Saturday, 27 February 2010

Urban survivor

A park in England is a wide open space for running and playing in the sun, picnicking, or just sitting and relaxing. A park in Brazil has just the same function, but everything is under a canopy of shading trees. The sun is to be escaped, not embraced, and for good reason. A UV index of 6-7 is ¨high risk", "very high risk" is 8-10, and extreme is 11+, this week much of Brazil was scorched yesterday with a UV level of 14!

But which tree to use in parks and pavements? It has to be tall, with a thick all year canopy. Fortunately, there was one already at hand in the mata atlantica, the oitizeiro (Licania tormentosa). Tall (over 20 m), tough, and long lived (100 years or more), the oitizeiro makes one of the best pavement trees. Even better, it is naturally drought tolerant, being found in the northern regions of the Mata, where the soil is dry and sandy. Living in a city street, exposed on all sides to the glare of the sun and your roots covered by concrete, is a draining experience.

The oitizeiro is not one of the prettiest of trees, lacking the brilliant orange flowers of the flamboyant for example, but it has a certain grandeur, and pale new leaves show up ornamentally against the dark foliage.

Traditionally, the leaves of countryside oitizeiros can be used as a medicinal tea, and the seeds are edible and rich in oil. It also has an excellent wood, useful for construction, which frankly is a bit of a liability - many of it's sister Licania species are nearing extinction from forestry. The oitizeiro however is flourishing, it now owns the streets where in past millenia it had to compete with dozens of rivals. Trees can grow tall and stretch out on all sides. From the oitizeiros point of view, it's not such a bad deal.

Saturday, 20 February 2010


“Poison of asps is under our lips”?
Why do you wrench them apart?

To learn how the venom makes and drips

And works its way to the heart?

It is unjust that when we have done

All that a serpent should,

You gather our poisons, one by one,

And thin them out to your good.

There are innumerable creatures in the Mata Atlantica, and more widely in Brazil, who exist to sting, bite or poison you. The answer lies in the Butantan Institute of Sao Paulo.

Butantan was founded in 1901 by the Brazilian scientist Vital Brazil - one of history's greatest examples of a name determining one's fate. Dr. Vital Brazil Mineiro da Campanha was a remarkable figure, working in Public Health so successfully that he was only 36 when appointed director of the new Butantan Institute for Serum Therapy. Vital's new Institute was set up near the city of Sao Paulo.

Well, actually not very near. Research into poisonous animals requires their culture and breeding, and the municipal authorities nervously placed their new institute in an unused swampy area far from the city centre. A description of his Institute 1927 was as follows;

There is, at the far end of one of the never-ending suburbs of San Paulo, a snake-farm where serums are prepared and dispensed against the bites of venomous serpents, which abound in these parts. Like most of the things that matter, it was one man's notion and work. Unluckily, the man himself was up or down coast at the time of our visit. But we found the "farm" sitting alone amid beautiful grounds in a faultless stretch of drive—a big, white, shuttered remote pile in dead heat among the crashing (colours hit here) green of its cut lawns and the raw bosses and clumps of flowers.

Vital's remit was to develop the new technique of antivenom for Brazil. This was the idea that serum derived from a poisoned animal could be used as a remedy for that poison in other animals. Although there is research into genetically engineering bacteria to produce antivenom proteins, the basic process hasn't changed much from those days......

We returned to the outside blaze, on our way back, and passed another silent range of white buildings, where are the horses and such, through whose systems the poisons are attenuated and controlled, so that folk may live longer who would otherwise have died horribly.
Roughly speaking the process begins with an infinitely small injection of poison into a carefully kept horse. He reacts, but lives (for the dose is well known now), and the injection is gradually increased till he can resist, proportionately, as much of the venom as opium-eaters could of laudanum. Then he is tapped for some pints of his blood, and of its serum, duly attenuated and sterilised, the anti-venom is made. When it is administered to a man in need, the two powers war together on the physical side, as one may see the powers of the spirit tearing the soul of a sinner "under conviction" before he finds salvation. Every muscle and nerve and blood corpuscule may be involved, as well as other powers that we know not of; but normally, after the throes and disintegrations, the body recovers and—since it is sister of the soul—throws off and puts behind it in a very little while all that nightmare of experiences in restored health. But, they say, the process is not a pleasant one to watch; and men are thinking and working all their lives to make it less vehement. Yet, after all, the only cure for venomous bites is the foot of man making hard paths from but to hut, field to field, and shrine to shrine, through the length and breadth of a land.

