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Biodiversity Blog


A Chat with Botanist Domingos Cardoso

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Domingos holding an inflorescence of Parkia discolor, a legume species ecologically dominant in Amazonian periodically-flooded forests locally known as "igapós"

Domingos Cardoso is an esteemed Brazilian botanist very active in biodiversity and conservation in Brazil. His main research interests are how evolutionary processes have shaped current and past patterns of biodiversity and floral morphology. He is a systematic botanist with a strong focus on Neotropical biomes and Leguminosae (the legume family). His research involves taxonomic revisions, molecular phylogenetics, biogeography, and fieldwork in the Brazilian Amazon, Atlantic Forest, Caatinga dry forests, and Rupestrian Grasslands.

Domingos has published scientific papers on topics ranging from biodiversity and biogeography to taxonomy, phylogenetics, biome delimitation, and floral evolution.

Currently, his focus is on reconstructing the evolutionary history of the remarkable floral diversity in legumes, and exploring a biologically meaningful view of biomes in evolutionary biogeography.

He will be giving a seminar hosted by the Department of Integrative Biology on June 13 at 11 am titled "How many tree species are there in the Amazon?" The seminar will be in NHB 1.720.

Domingos took some time to chat with us about his work.

Let’s start from the very beginning! Your main focus is on the evolutionary processes shaping biodiversity. What got you excited about this focus?

I am from Brazil, a megadiverse country. Understanding the multiple dimensions (classification, distribution, ecological interactions, and evolutionary history) of our vibrant biodiversity, which I have been surrounded by since a child, fascinates me most as a scientist. We know that the Brazilian Amazon is home to the world’s largest tropical rainforest biome and performs essential ecosystem services, such as regulating the global climate. If, on the one hand, much is already known about large-scale ecological and biogeochemical processes in the Amazon, little is known about the plant biodiversity itself, the leading player in the evolutionary theater of this majestic forest. For example: how many different tree species are there throughout the Amazon? What about the number of individuals? Can we count the trees in the Amazon in billions, just as we count the number of stars on a beautiful night in the hinterlands of Montana? All such questions rooted in the foundations of documenting biodiversity have excited me.

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 Monopteryx angustifolia (Photo: Domingos Cardoso)

Who were some of your influences?

Before cataloging biodiversity through academic-scientific studies, I already knew the vernacular names of the plants from my region in the Caatinga seasonally-dry forests of Northeastern Brazil. I learned a lot about the Caatinga plants from my grandfather, Olavo Ribeiro, and Antônio da Bila. Both had always worked on the farm, cultivating common beans and milking the cows, and could neither read nor write. Still, they had an extraordinary knowledge of plant ethnoclassification and the associated ecological, medicinal, and cultural aspects. When I entered university, my grandfather and Antônio had already addressed most of the main questions I wanted to know about plants. The university, especially the opportunities I had with professors Luciano Paganucci de Queiroz (UEFS, Brazil), Haroldo Cavalcante de Lima (JBRJ, Brazil), and Matt Lavin (MSU), gave me the necessary tools to deepen my quest for understanding the evolutionary history of the plants.

You’ve done research in some very amazing places in South America, from a biodiversity-rich standpoint to also just being amazing places to be in. What sorts of changes have you seen in regards to climate change and human activity, and how have these factors effected biodiversity in these areas?

Documenting and cataloging biodiversity has been one of the greatest challenges of botanical science, especially in the face of global threats of forest destruction and climate change. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to botanize in some of the world’s most remote and biodiverse places and biodiverse, from the lowland Amazonian tropical rainforests, Caatinga seasonally-dry forests, fire-prone savannas of the Brazilian Cerrado, as well as the mountaintops of the Espinhaço Range in Eastern Brazil. From virtually all such places in Brazil, I always returned to the lab with plant species new to science or at least very rare, evolutionarily-enigmatic plants. It is very sad that our priceless biodiversity has been severely impacted by the historical negligence with which Brazil’s government has been treating its environmental politics. This is particularly true under the current shadows of the woefully-governed Brazilian economy, where essential environmental, scientific, social, and cultural programs have suffered unprecedented budget cuts or were completely undermined.

Domingos doing fieldwork in the Caatinga region of Tucano in Bahia state where he was born. He stands among the rupicolous bromeliad Encholirium spectabile, an endemic species of the Caatinga seasonal vegetation of Northeastern Brazil.

There’s been a big general public focus on the conservation of the Amazon, but there are many other places in South America that have profound diversity as well. Do you feel there are efforts being made to recognize and preserve them?

Overcoming the Linneann (taxonomic identity), Darwinian (evolutionary), and Wallacean (geographical) shortfalls of plant biodiversity knowledge has been a challenge in the Amazon, due to its continental extension. Seasonally Dry Tropical Forest (SDTF) biome, such as the Caatinga from where I originally come from, perform fundamental ecological functions, and were cradles of the expansion of pre-Columbian civilizations and the development of agriculture. Yet, they are poorly mapped, poorly researched, and largely neglected in policies for biodiversity conservation. The global maps often lump dry vegetation types or confuse them. For example, maps have lumped SDTFs with fire-prone savannas in South America over the past decades because they are small and “look” the same in terms of physiognomy/structure. In my current research, I have devoted a lot of effort to mapping and cataloging plants in two of the most ecologically and evolutionarily-contrasting biomes: the Amazonian rainforests and the South American seasonally-dry forests. We have recently assembled two taxonomically vetted plant checklists for both Amazonia and the Caatinga dry forests. The numbers reveal a remarkably high floristic diversity in the Caatinga, representing an almost two-fold higher species/area ratio as compared to the Amazon.

You are a renowned researcher in legume systematics. What about this family is it that you find so fascinating?

I could list many aspects of the legume family with which I am so fascinated. First, having grown up in the Caatinga seasonally-dry forests of Northeast Brazil, the high local diversity of legume flowers and trees there has always amazed me since childhood. The legume species were among the most outstanding trees that I learned to identify from my grandfather, Olavo Ribeiro, and Antônio da Bila. Then, the fact that legumes are globally diverse in terms of floral architecture and ecological interactions makes the family an excellent model to look at many exciting long-standing questions in evolutionary biogeography and ecology. Finally, the legume systematics community is very easy and pleasant to work with. I am very delighted to have been collaborating to advance legume science by interacting with many colleagues for almost two decades now.

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