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The Mata Atlântica

The Amazonian rain forest is so famous that most tourists are amazed to learn that Brazil's southern states were once covered by an equally lush humid forest, teeming with animal and plant biodiversity. The Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest), really a series of forests, originally covered about a fourth of Brazil, mostly along the southeastern seaboard. One of the most complex ecosystems on earth, these evergreen forests contained about 7% of all known vertebrates and more than 20,000 plant species.

The major difference between the Amazon and the Mata Atlântica is the flora. In the Amazon plants are essentially lowland types adapted to the humid climate; those in the Atlantic forests have adapted to mountainous terrain, less rainfall, and lower mean annual temperatures. Unique Mata Atlântica fauna includes primates like the mico-leão dourado (golden-lion tamarin) and the muriqui (spider monkey), parrots, toucans, arapongas (bell birds), and the anta (tapir).

The flora includes rich pau-brasil (brazilwood) and, at higher elevations, araucária (Brazilian pine). The hundreds of orchid species, the yellow flowers of the ipê (Brazil's national flower), and the flowers of the manacá (princess flower tree) that turn from white to purple to violet within days, compose a colorful spectacle.

The Mata Atlântica has been seriously overexploited since the 16th century, and is threatened by human encroachment and agricultural land conversion. Recent estimates indicate that only 8% of the original remains. Preservation, conservation, and recovery efforts by the national government and private organizations are ongoing. "Bright spots" include Foz do Iguaçu, Superagüí National Park (near Paranaguá), a golden tamarin reserve in southern Bahia State, and organizations that train farmers in sustainable agriculture practices.

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