Anyway, Vital pursued the new field of anti-venoms with gusto, developing remedies not just for the numerous types of poisonous Brazilian snakes, but also the first for scorpions and spiders. He also pioneered the use of polyvalent anti-sera, ie. those effective against several different venoms. This is especially important when one considers how few victims can identify the snake they've just been bitten by.

Of course, the best serum is made from the same breed of snake as bit you. But people are often not accurate when they are bitten, so a 'general' serum is sent to the farmers. It cures—it cures surely—but it takes longer and it hurts a little more than the specialized serum.

Nowadays Butantan is a huge institution, responsible not just for snake and spider anti-venoms, but also vaccine production for rabies, tuberculosis and many other diseases. During the recent swine flu outbreak it was Butantan who were charged with developing Brazil's response and they are by far Latin Americas largest producers of vaccines, with 110 million doses produced in 2001 alone. Butantan's snake collection and museums are also open to the public, and this makes a very popular tourist attraction.

The quotations here have been borrowed (plundered) from the work of Rudyard Kipling. He visited Brazil in 1927 and was given a tour of Butantan. His writings, on this and other aspects of Brazil, can be found at

Monday, 15 February 2010

Tarantulas - Creations of a Personal Devil

"Tarantula" is one of those words that "everybody knows", but is tricky to pin down scientifically. Yes, it means a big hairy spider, but there are more than one type of these, they have different behaviours, and some are (much!) more poisonous than others. Nowadays it generally refers to the family Theraphosidae, so when I say tarantula, I´m referring to them.

In Brazil there are, believe it or not, 170 different species of tarantula. They generally live in burrows and stay fairly close to the hole, hunting at night. They eat more or less anything they can kill, but they are themselves hunted, particularly by the huge Tarantula Hawk wasp, whose bite causes instant paralysis, but not death. The unfortunate spider is then dragged away to be used as a larder by wasp larvae.

Sometimes they do go walkabout. Males go looking for females, and it is said that they leave their holes when storms are expected, which does seem reasonable. Tarantulas can, I can testify, climb glass. This has the rather neat advantage that they can be photographed from below, which somehow makes them even more frightening.

Despite their fearsome appearance, and reported aggressiveness, tarantulas in the Americas are not so dangerous. The pain of an tarantula bite in the Americas is supposedly not particularly intense and indeed in Mexico the Tzeltel reportedly encourage tarantulas to bite tumours as a sort of chemotherapy.

In contrast, perhaps the only "attractive" characteristic of tarantulas is their furry appearance, but ironically, that is the only thing humans really have to fear. Don't stroke one! They are covered with special barbed hairs which they can flick off at a predator (or prey, or just someone they don't like) which can be incredibly irritating to the eyes and throat. Interestingly in Bahia powdered tarantula tea is recommended for asthma, which sounds like a guaranteed asthma attack - perhaps just the threat of it "cures" the poor patient until he is out of sight of the healer.

If you really must play with a tarantula, go here.......

By the way, the arachnophobic description in the title is from Rudyard Kipling. In 1927 he visited the world famous venom research institute at Butantan, Sao Paulo, and left a characteristically pithy description, but more of that another time.

Saturday, 6 February 2010


Bromeliads are one of the characteristic plants of Mata Atlantica region. As a type they normally have thick fleshy leaves growing from a central rosette, and range from tiny epiphytes sitting on branches in the forest to huge individual plants sitting on sandy ground of the coastal strip.

