Saturday, 23 January 2010

FOTMAR goes South (1)

Head south from Sao Paulo and you encounter the states of Santa Catarina and Parana, and their two largest cities, Joinville and Curitiba. There is only the state of Rio Grande de Sul before you reach Argentina, and this part of the country is different in climate and culture from the rest of Brazil. For a start, it's cooler, with more pronounced seasons - daytime temperatures in Joinville vary from 23 to 30 through the year, whilst Curitba, which is on a high plateau, has an average day time temperature of 18 in June and July and even snow roughly every ten years.

These lower temperatures encouraged immigration from countries such as Germany, Poland and the Ukraine, as well as Italy, and they produced two of the most prosperous regions in Latin America, and a cultural influence that is still felt today. In the early days of independent Brazil this led to a certain feeling of separateness, and an attempt at independence aided by the famous Giuseppe Garibaldi. Garibaldi failed, but he did pick up a Catarinense wife, Ana da Silva, who would fight with him through his Italian adventures until dying in the aftermath of the French conquest of Rome in 1849.

Lower temperatures of course effect both the flora and fauna of the Mata Atlantica. Here, in the higher regions, there are mixed broadleaf and coniferous forests, and the animal life is a mixture of Brazil-wide species and those that prefer a cooler climate.

Red necked tanager (Tangara cyanocephala)

A striking, and common, garden bird in the south of Brazil. A fruit eater, but they will try for the sugar feeders put out for humming birds. Unfortunately, in contesting this resource they are usually defeated, as humming birds are well armed with sword like bills.

Sayaca tanager (Thraupis sayaca)

The Sayaca tanager is found throughout much of Brazil, but especially in the south. A common garden bird who will eat pretty much anything available fruit, flowers , nectar or insects. Due to their high numbers and lack of clear preference for any particular fruit type, they are one of the most important seed dispersers in human disturbed areas.

And of course, the ubiquitous Bem te vi (
Pitangus sulphuratus ), which I covered in an earlier blog.

Birds are usually described as tolerant or intolerant of human presence. The Btv redefines "intolerance", as can be seen from this video recently shown on the Global news network.


Tree of the day

The Parana pine

If there is one tree that is characteristic of this region it is the Parana Pine (Araucaria angustifolia), so much so that it is incorporated in the coats of arms of Curitiba and the university city of Sao Carlos (in Sao Paulo state). Not only is it common (though much less so than in previous centuries) it is highly distinctive being up to 40m tall with a "chandelier" structure.

The trees are dioecious, with male and female trees both producing cones, and pollination relying on the wind. The female cones produce seeds about 5cm long which are an important food source for many animals, and indeed humans. There is an annual fair in the town of Lages (Santa Catarina state), with boiled pine nuts and hot wine. Of course, this is not actually in the tree's interest, but it is reckoned that about 4% of seeds taken away by small mammals and buried do survive, thus dispersing the pine.

Unfortunately (from the point of view of the pine) it's wood makes excellent timber for construction, and it's resin makes a good varnish to protect against inclement weather. So when mass immigration to the countryside started huge numbers of trees were cut down. It is now holding it's own however, not least because of it's symbolic importance, and there are plenty of examples being planted in urban areas and gardens.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Black Sand

This is the tourist season in Brazil, with millions flocking to the beaches. Every stretch of sand is covered with gaily patterned parasols, but especially the town of Guarapari just along the coast. Formerly a fishing village it is now famous far and wide for it's tourist infrastructure and it's golden, and black, sands.

The black sands derive from monazitic rock, which has a high Thorium content, which means in turn, that it is radioactive. Guarapari has actually the 2nd highest background level of radiation in the world, with Ramsar in Iran (ironically) having the highest. The dose varies, but averages at 5.5 mGy/year, compared to a world average of 0.4. The third place incidentally is occupied by parts of Kerala, with 3.8 mGy/year, again in areas of black monazite sand.

I should say that studies of Kerala and in Iran have failed to find any detrimental genetic effects of living near these sands. Indeed there have been studies in Taiwan and Eastern Europe where people were accidentally exposed to low, but long term, doses of man made radiation, that appear to show a protective effect against cancer, by bucking up the immune system and antioxidant defences - the radiation hormesis model. This is highly controversial, to say the least, as it depends completely on who you compare the exposees too, you need an identical group in terms of age, social level, smoking habits etc.

In the past, Guarapari was widely believed to be beneficial for rheumatism and arthritus, though this has not yet been scientifically proved. But who knows, maybe the original tourists to "the city of health" were right after all!

Nobody seems to have done the obvious study of looking at radioactive effects on sand living animals, such as ........

