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Scientists make first-time discovery after assessing nearly 5,000 plant species: 'The number came as a shock'

"The actual situation may be even more alarming."

"The actual situation may be even more alarming."

Photo Credit: iStock

A new study by Brazilian researchers found that the majority of the trees endemic to the country's Atlantic Forest biome are threatened with extinction.

What happened?

Researchers in Brazil assessed 4,950 tree species in the country's Atlantic Rainforest biome. Of the 2,000 tree species endemic (found nowhere else in the world) to the area, 82% are threatened with extinction to some degree. 

"The number came as a shock," Renato Lima, corresponding author of the article, said, per Phys.org. "We took forest availability into account for each species, whether or not it was healthy forest, for example. Not all species are able to survive in degraded fragments, so the actual situation may be even more alarming."

When taking all trees into account — whether endemic to the biome or not — 65% were found to be endangered. 

The scientists measured the degree of threat by using criteria from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which drastically increased the number of threatened species.

Why is the study concerning?

The study painted a dire picture for the biome's trees. Among the threatened species, 75% were classified as endangered. 

Others, such as the emblematic brazilwood, were considered critically endangered — this particular species experienced an estimated 84% decline in population size over the last three generations. Thirteen endemic species were also found to possibly be extinct.

Plus, some species that were common in the past, such as Paraná pine (often used for furniture and flooring) and yerba mate (used for producing tea) have lost at least half their populations.

The Atlantic Forest runs along the eastern coast of Brazil and into Argentina and Paraguay. Only about 12% of the original forest is still intact in Brazil.

The forest encompasses a region that is home to around 150 million people who depend on it for important natural resources such as clean air and drinking water. 

Forests also help to regulate global temperatures — protecting us from a climate catastrophe — as trees store carbon.

Plus, the Atlantic Forest biome provides habitat to an array of animal life — just since 1990, scientists have discovered more than 30 mammal species, nine bird species, and about 100 frog species there, according to the World Wildlife Fund. 

However, it's not the only forest at risk. Scientists recently warned that the Amazon Rainforest ecosystem is on the verge of collapse, with 10% of the forest vulnerable to transitioning into a degraded state or grasslands.

Elsewhere, the clearing of agricultural land for palm oil threatens forests across Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  

What's being done about deforestation?

First, there's some good news in the Atlantic Forest. The study's authors may have rediscovered five species that had been considered extinct in the wild. They say that the new information can help drive conservation and reforestation policies.

Certain forest protection strategies have already proved effective. For instance, Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva enacted policies during his first two terms in the early 2000s that led to a 75% decrease in deforestation in the Amazon. Now, during his third term, he has slowed deforestation by more than 60% in a month. One of his tactics is using raids that aim to flush out ranchers and loggers who are illegally clearing the forest.

You can help support forests across the world from your home or office. Ecosia is a search engine that plants trees when you hit "search." The organization has already put 203 million trees in the ground in at least 35 countries. It takes about 45 searches for Ecosia to plant a tree.

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