The problem with being a bromeliad is that you are stuck at ground level, and other plants can grow tall and shade you. However, there's also lots of advantages. They share with orchids and cacti a special metabolism based on crassulacean acid, which means that they can "breathe" at night, drastically reducing water loss. Many also form a water tank by joining their leaves together, sometimes with over a litre of water. This means that they can evolve into epiphytes, which cling to high tree branches getting all their nutrients from the air and detritus on the branch around them, but close to the sun (thus redefining "ground"). Or lipophytes, which sit on bare rock free from competitors for sunlight, such as those found growing in cracks in the otherwise smooth rocky hills of Vitoria and Corcovado in Rio.

It has been estimated that up to 50,000 litres per hectare can be held in bromeliad tanks, and although the normal quantity is much, much, smaller, it is a permanent enough habitat to form an attractive option for small creatures in need of a home. Dragonfly larvae can be fund there, and even the tadpoles of many frogs such as the Brazilian Hylid frog found in Espirito Santo. There are spiders that live exclusively in the MA bromeliads, and at least 43 species of ants (there really are an awful lots of ants in Brazil).

More importantly, from a human perspective, they are a significant habitat for the Aedes mosquito, carrier of Dengue fever. Not only do larvae wiggle in the forest bromeliads of the Mata Atlantica, dreaming of the cities they will invade when they are grown up, but Aedes have been found in the large bromeliads found on the rocky mountain outcrops of Vitoria. Especially the Alcantarea genus which forms 90% of the bromeliad flora there. Aedes seem not to like bromeliads very much, and prefer to lay their eggs in shaded artifiical containers, but they are there.

Lastly, if you really want to see a bromeliad up close, buy a pineapple. Cut off the top and replant it, with luck it should grow. My grandmother did this on her kitchen window, and it is still common practice in small farms and households here.

Monday, 1 February 2010

FOTMAR goes South (2)

Some more birds from the southern Brazilian states of the Mata Atlantica.

Rufous coloured thrush (Turdus rufiventris)

One of the commonest birds in the southern Mata Atlantica, and the state bird of Sao Paulo. Actually a fine choice for the city of business as it adopts plain working clothes and industriously harvests anything it can, worms, insects, or fruits. Again like it's patron, it is bigger than any of it's rivals in the garden, and it can even dispute food with marmosets if pushed.

Violaceous euphonia, (Euphonia violacea)

This rather gorgeous little bird is found from the Caribbean to Argentina. Actually the male is the elegant one, the female is kind of drab on the not unreasonable grounds that she incubates the eggs. Unlike a lot of garden birds, the Ve is also found in forests away from man, although their fruit preference means that they are often found in cocoa and citrus plantations too.
The males bight yellow plumage would appear to be a health risk, and indeed it is, as they are favourites for capture and use as caged birds. However, humans view them from the side, hawks look down from above, and from this angle they are cloaked in dark blue. Furthermore, they fly in small flocks which gives more eyes to see any approaching danger.

Bird of the Day

Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola)

It is one of nature's ironies that that this sensible and adaptable little bird is lumbered with the world's silliest name.

The bananaquit is found throughout Latin America, at least humid areas, but believed to have originated in Caribbean, where it is the most common song bird. This is the reverse the usual situation as normally species migrate in the opposite direction, and so is an achievement in itself. Nowadays, the bananaquit is well adapted to humans. It is a popular garden bird, where it feeds on fruit, and like humming birds, energy rich nectar. However, rather than beating their wings at 1000 beats per minute, and hovering, they simply hop along the leaf and pierce the flower with their sharp, curved, little bills. This sensible approach to life is also found in child rearing, where the adults build not only the standard nest for their progeny, but a separate one for themselves, thus ensuring a quiet night.

The bananaquit is in a class of it's own. Well, at least a family of it's own, the Coerebidae. It disdains to flaunt it's uniqueness with gaudy colours however, and adopts the yellow/grey, white stripe colour scheme of so many birds in Brazil. Quite why this should be so is unclear, but it has been suggested that this is a form of mimicry, the many gaining advantage from the obnoxiousness of the few, either in terms of taste of aggressive behaviour. Yet another example of the little bananaquit's pragmatic approach to life.