The Bromeliads of the Atlantic Forest; March 2000; Scientific American Magazine; by Martinelli, Azoury; 8 Page(s)
The coast of Brazil was once thick rain forest, a tangle of vegetation that covered 1.4 million square kilometers and rivaled the Amazon in its biodiversity. Only slivers and fragments of this Mata Atlantica, or Atlantic Forest, are left today. A mere 8 percent of the original forest has survived the machetes of sugarcane and coffee growers and the axes of loggers, and it remains scattered along the heavily populated eastern seaboard, some of it protected in reserves, some on private land, some in unlikely stands in and around major cities. These tiny bits of Mata Atlantica make up the most endangered ecosystem in Brazil and are the last refuge for many members of an unusual family of plants, the Bromeliaceae.
Bromeliads-the best known of which are probably the pineapple and Spanish moss-are often beautifully colored flowering plants that are stunning in their diversity. Of the 3,146 species and subspecies in 56 genera, more than half are epiphytes: that is, their roots can attach to tree trunks, rocks or other substrates, and they gather moisture from the air or dew rather than from the ground. Some of these epiphytes hold water in the rosette formed by their leaves and can sustain entire microenvironments. For example, one enormous species that lives in a mountainous, grassy part of the southeastern Mata Atlantica, Alcantarea imperialis, can hold 30 liters of water. Researchers have discovered more than 900 organisms-most of them insects, but also frogs, crabs, worms and microorganisms-living in these leafy cisterns. The small creatures and their watery domain, in turn, provide sustenance for other animals, including many birds and some primates, such as the endangered golden lion tamarin.