quite small patches of forest. It discusses how the majority of the remaining patches are small, isolated, and composed of secondary vegetation, and it proposes four main strategies for protecting and restoring the Atlantic Forest.

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