Phytolith research in Brazil: An Overview – Carolina Glaeser Benincá, IPS Web Envoy

Phytolith research in Brazil: An Overview – Carolina Glaeser Benincá, IPS Web Envoy

Brazil is South America’s biggest country, covering nearly half of the continent’s landmass. Home to over 20% of Earth’s biodiversity, the country encompasses a vast array of landscapes and environments, including tropical and subtropical domains, wetlands, great plateaus, and low hill ranges.

Examples of vegetation and soils from Brazilian Biomes.

The territory is divided into six biomes: Amazon Forest, Cerrado, Atlantic Forest, Caatinga, Pampa and Pantanal. Each biome and transitional area has a unique mix of climate, soils and biodiversity that engage in a complex dance of ecological interactions that challenges and charms scientists and enthusiasts alike. Phytolith researchers in Brazil, given the unique characteristics of tropical soils and the massive number of plant families, species, and physiognomies, face a demanding task as they investigate the intricate dynamics of each environment.

I sent a survey questionnaire to all major Brazilian laboratories to examine the current status of phytolith research in the country. Twelve research groups responded: statistics presented in this report are based on responses from these labs.
Phytolith research has been conducted in these laboratories since 2007, but over 60% of the labs were founded and started using phytolith analysis in the last decade. Among Brazil’s five regions, only North and Center-West do not have a laboratory that conducts phytolith analysis, but these regions are being studied by labs based in other regions because they contain three biomes with complex Quaternary history of environmental changes and human dynamics: Amazon, Cerrado and Pantanal.

The main challenges faced by phytolith researchers in Brazil are scarcity of human and material resources plus technical and structural limitations. The average research group consists of four active members – mostly graduate students. Specialized equipment, analysis and reagents are often unavailable due to high costs and little financial aid. Field and laboratory training are also concerns of researchers striving to produce significant, reliable data.

Most research groups indicate they do not have adequate equipment and materials to perform phytolith extraction; many enlist partner labs to perform phytolith extraction from their study sites. Few laboratories offer annual training (only four of the 12 interviewed), and usually only to graduate students.
Methodological challenges include working with tropical soils (particularly oxisols), the lack of representative modern plant collections that fully cover each biome, difficulty accessing remote study areas, and insufficient government aid to conduct experiments and analysis. Standardization of field and lab procedures, as well as expansion of the area covered by the studies, were mentioned as essential steps to improve understanding of past and present human and environmental dynamics.

Almost 70% of laboratories interviewed are associated with national universities and institutes. The main international links are higher education institutions located in the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, France, United States and Argentina.

A database search for articles with the terms “phytolith” and “Brazil” reveals a web of Brazilian and foreign scientists publishing phytolith content, shown in the following bibliometric network map. Clusters within the network highlight different research communities or thematic concentrations within the field of phytolith research in Brazil.

Bibliometric network map – articles published from 1945-2024.

International connections are shown in the following map, which highlights both the strongest and oldest as well as the newest authors’ partnerships. Integration of Brazil’s phytolith labs with other South American labs is relatively new but growing rapidly as shared areas of interests increase and more phytolith scientists are trained.

Bibliometric authors’ nationality network map – articles published from 1945-2024.

The future of phytolith research in Brazil is very promising. The number of phytolith researchers is expected to continue to grow, reflecting global expansion of interest in potential uses for phytolith analysis in many fields. Regular interaction between Brazilian researchers, as well as increased contacts with South American and international researchers, will improve information exchange required for more effective phytolith research while fostering a collaborative environment that is essential for advancing the field in Brazil.

I thank each Brazilian researcher who took the time to respond to the questionnaire that formed the basis for this report.

– Carolina Glaeser Benincá – IPS Web Envoy

Categories: IPS envoys

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