Malaria, one of the most lethal diseases in the tropics, can be addressed by no less than 41 different species of plants in the Brazilian Amazon in some capacity.

At least 441 new species of plants and animals have been discovered in the Amazon rainforest in just three years.

Plants of the Amazon

Of the 40,000 plants known to exist in the Amazon, 75% are endemic or only found in the Amazon [1]. These include bromeliads, palms, epiphytes, vines, ferns, lilies, orchids and trees (see Trees). Very diverse assemblages can exist at relatively small scales – for example, 1,000 vascular plant species have been identified within a single hectare in Amazonian Ecuador [2].

Several of these plants species are used for traditional medicinal purposes, and are also the inspiration behind some modern pharmaceuticals. Medicinal plants often serve as the most cost-effective means for addressing a medical problem compared to pharmaceutical solutions. Surveys throughout the Amazon have revealed hundreds of herbal plant remedies used for traditional medicine. Malaria, one of the most lethal diseases in the tropics, can be treated (to varying degrees) with no less than 41 different species of plants in the Brazilian Amazon [3]. And it is possible that quinine, extracted from the cinchona tree, was used by Europeans to treat malaria as early as the 16th century [4].

Examples of medicinal plant species (and their uses) exclusive to the Amazon rainforest [5, 6]:

  •    Baccharis altimontana – leaves are used in a decoction or infusion to treat stomachaches, rheumatism and liver ailments.
  •    Croton cajucara – leaves are used in an infusion to treat headaches, malaria and liver ailments.
  •    Euterpe oleracea – roots are macerated to treat anemia.

Ethnobotanists are currently studying traditional methods of using endemic plants for medical solutions in the Amazon, yet as deforestation continues and traditional indigenous lifestyles are changing, these species and their medicinal properties may be lost to us forever.

Vascular plants in the lowland Amazon are threatened primarily by local deforestation and land-use conversion. Though Amazon rainforests contain an enormous amount of plant diversity, many plant species only exist in a small geographic area, and can therefore be extirpated by small-scale deforestation events. Plants in the Amazonian cloud forests may be safer from deforestation, but are likewise threatened by climate change. As global average temperatures increase, the habitat ranges of plants inhabiting mountain slopes may shift higher in elevation to reach more suitable thermal conditions [7]. However, if the rate of climate change exceeds the rate at which plant species can migrate, or there are other barriers to migration present, local extinction may occur instead. Conservationists are focused on creating migratory corridors to help plant species evade the combined threats of land-use conversion and a warming (and possibly drying) climate in the Amazon.

References:

  1.     World Wildlife Fund. (2010). Amazon Alive: A Decade of Discovery 1999-2009.
  2. Valencia, R. Balslev, H. and Paz y Mino, G. (1994). High tree alpha-diversity in Amazonian Ecuador. Biodiversity and Conservation, 3, 21-28.
  3.     Brandao, M. G. L., et al. (1992). Survey of medicinal plants used as antimalarials in the Amazon. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 36, 175-182.
  4.     https://www.lib.umn.edu/bell/tradeproducts/cinchonabark
  5. Di Stasi, L. C., et al. (2001). Medicinal plants popularly used in the Brazilian Tropical Atlantic Forest. Fitoterapia, 73, 69-91.
  6. Santos, M. R. A. et al. (2014). Medicinal plants used in Rondônia, Western Amazon, Brazil. Revista Brasileira de Plantas Medicinais, 16(3), 707-720.

7. http://news.mongabay.com/2013/09/climate-change-could-kill-off-andean-cloud-forests-home-to-thousands-of-species-found-nowhere-else/

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