Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Brazilian Horses

A Mangalarga Marchador

Horses have played a huge part in Brazilian history, and every one was descended from an imported horse, there being no natural equines in South America. Over time, many local breeds have developed, often based on Portuguese types such as the Lusitano and Alter Real imported with Portuguese colonisers. The Lusitano was specifically bred for the bull fighting ring, and they tend to be intelligent and highly manoeuvrable, whilst the Alter Real were originally high grade carriage horses.

Incidentally, horses are traditionally measured to their shoulders, not the top of their heads, and they are measured in "hands", one hand being 4 inches.

Baixadeiro  - an old breed developed in the marshlands, they are tough, with hard wearing feet able to withstand long immersion in water. Perhaps surprisingly for such an environment they are small, with short legs, and only abut 14 hands high.

Brazilian pony - bred for use with children using bloodlines including Scottish ponies and the Argentine Falabella, they are of course small (8.3 to 9.8 hands), but docile and popular.

Brasileiro de Hipismo (Brazilian Sport Horse) - a fairly recent and very successful breed developed in the 70s for competition and they have already competed at the Olympics. They are tall (over 16 hands) and lively, but not temperamental.

Campeiro - basically "field horse" the origins of this breed go right back to the horses brought with the Portuguese to southern Brazil in the 1540s. Over the years the breed has been improved with Thoroughbred and Arabian bloodlines and they now make good riding and ranch horses.

 A Campolina

Campolina - developed in the 1860s and 70s in Minas Gerais from a mixture of many bloodlines including Andalusian and Clydesdale (!), it is one of the larger breeds at 15-16.2 hands and used for riding and driving

Corajosa - "courageous", this pony is not only hardy, but also apparently gentle and kind. They were bred not for children, but for riding and draft work in areas with little grassland.

Crioulo - a cross of African and European breeds they are found in the south, where they make good ranch horses for the cowboys and gauchos.13-15 hands high.

 A Crioulo and Gaucho rider

Mangalarga Marchador (see photo at start of the blog) - originally developed in the 1700s and one of the most popular breeds in Brazil today. They are comfortable and easy to ride, with lots of stamina, and so make good trekking or ranch horses. The breed includes bloodlines from various Spanish lines, and they may be the closest living connection to the medieval Spanish Jennet. 

Mangalarga Paulista - basically an attempt to upgrade the Mangalarga Marchador by crossing with English Thoroughbreds or Anglo-Arabians, the Mangalarga Paulistas  are attractive, but apparently not so comfortable to ride over long distances.

Nordestino - a fairly small (13 hands), but extremely rugged and sturdy horse, probably derived from North African breeds, the Nordestino was developed in the harsh and hot north east of Brazil. They were popular in the military as being easy to train and with great endurance, but they are less common these days.

Pampa - apparently derived from feral horse populations that were caught and trained by various indigenous tribes in Brazil. They are well adapted to local conditions and characteristically have hard, tough, hooves as they would not have been shod. They also generally have "pinto" markings, which means large white splodges somewhere on their body

Pantaneiro - a breed from the Pantanal, a huge marshy area in the state of Mato Grosso. As they were not developed as such, with the deliberate introduction of blood lines, but were rather just bred from those horses that survived the harsh terrain, they are extremely hardy, with excellent disease resistance. They are mostly used as ranch horses.

Piquira - a fairly recent development for children, mostly derived from crossing Crioulos with, bizarrely, Shetland ponies. They aren´t tiny, but are on the small side (12-13 hands) and apparently docile and calm

Many of the breeds above are now quite rare, as either their original function no longer exists, or they´ve been replaced by imported breeds. This applies especially to the Baixadeiro, the Campeiro and the Pantaneiro. Because of this the Brazilian Agricultural Research Assocation (Embrapa) encourages breeding programs, as well as storing seman and DNA samples, and even frozen embryoes, so the breeds are not lost.

More details on these breeds, and many others, can be found at the Equinest web site at

Friday, 2 November 2012

Very small red dots

Panonychus ulmi (Dept Agriculture UK)

This is the European red spider mite (Panonychus ulmi), ("ácaro vermelho europeu"), but it has emigrated. It is now found all over the world, where it is something of a nuisance. It feeds on plants, and unlike many invertebrates, it`s not fussy. Add a very high reproductive rate and you have a pest.

