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Cerrado Biome

Por: Denise Moraes

Photo: deltrafrut/Flickr

Photo: deltrafrut/Flickr

Image: NASA/Pfly - Wikipedia

Image: NASA/Pfly - Wikipedia

Brazil’s cerrado forms the country’s second-largest biome, covering some two million square kilometers (772,000 sq mi) in the states of Goiás, Tocantins, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, the Federal District, and parts of São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Maranhão, Piauí, and Bahia. We’re talking about almost 25% of all Brazil!

In other parts of the world, this biome is called a savanna. The soil is poor in nutrients and the flora generally consists of short, sparse, dry-looking plants.

The cerrado has two distinct seasons: a dry winter and a rainy summer. Many types of fauna live here, including endangered species. And this biome holds other surprises as well: hydrographic basins and “chapadões,” a topography typical of central Brazil.

Giant armadillo (1)

Giant armadillo (1)

 

Fauna

According to information from the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama), the cerrado is home to 67 species of mammals, 837 species of birds, 120 species of reptiles, and 150 species of amphibians.

Just to give you an idea of the mammals that live there, we can name capuchin monkeys, Amazonia saki monkeys, rats, anteaters, capybaras, pampas deer, and jaguars (onça-pintada).

Speaking of endangered mammals, this is where you will find the great anteater, the rare giant armadillo, and the maned wolf.

You will see parrots, black vultures, hawks, and thrushes flying through the skies of the cerrado. Seriemas, jays, and quails live there as well.

Great anteater (2)

Great anteater (2)

Some of the biome’s typical reptiles include the jararaca (a type of lance-head pit viper), tropical rattlesnake, and anaconda, as well as fresh-water turtles, land turtles, and lizards.

We can’t forget other important denizens of this great ecosystem: termites, ants, bees, and locusts. Termites, for example, guarantee anteaters and armadillos their food supply, while bees play a vital role by pollinating flowers.

Flora

There are some 12,000 plant species in the cerrado. As we said earlier, the plantlife here has certain general characteristics: it is usually short, with a sparse number of dry-looking plants.

However, since this biome covers such a large area and the topography varies, we can classify the different types of Brazilian cerrado vegetation into sub-divisions: cerradão, open cerrado grasslands, shrub cerrado, cerrado fields, cerrados in the broad sense of the term, cerrados in the narrow sense of the term, dry woodlands, and riparian gallery forests.

Cerradão (3)

Cerradão (3)

The cerradão (“big cerrado”) is a dense cerrado woodland where you will find the thickest concentration of taller trees, some measuring up to fifteen meters (almost 50 ft).  On the other hand, open cerrado grasslands known as “campos limpos” (literally “clean fields”) cover the plains, valleys, and hillsides. Widely spaced bushes dominate the landscape of the shrub cerrado (“campos sujos,” meaning “dirty fields”). Trees stand even farther apart in cerrado fields, with grasses covering most of the area, as is the case with open cerrado grasslands. Cerrado fields are one of the areas of the cerrado that have suffered most from burn-offs.

This division between cerrado in the broad sense and cerrado in the narrow sense seems rather odd, doesn’t it? You probably think these names don’t have much to do with the classification of plants. But they couldn’t be more appropriate: cerrados in the broad sense are home to all the forms of plantlife found in the cerrado biome, whereas cerrados in the narrow sense are home to only one type of plantlife, that is, short twisted and bent trees.

Trumpet tree (4)

Trumpet tree (4)

The cerrado’s dry woodlands display an abundance of trees that lose their leaves during drier periods. This doesn’t happen in riparian gallery forests, which lie alongside streams and rivers, ensuring that the plants there stay green all year round.

Do you remember what a dry plant looks like? Trees and bushes have to find a way to survive the driest season in the cerrado. How do they do that?

Most of these plants with twisted trunks and branches have adapted to the arid environment. Many of them have very deep roots, for example, which makes it easier for them to reach the groundwater—an underground water reservoir. In addition, many plant species have thicker bark and leaves, which keeps them from losing water.

Typical trees are the sucupira, copaiba, a peroba called peroba-do-campo, and the golden trumpet tree (ipê-do-cerrado).

Soil

The cerrado soil is poor in nutrients but rich in iron and aluminum. It goes deep; it is yellowish-red in color, sandy, and permeable; and it has a low level of natural fertility. The surface cannot absorb water well. But a huge water supply lies underneath this soil formed long ago.

Chapada dos Veadeiros (5)

Chapada dos Veadeiros (5)

Topography

Two kinds of topography are common in the cerrado: flat lands and “chapadas,” that is, plateaus that extend for miles and miles. Only about 10% of the cerrado lies at 900 meters or more above sea level (almost 3,000 ft).  This includes some points in the Serra do Espinhaço, like Itacolomi Peak (with an elevation of 1,797 m, or 5,896 ft) and also in the Serra da Caraça, like Sun Peak (2,070 m, or 6,791 ft). Other high spots in the cerrado include plateaus in the Chapada dos Veadeiros region which reach an elevation of 1,700 meters (5,577 ft).

Grande Sertão Veredas National Park (6)

Grande Sertão Veredas National Park (6)

 

Water

Many rivers whose sources lie elsewhere pass through the cerrado, while some river sources lie right in the region. These rivers are part of three hydrographic basins lying within the biome: the Tocantins, São Francisco, and Prata.

But rivers aren’t enough to guarantee that water will be a visibly abundant resource in this environment. If you travel around the cerrado and observe the landscape, you will not find any huge amounts of surface water. To find large stores of water, you have to dig far deep into the layers of soil. As we’ve already seen, this is where the biome’s great water reservoirs are located: in the groundwater. This is where plants get the water they need during dry periods. Digging wells is another way of capturing this water for irrigation purposes.

 Chapada dos Guimarães National Park (7)

Chapada dos Guimarães National Park (7)

Climate

The cerrado has a seasonal tropical climate. It’s hot in the cerrado, with hardly any wind. The average annual temperature ranges from 21o to 27o Celsius (70-80o F). Remember—there’s a sharp difference between seasons: from May to September it’s dry in the cerrado, but from October to April, it rains a lot.

During the dry season, plants catch fire spontaneously in some places. These natural burn-offs happen regularly and help define plantlife. Some species, for example, only blossom following these burn-offs. We might ask ourselves: but if everything burns up, how can the plants survive and then blossom? Well, this is because of their deep underground roots, which guarantee survival even when the surface soil has turned to ashes.

Maned wolf (8)

Maned wolf (8)

Images:

(1) Photo: amareta kelly/flickr

(2) Photo: amareta kelly/flickr 

(3) Photo: iurikothe/Wikipedia

(4) Photo: Leonardo "Leguas" Carvalho/Wikipedia

(5) Photo: Ricardo Pipo/Fotopedia

(6) Photo: vitor1234/Wikipedia

(7) Photo: pedro spoladore/Wikipedia 

(8) Photo: sarefo/Wikipedia

Find out more about other Brazilian biomes:

The Amazon biome

The Pantanal biome

The Atlantic Rainforest biome

The Caatinga biome

Southern Plains Biome

The Coastal Biome

Consultancy: Vânia Rocha, biologist at Fiocruz’s Museu da Vida (Life Museum).

Sources:

IB/USP

Ibama

LINHARES, Sérgio & GEWANDSZNAJDER, Fernando. Biologia Hoje - Vol 3. São Paulo: ed. Ática, 1998.

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