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Plants

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.

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.

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.

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. Fitoterapia73, 69-91.
  6. Santos, M. R. A. et al. (2014). Medicinal plants used in Rondônia, Western Amazon, Brazil. Revista Brasileira de Plantas Medicinais16(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/

Trees

Trees (and other plants) form the base of the Amazon rainforest ecosystem by providing biomass that can be consumed by other organisms and complex multi-dimensional habitat that can be exploited by other organisms. The vertical structure of the rainforest consists of the ground layer, shrub layer, understory, canopy and overstory, oftentimes extending 40m (130 ft) or higher [1]. In undisturbed areas, leaves densely pack the canopy, allowing little sunlight to reach the forest floor. Within a single hectare of rainforest in Manu, Peru, more than 220 species of trees may be present, whereas in Europe and North America, a hectare of temperate woodland there may only be 20 species of trees present [2]. Though the Amazon rainforest contains roughly 16,000 tree species, it is generally dominated by far fewer species.

The Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa) is a dominant species found throughout the Amazon rainforest lowlands. These trees grow to the top of the canopy layer, sometimes growing nearly 50m (160ft) tall [3]. The Brazil nut tree flowers and produces nuts contained within a solid pod that only a small mammal, the agouti, is able to open. The nuts are commercially harvested, supporting a lucrative industry. The Brazil nut tree illustrates the connectedness of organisms in the Amazon – it depends on bees for pollination (which depend on orchids) and the agouti for seed dispersal. Losing a single species in the Amazon could have reverberating effects throughout the entire ecosystem.

The roughly 390 billion trees in the Amazon photosynthesize using water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2) in the presence of sunlight to maintain and increase biomass. The resulting carbon compounds are then stored in their leaves, trunks, roots, and soil in the form of dead and decomposing material. The trees in the Amazon sequester or store 25% of the total CO2 stored in the terrestrial environment [4]. Per a recent study, however, it appears that the carbon storage in the Amazon has declined by 30% since the 1990’s due to higher tree mortality [5].

Photo by Artist for the Amazon Adrian Tejedor.

Looking forward, rising temperatures due to climate change could cause moisture levels in the Amazon to decline, increasing the prevalence of drought and forest fires, ultimately leading to dieback on a massive scale. To prevent such an ecological catastrophe, actions need to be taken to limit further deforestation and habitat degradation, and measures to mitigate the impacts of climate change need to be delineated and enforced.

The biggest tree of the Amazon rainforest is the Kapok Tree. It can grow to 200 feet tall and the trunk can be 10 or 11 feet in diameter.

There are more trees in the Amazon than stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

References
  1.    http://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/rainforest_ecology.html
  2.     World Wildlife Fund. (2010). Amazon Alive: A Decade of Discovery 1999-2009.
  3.    http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/kids/species-profiles/brazil-nut-tree
  4.     Pan, Y. et al. (2011). A large and persistent carbon sink in the world’s forests. Science333 (6045), 988-993.
  5.     Brienen, R. J. W. et al. (2015). Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink. Nature, 519, 344-348.

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