In Brazil it is mainly found in the south, where like many European migrants it finds the climate more congenial.  There it is a major pest of apples, pears, peaches and vines, overwintering as eggs on the tree trunks.  In the spring the eggs hatch and nymphs  start crawling over the plant. Now, these mites are very very small, about 0.7 mm, so you wouldn´t think it would matter much, but there are a LOT of mites. Each female only lives about 2-3 weeks, but can lay up to 50 eggs. Gradually the leaves become spotted, then bronzed and they fall off. Infested flowers often produce no fruit.

Incidentally, mites are NOT insects, they´ve got eight legs and they are distantly related to spiders. Including the ability to spin webs.
 Neoseiulus californicus

The main predators of mites are other mites, predatory mites.  Since 1992 hundreds of thousands of Neoseiulus californicus have been reared in huge plastic greenhouses in Brazil and released into orchards. They don´t eat all the mites, which is a good thing as then they themselves would starve. They just kill enough to leave the tress healthy. With luck you get a balance.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Brazilian Dogs

Everybody likes dogs, and most parts of the world have dogs developed for the local conditions, from Labrador to Chihuahua. It`s surprising therefore that a country as large as Brazil has only two,  the Brazilian terrier, and the Fila Brasileiro. It`s not that there aren`t dogs around, there are thousands of miniature poodles and Yorkshire terriers keeping people company in the apartments of Rio and Sao Paulo, even Gisele Bunchen had until recently a Yorkie called Vida. And there are innumerable "Vira latas" (mongrels) in the favellas and fazendas. But of specifically Brazilian purebred breeds, there are only two.

The Brazilian Terrier, or Fox Paulistano

 The exact ancestry of the Brazilian terrier is unknown, but they are basically descended from Fox Terriers, with some Jack Russell, Miniature Pinschers and Chihuahuas thrown in. They resemble a large Jack Russel, and are said to have a similar temperament, friendly, intelligent and energetic. They were bred for farm work, active all day and they make excellent ratters. A group will even combine to attack larger prey, attacking from each side until it`s worn down.

 Although fairly small they are NOT apartment dogs, they need lots of exercise and stimulation, otherwise they get bored and a bit destructive. They also have a very strong hunting instinct, strongest of all the terriers, and so leaving one with a cat all day is probably not a good idea.

The Fila Brasileiro or Brazilian Mastiff

The Fila Brasileiro is another animal entirely, large (about 50 Kg) and very powerful. They were bred as working dogs on plantations or cattle ranches, probably from a combination of Mastiffs, Bulldogs and Bloodhounds, but unlike some large breeds they are normally alert and active.

 Life as a working dog on a Brazilian farm meant driving off predators such as jaguars, and running down stray cattle, and slaves. The bloodhound ancestry made them good trackers, and they were trained not to kill their prey, but to grab the animal or slave by the neck until the farmer arrived. Puppies still show this instinct in play today.

Although affectionate to their owners and families, it goes without saying that Filas are utterly and completely unsuited to be apartment dogs! Infact, in many countries such as the UK, Denmark and New Zealand you cannot own one at all. In the past Filas were often trained to be "Ojeriza" or distrustful of strangers, and with their very strong protective instinct this made them sometimes dangerous to anyone outside of their "pack". But this was the fault of stupid owners rather than the dogs themselves, and with proper training and socialisation from an early age they are calm and safe with strangers, even if not especially friendly.

Filas still make good farm dogs, and they might be branching out. They are reportedly used by the Israeli army and some American police forces, where they have the advantage as tracker dogs that, if necessary, they are fiercely defensive of their handlers once the quarry is found.

A five year study by the Brazilian army compared Filas, Dobermans and Alsatians in jungle conditions, looking at intelligence, aggressiveness, sensibility, temperament, energy, resistance, and strength. The Alsatians were smarter, the Dobermans more aggressive, but Filas won every other category.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Natural Resources

Brazil is blessed with natural resources, a huge and fertile country exporting vast quantities of food around the world. There is even oil under the rolling South Atlantic, but it doesn´t stop there.

New medicines, new drugs, are often based on chemicals found naturally in nature and few countries have more nature than Brazil. That flower deep in the Amazon may hold the cure for any number of diseases, just as aspirin came from willows, digitalin from foxgloves, and the common anti-cancer drug Vincristine from the Madagascar periwinkle.

