Science puts on a spurt to catalogue the Amazon biodiversity

Researchers estimate that 80% of the planet's species have not yet been discovered. Brazilians develop methods and combine technologies such as A.I., e-DNA, bioacoustics and drones to speed up the recognition of forest life, something vital to preservation

O Liberal

Translated by Silvia Benchimol and Ewerton Branco (UFPA/ET-Multi)



Science estimates that 86% of living species on land and in continental waters have never been catalogued. And this rate can reach 89%, if we talk about marine species, among the 8.7 million different beings inhabiting the Earth, according to figures of the Marine Life Census provided from researchers. Faced with the risk of  forest disappearance and the consequences of climate change, such as droughts and other environmental disasters caused by human action, scientists are in a race to encapsulate in space and time whatever life exists around human beings. To find out what sort of life there is inside forests, scientists have developed techniques, methodologies and new technologies, increasingly digital ones, to enhance data about known living beings on the planet. The difficult and traditional fieldwork in Biology has been bolstered by with scientific innovations, such as e-DNA (or environmental DNA), robotics, remote sensing (with drones) and bioacoustics. The goal is to optimize time and reduce costs in research work, further valuing qualified professionals for species mapping.

Cataloging a species of plant or animal requires a lot of study, training and even keen ears and eyes. The work can range from walking with a magnifying glass in hand, in the most distant part of a forest, to the delicate storage of a plant specimen in a laboratory. Around 90 scientists, from different research institutions in Brazil, came together to form a team and participate in a competition that challenges them to develop ways of cataloging flora and fauna biodiversity in the shortest possible time, with the greatest scientific rigorousness and lower operating costs.

The Brazilian Team Forest congregate biologists, citizen scientists, communication professionals, ecologists, economists, engineers, environmental managers, computer scientists and mathematicians from Brazil (and some from other countries) to participate in the XPRIZE Rainforest, a five-year competition that encourages scientists from the around the world to improve global understanding of the tropical forest ecosystem. This year, the Brazilian group was announced as one of the six finalists (the only one from the Southern Hemisphere). The final decision will be in June 2024, in the Brazilian Amazon.

Brazilian Team_Forest in the XPrize competition. CREDITS: Paulo Molin


Pedro Hartung, director of Policies and Rights at the Alana Institute, XPRIZE supporter, explains that the objective of the award is “to stimulate discoveries about what is there inside the forest, since, unfortunately, the world is experiencing, in addition to a climate crisis, a biodiversity loss crisis”. Hartung points out that this occurs especially in tropical forests, such as the Amazon, which are the most diverse ecosystems in the world. “These discoveries are important even for the bioeconomy, so discussed nowadays. That's why I believe that we need to know more and thus be able to protect, since forest conservation is carried out through incursion mechanisms that are very expensive and take a long time”.

The Brazilian group competing for the US$10 million prize argues that the destruction of tropical forests is expanding faster than humans' ability to study biodiversity. Therefore, the group has dedicated efforts to improving knowledge about plant and animal diversity, “using designed, developed and tested innovative technologies and solutions”, for rapid and accurate assessment of biodiversity, especially in remote or difficult-to-access geographic areas. Solutions include the use of drones, sound recorders, Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), digital applications, among others – all with the purpose of mapping biodiversity.


Paulo Guilherme Molin - especialist in forest restoration and monitoring plans, professor at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) coordinates, within the Brazilian Team Forest, the remote sensing and biodiversity data collection group, with the help of drones. "First, the images produced with the drone are collected to scan the forest area (in this competition, 100 hectares). In this 3D scan of the forest, it is possible to observe the main structure, which would be the height of the trees. This information,  allows us to know which trees are the tallest ones in the landscape, but it is also possible to transform this into stored carbon, that is, we can create a map of the biomass present in the forest", he explains.

“Our most promising results stem from the use RGB image, which is very similar to that taken by a cell phone camera. Photos are taken of the entire forest area analyzed, and from this, a map with several scenes is created, generating a giant photograph of this forest. Next, comes Artificial Intelligence, which helps us identify treetops and estimate the number of trees found in that forest.” In other words, based on aerial photographs, pasted one next to the other, the A.I. identifies patterns by generating an algorithm to know how many species and individuals are located in a given area.

Remote sensing and biodiversity data collection with the help of drones. CREDITS: Paulo Molin


Biologist Simone Dena is a researcher at the Fonoteca Neotropical Jacques Vielliard (FNJV), founded in 1978 and the largest sound library in Latin America, part of the Museum of Biological Diversity at the University of Campinas (Unicamp). She is the bioacoustics coordinator at the Brazilian Team, and her work consists in capturing the lives of animals within the forest through audio and audiovisual content - including those that not even the human ear is capable of understanding, such as those produced by bats.

