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Hotspot: Brazil On Assignment

Hotspot: Brazil On Assignment

Hotspot: Brazil
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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Ann Williams

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Threadbare Shawl of Green

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By Virginia MorrellPhotographs by Mark W. Moffett

The once vast Atlantic forest of Brazil survives only as a scattering of green islands in a sea of human sprawl. Now scientists have plans to save its remnants from the rising tide of development.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

"It's always like this," says Adriano Chiarello. "You know they're here, but you can't see them." The Brazilian conservation biologist bends his neck backward like a yoga master to peer at a tree's uppermost branches a hundred feet (30 meters) above us. Somewhere in the leafy canopy, a female maned sloth and her eight-month-old infant are hidden from view. A steadily beeping radio signal from the mother's collar has brought Chiarello to the base of the tree, but even technology has its limits. The biologist must now spot the pair the old-fashioned way: with his eyes alone.

"If they don't move, we may never see them," Chiarello sighs. "And you know, they really are sloths. They spend hours sitting, sleeping, never moving. That's what they do 80 to 90 percent of the day: nothing."
He wipes his eyes, shakes his head, then returns to his craning yoga pose. "Wait. . . . Maybe my insult has worked. Look there—right over your head. She's braced against a branch."
I follow Chiarello's pointed finger and spy the mother's dark brown face among the leaves. She buries her face under her arm and looks instantly like a large, furred coconut or bees' nest.
"Do you see that? How she can vanish?" Chiarello asks. "For their size, they are so well camouflaged. And . . . wow! Now she's moving!" 

For Chiarello, such a sloth-on-the-move sighting is a peak experience, the ultimate biological moment that holds the promise of new insights.
The baby sloth, looking like a Teletubby wearing a curly lambskin coat, emerges from its mother's arms. It climbs over her and then playfully—lazily—slaps at its mother's face. The mother does nothing in return. "They never respond to their babies," whispers Chiarello, adding that mother sloths neither play nor get angry with their offspring. Instead, with all the speed of a desert tortoise, the mother reaches an arm out to a nearby branch and nibbles the leaves.
Chiarello's graduate students—at the Catholic University of Minas Gerais, where he's a professor—busily take notes. We all stretch our necks, craning this way and that, to keep the sloths in view as the pair move like sleepwalking high-wire artists along the branches to the freshest leaves. Astonishingly, given the mother's 15-pound (7-kilogram) build, she and her baby hang from the pencil-thin twigs like strange, half-animated fruits.
Chiarello's "main actress," as he fondly refers to the mother sloth, is the star in his study, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, of the endangered mammals of the São Lourenço Municipal Park, a small fragment of Brazil's Atlantic forest, or Mata
Atlântica as the Brazilians call it. Like many mammals here, the maned sloth has lost huge tracts of its original habitat since the first Portuguese mariners stepped ashore in April 1500.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Sights & Sounds
Join photographer Mark Moffett for an introduction to the rare and unique animals that live in Brazil's Atlantic forest: sloths, porcupines, dancing frogs and the largest New World monkeys.

Send a friend an e-greeting showing one of the Atlantic forest's strangest inhabitants, the thin-spined porcupine.

Flashback to 1931 when a woman in Brazil posed with an anaconda snakeskin "skirt" 16 feet (five meters) long.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Snakes that bring death can also help sustain life. Wielding a venom that immobilizes its victims, the Brazilian lancehead viper Bothrops jararaca inflicts 90 percent of all snakebites to humans in the populous southeastern part of Brazil. Studies of the venom's components led to the development of widely prescribed drugs to treat hypertension in humans. Although this snake thrives throughout the Atlantic forest, other species with potentially valuable secrets are vulnerable—and could even die out before scientists identify them.
—Ann Williams
Did You Know?

Related Links
Conservation International Biodiversity Hotspots
Visit the Earth's 25-richest and most-endangered reservoirs of plant and animal life. Each hotspot has its own website highlighting endemic species, threats to biodiversity, and conservation measures.

Atlantic Coastal Forest Project
This New York Botanical Garden website includes a checklist of plants as well as a bibliography and links to other Atlantic forest sites.
Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Project
Learn about the four species of endangered lion tamarins and find out how you can contribute to conservation efforts at this website.
Global Trees Campaign
This campaign draws attention to threatened trees as flagship species for conservation of ecosystems. The focus in Brazil is the Caesalpinia echinata, the brazilwood tree. Source of the country's name, it was originally harvested for timber and dye and is now used to make violin bows.


Bright, Chris, and Ashley Mattoon. "The Restoration of a Hotspot Begins." World Watch (November/December 1991).  

Dean, Warren. With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. University of California Press, 1995.

Galindo-Leal, Carlos, and Ibsen de Gusmão Câmara, eds. The Atlantic Forest of South America: Biodiversity Status, Threats, and Outlook. Island Press, 2003.
Hunter, M. L. Maintaining Biodiversity in Forest Ecosystems. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Strier, Karen B. Faces in the Forest: The Endangered Muriqui Monkeys of Brazil. Harvard University Press, 1999.


NGS Resources
Thompson, Gare. Up the Amazon. National Geographic Books, 2002.
Coelho, Paulo. "Rio de Janeiro." National Geographic Traveler (October 1999), 34-36.
White, Mel. "Expedition: Amazon." National Geographic Traveler (November/December 1993), 90-107.
Vesilind, Priit J. "Brazil: Moment of Promise and Pain." National Geographic (March 1987), 348-85.


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