Cayenne Ticks, as shown in a Globo News report on amblyomin-X

It´s not a rule of nature that something has to be beautiful to be useful. Few animals are uglier or more unpleasant than the Cayenne Tick, Amblyomma cajennense, which lives to suck blood from any animal it can find, including man. Not only that, but it can transmit disease, including Sao Paulo fever, or Rocky Mountain spotted fever. If you see one biting you, don´t just flick it away, you might leave the head still biting you, or at least cause the tick to regurgitate it's infected saliva into your wound (what you should do is use forceps to grasp it as close to your skin as possible, and gently pull straight back, then disinfect the wound).

So how is this tick a good thing? Well, researchers at the Butantan Institute in Sao Paulo have isolated a compound from that saliva called amblyomin-X. It´s not quite clear how, but amblyomin-X persuades cancer cells to self-destruct, whilst leaving healthy cells alone. Even better, it stops angiogenesis, which is now tumours get their own blood supply - so the tumour cannot grow, cannot spread around the body, and basically "starves".

 Harvesting tick saliva (Globo News)

Amblyomin-X works very well on rats, and next year should enter human trials. If these are successful it would be historic, because it would be the very first medicine developed from discovery to industrial production in Brazil.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Me, Me, ME!!

There is an election coming up in Brazil, the most obvious manifestation of which is the use of vans playing annoying, repetitive, jingles, very very loudly. As with most things, there is a natural equivalent.

The master of "political" advertising is the male Screaming Piha (Lipaugus vociferans), a grey thrush-size bird that lives in the tree canopy in northern Brazil and Amazonia. The call is not unpleasant the first time you hear it, but you tend to hear it a lot, and he is one of the loudest birds on Earth! The Piha's call reaches 111.5 decibels, whilst for comparison, an electric drill is 98 dB, and a power saw 110 dB. The aim of course, like that of the advertising vans, is to draw attention, although in this case he is after mates, and is presumably more positively received.

The Screaming Piha works on the "lek" system, which is basically like an election, all the candidates in the same place screaming for attention. Apparently there is little difference in content in each lek, just in volume, but the calls change a little over the years.  Perhaps we have more in common with birds than we think.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail grinding into your heel

As probably you know, the sting of a wasp is more painful than the the bite of a mosquito (though not necessarily more dangerous!). If you wanted, you could rank the stings of all insects in order, from the mildest to the most painful, but don´t worry, you don´t have to, for the Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants) it has already been done - the Schmidt Pain Index.

So who is the winner?, the most painful possible sting, described as......

"immediate, excruciating pain and numbness to pencil-point pressure, as well as trembling in the form of a totally uncontrollable urge to shake the affected part"
"Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail grinding into your heel."

Not a wasp, but an ant, the Bullet ant (Paraponera clavata), and guess where they live? Yes, as well as piranhas, anacondas and parasites that enter your private parts when swimming, Brazil also has Bullet ants! Mainly in the Amazon, but they´ve also been reported in the Cerrado, the hot dry savanna in the north of Brazil.

The Life of Bullet ants

Paraponera clavata (Wikipiedia)

Bullet ants live in colonies several hundred strong, mostly built in the soil at the base of trees, and ruled by a queen. And they are big, about an inch long, and jet black. Although they are omnivorous, and will chop up any insects they come across, their main food seems to be nectar, each day they climb up into the forest canopy and bring back nectar from the flowers there. But don´t imagine gentle giants, colonies can be quite close to each other and a state of war is more or less continuous. Injured ants give off a scent which attracts parasitic wasps, sort of ant Valkyries, who feed off the ants and lay their eggs there.

There aren´t many other things which eat Bullet ants, not surprisingly. But why exactly is the venom so powerful.

Why so painful?

Bullet ants sting through a syringe-like spike at the tip of their abdomen. The consequent horrendous pain can last until the next day, and meanwhile you will have nausea, trembling and probably paralysis. It takes a lot of stings to actually kill you, about 30 per Kg of your weight, though after just one, death probably feels like a good alternative

Like most venoms, the Bullet ant sting is a cocktail of bad things, but most of the effect comes from poneratoxin. This blocks nerve transmission and causes long lasting contraction of smooth muscle fibres, which translates as pain and trembling. One sting contains only 1 ug of poneratoxin, a tiny, tiny, quantity, but enough.