Crab of the day
The ghost crab, Ocypode quadrata

The Ghost, or Sand, crabs are found on many continents, living in burrows in the beach. Their name drives either from their pale translucent appearance ( or their extremely rapid movements, especially when about to be photographed.
They dart back into their holes, which are about an inch wide and up to 4ft deep, at the first sign of danger. Despite this seemingly nervous behaviour, they are astonishingly tolerant of disturbance, living on, or in, beaches that are noisy with tourists all day, only to emerge at night or in the dawn to feed on the refuse. In fact, human presence may be to their advantage, driving away predators and competitors.

A few minutes with a shovel and a BBQ would present an adequate, if crunchy, meal. The local crab eating fox (Cerdocyon thous) dispenses with both, although it should be said that he eats many more small mammals than crabs.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

A trip to the hills

An hours drive into the hills gives a marked change in climate, especially at night when temperatures can drop from 24 C at sea level to a much more comfortable 14.
Today's blog contains much that I haven't unidentified yet, but at least it gives you an idea of the setting. Imagine, if you can, the blazing intensity of the sun.

Lots of birds flitting around eating the food provided at our hotel, or feeding from the flowers. I could at least, with help, identify the first. He's a Coleirinha, a type of New World sparrow.

And he, or she, is a humming bird.

By night, pleasantly cool with a clear, dark sky. Frogs and cicadas calling in the forest, and toads hunting in the darkness.

Friday, 1 January 2010

What to eat on the beach in Guarapari

In 1865 Charles Fred Hartt travelled down the coast of Brazil from Bahia to Rio de Janeiro and wrote a detailed and fascinating account of his travels (available online at Although there are numerous asides, his intention was to describe the geography and natural history of this section of the coast, which he does very thoroughly. One location he describes particularly well is the town of Guarpari, just along the coast from Vitoria.

A village for Harrt, the modern town of Guarapari now has an official population of 105,000 though this is dwarfed by the numbers of Mineiro tourists who arrive in the holiday season. As well as beautiful gold and black beaches (which have a secret of their own - see a future blog) there are reefs of ragged sandstone and outcrops of hard gneiss rock. The seas off Espirito Santo are especially rich and diverse, being a meeting point of marine ecosystems from the north and south, and Hartt reports on the richness and diversity of the fisheries. Even so, he is rather scathing on how poorly it is exploited, and how most (richer presumably) people in Vittoria ate imported cod and sardines. For the poorer people of the town however, there was food to be had direct from the beach.

Look now at the clefted rocks, washed by the waves, and you see a patchwork of green, red/brown and black - a meal can be devised from these bare ingredients alone. Although it may not get the stomach juices flowing (well, not in a good way) it is nutritious, easy to collect and can be eaten raw.

The green is Ulva lactuca, or the Sea Lettuce. Yes, it is edible, either raw, in soups, or in many different ways, and it is fairly high in protein. Apparently steaming is more nutritious, but considerably less appetising, than frying. The problem comes when huge amounts get washed ashore after storms, decompose on the beach, and release clouds of hydrogen sulphide that can knock out passing tourists).

The black is ....

Urchin of the day
Echinometra lucunter, the Rock boring urchin

Numerous authors have commented on the large numbers of Echinometra lucunter on the coast of Espirito Santo, but especially at Gurarpari. The English name of this species is the Rock Boring Urchin, and here they give the general impression of honeycombing the rocks. Using their spines, and teeth on the underside of their bodies, they erode the rock or coral beneath them, creating a nice safe hole to shelter from wave action, and predators, and a reservoir of sea water for low tide. Over time this can create quite a lot of damage to reefs and rocks.

Thus by eating sea urchins you are protecting the environment. Yes, they are actually edible, technically, and at one time were eaten in large numbers along this part of the coast. This is hardly surprising as they were, and are, abundant, quite large (up to 15cm), and they don't run very fast. Having said that, they rather selfishly sit snugly at the bottom of holes and are equipped with toxic, sharp hard spines, so a certain amount of ingenuity is required. Infact, about 50% of the injuries seen in emergency units in Brazilian coastal towns are caused by sea urchin spines. In the event of wounding, you should immerse the area in hot water to deactivate the toxin, and immediately go to casualty, as removal of spines is not easy, they fragment like sphrapnel and unremoved fragments can become infected.

Although E. lucunter has been described as of "no particular culinary interest", urchins around the world are regarded as a delicacy. As a public service, here is a guide to eating sea urchins.

In general they can be eaten raw, and food should certainly be prepared from living urchins. Break open the shell and remove the "tongues" (gonads) for marinating. Harvesting is best done in December to Jan in the northern hemisphere as this is the hight of reproductive cycle and the gonads are bigger. Pretty much anything can be done then, from light par boiling to soups. Several recipes include marinating in a mixture of spices, presumably as this reduces the taste of sea urchin. Lastly, should you be vegetarian, but desperate to try one, urchins are technically defined as vegetables in Greek religious law.

Identifying sea urchins is an arcane art, at which I am the most naive of novices. Hart describes them as E. michelini, but modern authors call them E. lucunter. I've plumped for the latter.