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Land and Resources, Plant and Animal Life

Peccaries, border of Bolivia, agricultural pollution, ocelots, tapirs

The plant life of Brazil depends on climate, elevation, and soil conditions. A broad distinction can be made between the forests and grasslands, but considerable variety exists within these areas. The Amazon rain forest is one of the world’s largest woodland areas, covering 40 percent of the country. It has luxuriant vegetation, with tall trees and several lower layers of vegetation that include woody vines and unusual varieties of plants that do not root in the soil, but grow by attaching themselves to other plants. The east coast and the uplands in the Southeast also had a tropical forest cover, although less dense and diverse than the Amazon region; however, much of this has been cleared since 1500. In the South, the Araucaria pine forest grows under subtropical conditions.

In central Brazil the rain forest gradually gives way in the south to the cerrado, an area of more open vegetation that trends from woodland to a mix of trees, shrubs and grass, and open grassland. In the semiarid Northeast vegetation is adapted to the low rainfall. It consists of low scrub, called caatinga. The trees lose their leaves in the dry season, and cacti and other plants that can survive very dry conditions are common.

The South contains open grassland known as the campos. Other small grassland areas occur in the northern Amazon region and in the mountains. The Pantanal near the border of Bolivia and Paraguay has distinct vegetation of trees, shrubs, and grasses that have adapted to the conditions of seasonal flooding. Along the coast several vegetation types exist, including salt marshes, mangrove swamps, and sand dunes.

The rich wildlife reflects the variety of natural habitats. Of an estimated 750 species of mammals in South America, 394 are found in Brazil. Larger mammals include pumas, jaguars, ocelots, rare bush dogs, and foxes. Peccaries, tapirs, anteaters, sloths, opossums, and armadillos are abundant. Deer are plentiful in the south, and monkeys of many species abound in the rain forests. The country has one of the world’s most diverse populations of birds and amphibians, with 1,635 species of birds and 502 species of amphibians. There is a great variety of reptiles, including lizards, snakes, turtles, and alligators. There are estimated to be more than 1,500 species of freshwater fish in Brazil, of which more than 1,000 are found in the Amazon Basin. The number of invertebrates is enormous, calculated at more than 100,000 species, of which 70,000 are insects. However, these figures are probably underestimates, because scientific exploration is far from complete.

Despite its abundance, Brazil’s animal and plant life are threatened by human activity. Removal of the vegetation cover has been a continual process since the Europeans arrived; people have cut and burned the land to clear it for farming and settlement. Concern about this process intensified as people, settlements, and industry moved into the Amazon rain forest in the 1970s. Clearing land for agriculture and felling trees for timber have reduced the habitats of wildlife. Some species are also threatened with extinction by sport and subsistence hunting and by industrial and agricultural pollution. By the 1990s hundreds of species were thought to be at risk, including the jaguar, several species of monkey, and Pantanal deer. Numerous birds, reptiles, and insects are also threatened.

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