What are they good for?

Various Indian tribes of the Amazon have utilised Bullet ants for years. The sting is a treatment for rheumatism, presumably as the pain takes your mind of it. More productively, the mandibles at the other end can be used as a form of suture, they clamp shut on a wound even when the head of the ant is twisted off, and ant saliva causes the patients wound to swell, closing it.

The Satere-Mawe tribe have found another use. Hundreds of ants are sedated and then woven into a leaf to form a sort of glove. Wearing this glove for 10 minutes, and surviving, is an initiation rite for boys of the tribe. The Satere-Mawe were also the first people to domesticate the stimulant producing Guarana plant (Paullinia cupana), the product of which is now found in a hugely popular soft drink in Brazil. All of which suggests that the Satere-Mawe have a rather "innovative" approach to biology.


A very good guide to poneratoxin by Vivienne Baillie Gerritsen can be found at

Friday, 17 August 2012

Pity the poor mosquito!

You are probably, dear reader, a little prejudiced against mosquitoes. Take Aedes scapularis. Whilst it´s true that it is a vector for yellow fever, and  human and Venezuelan equine encephalitis, poor A. scapularis has a hard life. In 2002, Casanova and do Prado studied them in the pastureland around a farm near Campinas, in Sao Paulo state, Brazil.

During the hot rainy season (October to March) muddy puddles form all over the land, and the drought resistant eggs of Aedes scapularis hatch, little larvae swimming off hopefully into the water. It seems a good life in a hot bath full of rich organic matter, but little scapularis does not realise the horrors ahead.

For a start, it might rain, it might not, it might rain a LOT. Aedes only needs 9 days from hatching to adulthood, but even that might be too long. Of the 58 populations studied by Casanova and do Prado, 27 were wiped out by their ponds drying up, and 15 were washed away by floods, they never stood a chance.

Life in the 16 remaining pools was better, but not by much. The good news was that starvation was almost unknown, the bad news that all those mosquitoes ensured that starvation was unknown for their predators too. Estimates of total mortality from tiny larvae to emerging adults varied from 68 to a massive 96% per pool!

Predators included........

Giant water bugs "Baratas d' aqua" (Belostomatidae), aggressively predaceous insects who feed on, well, anything, injecting a digestive saliva and sucking out the remains. One of the most painful bites of any insects to us, let alone to a little mosquito.

Giant Water Bug larva (Wikipedia)

Water scorpions (Nepidae) - actually another type of insect

Diving beetles (Dytiscidae) -  you can eat these, if you want to,  in Mexico the adults are roasted and salted and added to tacos

Dragonfly larvae - there are, incredibly, at least 267 species of dragon- and damsel-fly in Sao Paulo state alone, and many of these eat mosquitoes

Last, but not least, larvae of a predatory mosquito, Psorophora ciliata. Don´t start to feel too grateful to this one, they feed on us as well, and infact are the largest blood feeding species found in the USA.

So, the little larva hatching into a warm, muddy, pool will almost certainly desiccate, be swept away, or be eaten. No wonder they are so angry!

Key-factor analysis of immature stages of Aedes scapularis (Diptera: Culicidae) populations in southeastern Brazil byC. Casanova and A.P. do Prado (Bull. Entomol. Res. 92, 271-7)

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Speedy banana

Plants grow fast in Brazil, but few grow faster than the banana. The plant you see here sprouted from bare earth covered with several cm of gravel, reaching 70 cm tall in just 10 days!

The banana you bought in the supermarket probably didn´t grow like this, as most commercial varieties are seedless. You can take suckers from the base of the plant, simply lopping them off with a spade when they´re about 3 ft tall and planting them somewhere else, and this works fine for small holdings. But these days large plantations mostly plant seedlings grown by micropropagation, which can be generated in large numbers and, importantly, certified disease free.

Banana plants are greedy, they need lots of food, water and heat, but with this they grow very vigorously indeed. In plantations, bananas are usually picked when green and unripe, as they transport better that way, and can be ripened later. You can wait and pick then from the tree of course but be warned, it isn´t a myth about monkeys and bananas - given the chance they´ll eat the fruit before you have the chance to!