The captures follow strategies that observe the routines in the lives of animals in a forest area, as Dena explains: “We need to adapt our tools according to the groups that are being worked on. So, we seek to understand methodologies that are integrative, such as recording at different times of the day. Birds, for example, we can identify in the morning. As for the bats, at night.”

"We collect data ranging from audible frequencies for humans to ultrasonic frequencies that we cannot hear. Then, these data, stored in files, are sent to validation by experts. Subsequently, they undergo analyses in two ways: when the sound occurs and its classification, taking into consideration the species of the identified animal.

According to Dena, the analysis of sounds goes beyond the identification of species living in a monitored area. It also sheds light on other aspects of biodiversity, such as species abundance, daily connectivity, and even the health of the environment. "This allows us to obtain information with various ecological analysis aspects," explains the researcher."

Traces of life found with the help of genetics

Carla Lopes is a PhD in genetics and molecular biology, besides coordinator of a group of five researchers on DNA field. She has focused her research on molecular tools for understanding biodiversity and conservation of tropical forests. According to her, the “Brazilian Team” group has been working on two fronts: a kind of barcode of the species that live in the forest, and environmental DNA (or e-DNA).

“The ‘barcodes’ are fragments of DNA that serve as an identification of each species. Each one has a unique sequence. And with very small pieces of DNA, it is possible to do sequencing. How does it work? We take a plant from the environment, extract its DNA and sequence the DNA using this single little piece, which functions as a barcode. Using this, it is possible to identify which species we are talking about”, explains Carla Lopes. The codes, she explains, serve for comparison purposes, in an extensive database, so that living beings can be recognized.

Furthermore, e-DNA is studied by means of sample collecting from some matrix of the environment, such as river water, puddles, streams, the sea, a part of the soil, a layer of leaves that remains on the forest floor (which can be called “serrapilheira” [plant litter]), among others. “All of these are environmental samples and all activity, life of the organisms, whatever they are, any activity of these organisms in the environment leaves traces”, details Carla. “They are cells that rupture and the DNA is released in the environment. That’s why it’s called Environmental DNA.”

Reseachers work to catalogue biodiversity in forests. CREDITS: Paulo Molin

One technique that the group has been developing to collect data remotely is the so-called “podão” [pruning], with the robotics team. It is a drone that flies over the forest to cut twigs and tree branches, which are taken to the laboratories. “With this part of the forest, it is possible to take photographs to identify some species, and also to extract the DNA, in order to produce the barcode”, says the researcher.

But this collecting can happen in several other ways, such as using insect traps. “If this trap, for example, captures a mosquito, we can use the blood content of this living being to identify both the species of mosquito we are facing, and to extract the DNA to find out what is inside the mosquito's digestive system. In other words, it is possible to identify which other species of animals this mosquito has bitten and may be present in that forest space.”

Green space in the center of Belém is a field of sensations

In the capital of Pará, in Belém, the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi has the second oldest collection of flora samples in Brazil, behind only the National Museum. The history of the building, recently renovated by the federal government, dates back to the end of the 19th century, in mid-1895, when Swiss naturalist Jacques Huber created the first herbarium in the Amazon. Thus, from the first samples that were kept in Belém, the Goeldi Museum reached the 230 thousand samples currently kept. The collection is stored in rooms with specific temperatures and conditions, in cabinets carefully taken care by museum staff, in addition to items available in the Virtual Herbarium database.

Researcher Anna Borges coordinates, with the help of the Herbarium's current curator, André Gil, the activities that keep this collection intact and available to researchers from all around the world. The space hosts several study projects aimed at understanding the biodiversity of the Amazon, in addition to offering assistance with plant identification.

“The first portrait of any species, whether the first in a group or the twentieth, is a real recognition of biodiversity,” says Anna. She says that each new record is a little more of the history of biodiversity, and the Emílio Goeldi Museum has fulfilled this role of discovering new species, whether plants or animals. “The [totality of] biodiversity is still far from being completely known. Therefore, the faster it is done, the better, because the growth of cities and projects is fast. Meanwhile, this action puts pressure on biodiversity, and we are growing along with it”, she ponders.


Anna describes that botanical research starts with material collected in the field. Then, the result is deposited in the herbarium, to serve as a testimony of the research. “The testimony serves to make the species scientifically valid. In other words, so that its identification can be replicated. All research carried out require this record. A species, when it is described for the first time, known as the ‘new species’, has a special name, the ‘type’ species. From there, it is possible to confirm other individuals of the same species.”


Recalling the field adventures she has had on other continents, such as Europe and Asia, in search of bryophytes, known as moss, the researcher describes that “the beginning of every botanist’s career begins with an interest in a certain group of plants”, and that this interest leads them to go into the field to really find out how the species occurs, where it occurs.

“This work is to begin to better understand that group of beings, first collecting until being able to identify new species, which requires a lot of knowledge. Therefore, only with deep knowledge in a certain group of beings, it is possible to arrive at the description of a new species.