Brazil’s Middle Earth

A white-vented violetear hummingbird feeds on the nectar of the flowers of a Stachytarpheta glabra

Thanks to Augusto Gomes for bringing this region, unknown to us, to our attention:

Life on the rocks in Brazil’s campo rupestre

In a little-known region that calls to mind Tolkien’s Middle-earth, photojournalist Augusto Gomes marvels at one of the oldest, harshest, most biodiverse – and most threatened – ecosystems on the planet

Lutz’s poison frog, which feeds primarily on ants

When I was a child, my family would drive three hours from our home in Belo Horizonte to visit my grandfather’s ranch near the town of Santana dos Montes. On the way, we would cross the Espinhaço mountain range, which runs north to south in the central-eastern portion of Brazil.

Espinhaço means “spine” in Portuguese, and the name could not be more apt. The range spans 1,200km (750 miles), its bony peaks reach as high as 2km, and the thriving, humid Atlantic Forest drops away to the east, foggy and dense with evergreens, ferns, mosses and bromeliads, the air bursting with the strange songs of birds you never see. On the west side of the mountains, the arid, savannah-like Cerrado stretches flat and exposed, with golden grasslands and small, twisted trees.

But it was the place in between those two dramatically different ecosystems that captivated me as a child. The rupestrian grassland – the campo rupestre, from the Latin for “found on rocks” – is a land of dramatic temperature variations, strong winds, ruthless sun and nutrient-scarce, heavy metal-laden soils. There are islands of forest in the mountains, as well as patches of flat savanna and shrubland. But most of the Espinhaço is covered in stone.

It was, for our family, an adventure just to arrive there, dirt roads turning muddy and sodden when it rained. Topping off in the mountain valleys, it felt as if we were entering another planet – an ancient landscape forgotten in time and recaptured on the dusty pages of stories such as JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The bluish silhouettes of the surrounding peaks rise above like a fortress, and thousands of sharp boulders sprout from the ground, all pointing in the same direction as if they had been broken by someone and placed with great intention.

At first glance, those rocks appear lifeless. But on closer inspection, the landscape is full of life. Countless tiny flowers lie between the stones, roots spread like spiders’ webs across the surface, in search of water and nutrients. Behind the boulders, there are orchids, bromeliads, grasses. They grow and reproduce slowly, focusing their energy on underground root structures that provide reserves for hard times. There are shrubs such as the sharp-leafed, alien-like canela-de-ema, from the Velloziaceae family, which evolved several layers of bark separated by air, like cinnamon sticks, to protect from frequent fires. And the sempre-viva (everlasting) bush, whose leaves absorb nutrients from the carcasses and faeces of spiders’ prey and whose thousands of tiny white flowers resemble an exploding universe, a big bang in miniature…

Read the whole article here.

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