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Grass for cows

Cows eat grass. So all you need to do is stick a cow in a field and let her get on with it, right? Well, more or less. It you are doing this commercially, you cannot just use any grass, you plant it like a crop, and the choice of grass is very important. It´s nutritional value, how well it grows in this soil, in this climate etc etc. The most important grass for cattle production in Brazil, and in the tropics generally, is Brachiaria, or rather various strains of the Brachiaria genus.

Brachiaria evolved on the savannas of Africa. Some probably came over with the Portuguese, but it was first introduced on a commercial scale in the 1950s. First B. decumbens  in 1952 and later  B. ruziziensis in the 1960’s. It´s hard to be sure, but there might now be up to 80 milion hectares of Brachiaria grassland in Brazil. Brazil is the largest producer of Brachiaraia seeds in the Americas, although production and sales in Mexico and other countries are increasing rapidly.

Brachiaria grows incredibly quickly, up to a metre high. It can also tolerate drier conditions, more acidity and more light than most plants, giving nutritious grass on soils normally described as infertile. Most Brazilian pastures aren't fetilised so this can be important.

The problem with a crop that grows everywhere is that it DOES grow everywhere, from flooded Amazon pastures to savanna to the cerrado, and given half a chance will swamp native species. It can also swamp legumes in the pasture that might fertilise the soil. Conversely, it is very good for the local froghopper insects, who can eat so much it doesn't leave enough for the cows.

Also, rather unfortunately for a forage crop, it can poisonous. For some reason, certain individual animals can get sick and even die if they eat too much. Some individuals are more susceptible than others, and sheep are more susceptible than cows, but it is rare. The varieties that cause problems also tend to be the ones that survive best on poor soil. On the other hand, these varieties function well for the other use of Brachiaria, for erosion control by roads, railways and electricity lines.

Sunday, 17 June 2012


You can grow virtually anything in Brazil (apart apparently from grapefruit, to my chagrin). This includes apples ("maçãs")  though until the 1970s hardly anyone bothered, there was only about 100 hectares of commercial orchards in the 1960s. This is surprising given a) the number of German and Pomeranian immigrants, many of whom were farmers, and b) imports of apples at the time accounted for about 100 million US dollars. Following considerable government and state investment in the 70s there are now 37,000 ha under cultivation, with 3,450 growers, and 1,253 thousand tons of apples were picked in 2009/2010. This investment included the importation of guaranteed virus free material from the famous research station at East Malling, England, which alone increased productivity by 25-50%.

 Granny Smith apple

The commonest variety at the start was Golden Delicious and some Granny Smith, but these have been mainly replaced by Gala and Fuji, which make up 90% of production between them. In fact, it is often the redder types of these varieties, such as Royal Gala, Imperial Gala, Maxi Gala, Brookfield, Fuji Suprema, Fuji Seleta and Mishima, as these export better. Another development was increased use of "drawfing rootstocks". When you see an apple tree you are not seeing one tree but two, the bottom half from one variety, the top from another, joined together as seedlings. This allows you to get strong healthy trees (from the bottom part, the root stock and delicious apples, from the top). Another advantage of this is that if you choose the right rootstock, you can get dwarf trees, an idea developed at East Malling in the 1930s. Admittedly these have fewer apples per tree, but you can have a lot more trees per hectare, from roughly 600 to 2,500. This means more apples per hectare, and they are a lot easier to pick!

Fuji apples

Now, one peculiarity of apples is that they need a winter, or rather they need a period of cold, to induce the production of buds and flowers for next years crop. Gala and Fuji, for example, need more than 600 chilling hours (hours less than 7 C) to give a good crop. Even in the south of Brazil where there can be frosty nights, and even snow some days, this isn´t guaranteed, so sprays are used to mimic this as in parts of Europe. Commercially you also need to add bee hives to the orchard, as otherwise there simply won't be enough bees to pollinate the flowers! Of course, that does give you honey as a particularly delicious byproduct.

