The Hidden Universe: Adventures in Biodiversity

In Conversation with Alexandre Antonelli

Julia Knights


Photos by Alexandre Antonelli, Lydia Shellien-Walker, Junia Carreira, Rhian Smith, and Thomas Berg.

The tropical Atlantic Forest of South America is one of the most biodiverse biomes on Earth, encompassing mangrove forests, tropical and subtropical shrublands, grasslands, and seasonally moist and dry broad-leaf tropical forests. Extending along the Atlantic Coast of parts of eastern Brazil, eastern Paraguay and north-eastern Argentina, the forest is home to many endemic species found nowhere else on Earth. And yet just 8% remains. I spoke to Professor Alexandre Antonelli, Brazilian evolutionary biologist and author of The Hidden Universe – Adventures in Biodiversity, who is Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, in the UK to explore the incredible species that live in the Atlantic Forest, what scientists are doing to monitor and protect the biome and how all of us can help to save and preserve what is left for future generations before it is too late.

Tangara desmaresti / Brassy breasted tanager © Alexandre Antonelli

Julia Knights: In your book The Hidden Universe: Adventures in Biodiversity, you highlight how a million species are predicted to be at risk of extinction now. How have we got to this globally and can we reverse this?

Prof Alexandre Antonelli: It’s a really large number indeed, considering that we estimate there to be some 8.7 million species globally. For plants, we believe around 2 in 5 species are at risk of extinction – so around 40% of the world’s c. 350,000 vascular plants are likely to be threatened. There are several reasons behind these dire numbers: the destruction of natural environments, the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, climate change, competition with invasive species, new pests and diseases, pollution … While humans have always had an impact on biodiversity, it is primarily over the last few centuries that we have seen the biggest negative effects. But yes, we can still reverse this. In my book, I talk about what science tells us in terms of the urgent measures needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss, which go from large-scale solutions such as increased protection and restoration, to the importance of companies and governments, and the lifestyle choices that we all make each day.

JK: You grew up in Southeast Brazil close to the Atlantic Forest. Was it this forest that inspired you to become an evolutionary biologist?

AA: The Atlantic Forest got me absolutely passionate about nature.  I was struck by the amazing variety of life forms all around me. You really don’t need to walk much in a place like that – you just need to stand still and absorb all the sounds, scents and sights of the myriad things happening all around. I didn’t know anything about evolution though, and my later education would make me realise that what we see today is simply a snapshot of billions of years of evolution, which still continues.

JK: The Atlantic Forest of South America is made up of many endemic species found nowhere else and of many biomes including mangrove forests, tropical & subtropical shrublands, grasslands and seasonal moist and dry broad-leaf tropical forests. It extends along the Atlantic Coast of parts of eastern Brazil but also reaches eastern Paraguay and north-eastern Argentina. Can you share something about your favourite endemic species and what makes this forest so special?

AA: I’ve had the opportunity of doing fieldwork in lots of places across all of Latin America, and parts of Africa and Madagascar, but the Atlantic Forest is by far my favourite biome – both because of my personal connections to it, and because of its outstanding biodiversity and endemism at the level of species and populations. But this is also an unsung region, much less known than its larger counterpart the Amazonian rainforest, which gets all the attention from the public and scientists. As a young boy, I was fascinated by the extreme diversity of monkeys, including some amazingly beautiful and endangered species such as the golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia). Some of my absolute favourite fruits are also endemic to the Atlantic Forest, such as jabuticaba (Plinia cauliflora) and pitanga (Eugenia uniflora).

JK: Your research focuses on biogeography, the evolution and origins of whole ecosystems & how biodiversity is changing over time and space. Can you tell us a bit about what your research and that of your colleagues at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has revealed?

AA: The most important insight I’ve gained is that nature is very dynamic, and that very few things occur at random: biodiversity responds to changes in climate and geology in largely predictable ways. There’s a constant interplay between biotic and abiotic factors, such as competition among species, adaptation to new environments and pressures, and some degree of chance – particularly when it comes to long-distance dispersal of species across large oceans or other barriers. By sequencing DNA from thousands of species in our living and preserved collections at Kew and elsewhere, we have been able to trace back how different groups of species have colonised new regions, diversified into new life forms, and come to dominate entire ecosystems. 

JK: You’ve also studied the fossil record. What does that sequence of extinct organisms preserved in rock spanning geological time tell us about the levels of extinction of species in the Atlantic Forest and elsewhere?

AA: Fossils are incredibly helpful in ascertaining the presence of a particular species or genus at a particular location and time, which in turn can tell us a lot about how the ecosystem looked. Unfortunately, there is very little fossil data available for the Atlantic Forest. In contrast, my and other researchers’ studies of the Amazonian fossil record show massive changes in biodiversity as landscapes changed in response to the uplift of the Andean mountain chain. There have been phases of great extinction, such as when widespread wetlands in western Amazonia became drained, killing a rich fauna of crocodilians and other giant reptiles. But there have also been phases of rapid speciation, such as among Amazonian trees.

