The Amazon River is one of Earth’s longest rivers, flowing 4,000 miles across South America from the Andes Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. The immense area drained by the Amazon River and its tributaries is known as the Amazon Basin. It is home to an important natural reservoir of plant and animal diversity: the Amazon rain forest, Earth’s largest tropical rain forest, whose original extent covered an area two-thirds the size of the United States. The Amazon Basin also contains many other habitats—from dry forests to dry or super-wet savannas, mountains, and rocky hills—each with its own rich composition of species. Altogether, the Amazon Basin is home to at least 30,000 different species of ferns, flowering plants and gymnosperms (the first seed plants such as cone-bearing conifers).
The Amazon basin remains severely understudied. As a crude indicator of this, consider that the Brazilian Amazon is home to some 12,500 species of vascular plants in an area of approximately 2.12 million square miles. The William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, the largest herbarium in the western hemisphere, has some 150,000 specimens from the Brazilian Amazon, equivalent to one specimen from every 14 square miles, with an average of 12 specimens per species. Species that are widespread in the Brazilian Amazon, not an uncommon distribution pattern, are represented by one specimen for every 177,000 square miles, an area larger than the size of California. How well would we understand the flora of California if each species were represented by one specimen in the herbarium?
Although The New York Botanical Garden was founded in 1891, in a sense its history of scientific work in Amazonia began a decade earlier when Henry Hurd Rusby, future Garden scientist and colleague of founding director Nathaniel Lord Britton, descended the Andes Mountains and arrived at Rurrenabaque, Bolivia. The collections Rusby made on that expedition formed part of the core of the Garden’s fledgling herbarium. Now with nearly 50 years of continuous collaboration with in-country colleagues in various parts of the Amazon Basin, Botanical Garden scientists continue to co-lead efforts to discover, understand, conserve, and manage its incomparable plant diversity.
NYBG’s Amazon Projects:
Assembly and Evolution of the Amazonian Biota and its Environment: An Integrated Approach
First Catalogue of the Flora of Acre, Brazil
Floristic Exploration in Southwestern Amazonia
Floristic Inventory of the Tapajos National Forest and Amazonia National Park
Legume Research at The New York Botanical Garden
Professional Woodsmen for Managed Forests in Amazonian Brazil