One emerging trend in Brazil is cider. This tends to be based on French rather than English techniques, but made much faster, without much maturing. Brazilian cider, like Brazilian wine, is made with extra sugar and can seem sweet to north European tastes.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Fruit flies

Leave any fruit out for long in Brazil and you will soon see hoards of little fruit flies ("moscas das frutas") swarming around it. These can be, frankly, a damm nuisance, but for farmers they are worse than that. Worldwide they are a major cause of crop loss. To give an example, for the last two years about half the harvest for some varieties of orange in the Brazilian state of Espirito Santo has been lost to fruit flies. 

Ceratitis capitata, one of the commonest fruit flies (Wikipedia)

The flies lay their eggs in the fruit, just under the surface. When they hatch the little larvae  happily eat away, safe from any predators, or indeed insecticide.  When ready they emerge and drop to the ground where they pupate and later emerge to fly away, the whole process taking about 20-30 days. In at least some species the male fly then does a little dance to attract his mate. Of course all this does not make the fruit very attractive, and it also causes it to fall prematurely.

It's not just oranges - guava, peach, tangerine, cherry, cashew, mango, acerola, jabuticaba, passion fruit, cashew, hog plum, and star fruit all suffer. Arabica coffee as well, not so much as the others, but it can act as a nursery for fruit flies, who then fly to orchards nearby. One of the few fruits with some resistance is papaya, probably because of repellents and toxins in the latex of unripe fruit. Even then, if infected with sticky papaya disease up 60 pupae can be found in each fruit.

 Ceratitis capitata larva (Wikipedia)

There is not just one species of fruit fly, far from it. The small Brazilian state of Espirito Santo has at least 41 species recorded. Terry Pratchett invented a God of Beetles, who made each one individually, there should probably be such a God for fruit flies as well!

Of course fruit flies don´t have it all their own way. Farmers spray against them, although the larvae are safely inside the fruit, and it can take quite a lot of insecticide to cover an orchard. One novel solution is to spray just a few trees with sugar solution, which attracts all the adult flies where they can be dealt with in a killing zone. And of course, for any herbivore there are predators. Parasitic wasps lay their own eggs in the fly larvae, and this can be so devastating to fly numbers that artificial rearing of these wasps is being considered - not very nice, but it is environmentally friendly.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Very big woodlice

 This startling creature is a "tatui". If it looks like a woodlouse, well it is a sort of cousin, but much, much, bigger! In fact Bathynomus giganticus, the largest species of tatui, can reach up to 76 centimetres long and weigh up to 1.7 kilograms! They can, slightly bizarrely, curl up into a ball just like their miniature cousins.

Tatuis live in the sea, and apparently, they are reasonably common along the Brazilian coast, but at depths of over 350m. Sometimes though they seem to appear much closer inland, and then they do get reported in local newspapers, usually when someone's toes have been nipped! They have quite a strong bite, eating sea urchins and other slow creatures on the sea floor, as well as scavenging whatever carcases they can find. Surprisingly, despite being heavily armoured, they themselves sometimes end up as meals for sharks.

An interesting video describing the (often disgusting) habits of marine isopods, including the tatui, can be found here....

Wednesday, 23 May 2012


The online version of the newspaper Agazetta recently carried a report about a "jiboia" found by a road in the coastal city of Vila Velha in Brazil. On one side was a field of long grass, and forest, on the other a series of modern apartment blocks.

There are two types of jiboia, of Boa constrictor, found in Brazil, but given the location this is probably Boa constrictor amarali .

B. c. amarali normally hunts at night and rests during the day, and it normally found in trees, not on the road! In fact the gentleman in the photo said it was only the second one he had ever seen. It's normal prey are birds, or maybe lizards, but there is at least one recorded example of one taking a tree porupine. This was a mistake! We only know about it because the unfortunate snake (and unfortunate porcupine!) died and were found. The jiboia in this case was probably a young one, apparently small young snakes normally try for larger prey than mature large ones - they learn!

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The purple tree of Lent

Drive through the Mata Atlantica at this time of year and you will see a hundred shades of green, but also trees drenched in purple - the Quaresmeiras.

Actually, there are several different Quaresmeiras, all members of the Tibouchina genus. One of the commonest is Tibouchina granulosa, found from Bahia down to Parana in the south of Brazil. It's evergreen, or at least semi-deciduous, depending on the location, and about medium height, 8-12 m. The flowers which are so distinctive can appear from January to April, or June to August, but they are traditionally associated with Lent, or "Quaresma", hence Quaresmeira. In contrast, the seed pods are small, about 12mm, and brown, whilst the seeds themselves are tiny.

One problem T. granulosa does have is that it is susceptible to Cryphonectria canker - and so are Eucalyptus trees. Extensive planting of Eucalyptus plantations in the Mata Atlantica, and Quaresmeiras as ornamental trees around the world means that it still isn't clear which has spread the disease to which! On the other hand, their wood is fairly useless, which for such a conspicuous tree is probably a good thing.

Use in landscaping, like several trees from the Mata Atlantica, has also been good for T. granulosa, spreading far beyond its original range so that it is apparently quite common in Florida and Hawaii, even South Africa. It's pretty, not too tall, and easy to grow So easy to grow in fact that it can be used to revegetate degraded areas and it will tolerate poor soils. It can also tolerate cool temperatures at night, which means that it grows quite happily in the hills, and provides a lot pleasure to the people there.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Very small frogs

The newspaper OGlobo recently reported a discovery in the state of Espirito Santo, the aptly named Flea Frog ("Sapo pulga"), or Brachycephalus didactylus, the worlds smallest frog. It has actually been found before near Rio, but this is the first siting elsewhere in the Mata Atlantica. Of course, just because it isn't seen, that doesn't mean it isn't there. After all, Flea frogs are a) very, very, small, b) they live hidden in leaf litter on the forest floor, c) they are camouflaged, and d) they only move around at night.

Obviously baby Flea frogs are even smaller, but not that small, females only lay one egg at a time, rather than the 1,000+ the European Common frog for example. However, like Common frogs, Flea frogs eat more or less any invertebrates they can catch, which means very small ones, like mites or springtails.

If you would like to see the original report (in Portuguese) it can be found here...

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Kelp gulls

As I've mentioned before, you won't find sea gulls on the beaches of Copacabana or Ipanema in Rio. However, go further south, down to Santa Catarina and beyond, and they do start to appear. One of the commonest is the Kelp Gull, or Larus dominicus - the "dominicus" part coming from the Dominican order of friars who also had black and white plumage. In Brazil it's known as the "Gaviota dominicana".

In fact, the Kelp gull is not just found in Brazil, but all over the southern hemisphere, from the Falkland Islands to South Africa to New Zealand and Australia. As with many successful species they are ominvores, eating almost anything, which means that like their northern cousins they flock to waste sites and rubbish tips. Also, rather nastily, they seem to have a habit of pecking into whales when they surface. Slightly more admirably, they seem to be intelligent enough to use tools, or at least use stones to smash open mussel shells. They also pick up mussels and drop them from a great height, quite a common sight on the Falklands apparently.

The one thing don't eat is kelp, or seaweed - the name probably comes from seeing them investigating weed washed up on the shore looking for molluscs or insects.

Monday, 23 January 2012


The ancestors of the fuchsias that brighten your garden were once growing in the forests of Central and South America. Exactly how they got to England is a bit of a mystery as there are many differing stories. One has a sea captain in the 1790s, Captain Firth, bringing a plant back from a voyage to the Americas and giving it to his wife who lived in Hammersmith. She liked it and planted it on her window sill where a local horticulturalist, James Lee, saw it. Now, fashionable society was in the middle of a plant collecting craze, and recognising a gold mine when he saw one he offered an incredible 80 pounds for the single plant. He knew what he was doing as he then sold cuttings for 10 to 20 pounds each. The popularity of the new flowers grew, with a desire for new forms- there are over 110 natural species of fuchsias, so almost endless possibilities for hybridisation, leading to the huge variety of colours and shapes seen today.

This is Fuchsia regia, "brinco-de-princesa". More a vine than a tree or shrub, it can grow over 20 ft high, supporting itself on other plants as it struggles to reach the light. It's found from Minas and Espirito Santo down to Argentina, though generally only growing above 700m in the hotter latitudes. These were found at the Itaimbezinho canyons near Porto Alegre in the south of Brazil, part of the amazing Aparados da Serra National Park, where they are often shrouded in mist at night.

Regia was one of the original fuchsias used for plant breeding, and is still used for this today as it's a) very pretty, b) vigorous and c) resistant to the Fuchsia gall mite (Aculops fuchsiae, which also comes from Brazil). You can actually use it as a garden plant, but it needs an awful lot of pruning.