JK: What are the key drivers for the loss of the Atlantic tropical rainforest in Brazil,  how much is left and how has the remaining forest been able to remain intact?

AA: The Atlantic Forest used to cover the entire eastern coast of South America, but today there is only about 8% left of its original extent, mostly in small forest fragments on mountain slopes with difficult access, which explains their persistence up to now. There are different estimates on the proportion of forest left, depending on the quality of the forest and size of the remaining fragments. Virtually all this deforestation has taken place since the arrival of European colonisers about five centuries ago, with most forest lost over the last 200 years or so. The cultivation of large monocultures – cotton, sugar cane, coffee, maize, and most recently soybeans – alongside the felling of valuable timber and the expansion of urban environments all contributed to this negative development. Today, beef production is also a major driver of deforestation. National legislation over the last 15 years has been effective in slowing down deforestation, although it still continues and is mostly illegal.

JK: Research on the tipping point of the Amazon rainforest beyond which it may become savannah, exacerbated by climate change and also by mass deforestation is well documented. Is the Atlantic Forest also facing a tipping point too?

AA: We don’t really know, but it is highly likely that parts of the Atlantic Forest – in particular the more seasonal regions in the Brazilian Shield, including parts of the Cerrado savannahs – may respond in similar ways to the Amazon. It has always been more difficult to model the responses of the Atlantic Forest to climate change given its high level of habitat heterogeneity, including rugged topography in many areas. Deforestation there can also lead to high levels of erosion, nutrient run-off and poor resilience to extreme climate events.

JK: Very little media attention is paid to the plight of Atlantic tropical forest. The same is true for the temperate Atlantic rainforest, of which just 1% remains in the UK for example.  Why is the plight of both the tropical and temperate Atlantic rainforests receiving so little attention in your opinion?

AA: Good question – maybe because there is just so little of them left, and therefore it’s not very easy for most people to relate on a personal level. This is why researching more and communicating about these ecosystems is so important. I am trying to do just that for the tropical Atlantic Forest (, and I recently met with Guy Shrubsole who is doing that for the temperate rainforest in the UK.

JK: How do you balance advocating for people to reconnect with nature versus leaving these precious areas in peace for nature to thrive?

AA: Getting the balance right is very important. Well-marked and maintained trails, good visitor information and guided tours are just some of the ways to help people gain a closer and more informed connection with nature, while minimising damage. I think some particularly sensitive areas need to be ‘no-go’ zones, while others can be opened for visitors once an assessment of visitor impacts is carried out and mitigation measures put in place, such as setting up basic visitor infrastructure.

JK: How can we learn from the past to have a chance to protect this precious biome for future generations?

AA: A key learning from evolutionary biology and biogeography is that species need to move freely across landscapes. As climate has changed, species and entire ecosystems have shifted their ranges to track their preferred environments, and this knowledge shows how crucial it is to create biological corridors connecting forest fragments. It is also important to protect land areas at higher elevations, to which plant and animal communities can migrate as temperatures increase. Mountains are particularly important places, as they sustain high levels of biodiversity and can offer cooler refuges where species shifting their ranges can persist and thrive.

JK: The exploitative view of biodiversity, that each species exists to have a use for humans continues to be popular. This seems concerning given that a single species with as yet no known use to humans, might not be preserved. What are your thoughts on how we can guard against this?

AA: I feel we need to shift mindsets. Species are not our slaves, and they are not here for our own benefit. I think conservationists need to avoid strengthening the utility argument too much, because it is nearly impossible to demonstrate how the extinction of a mosquito in Borneo or a tree in Brazil would have a negative impact on everyone’s lives. Recognising nature for its own inherent values, alongside its numerous contributions to people, is probably a better way forward. That said, it is true that the cure for the next pandemic could be hiding in Congo’s rainforest, and that the next major crops could be derived from underutilised crop wild relatives. Each species carries a large but mostly unknown potential to improve our lives and help us tackle big societal challenges.

JK: Many indigenous communities recognise the rights of nature and species. You highlight in your book how ‘Rights of Nature’ are endeavouring to assign biodiversity legal rights to rivers, oceans & mountains for them to exist, persist and regenerate. Ecuador was the first country to take up this idea. How successful has that been in conserving biodiversity? And how successful has the uptake across other countries been?

AA: The movement has been gaining momentum, with more and more political leaders across the world speaking out about it. It’s probably too early to judge success, but attributing legal rights to nature is definitely a strong and promising mechanism to aid biological conservation. A consequence of this debate is the increasing number of calls to recognise ecocide as an international crime – something that could lead to several spin-off benefits, such as increased accountability of individuals for decisions that can have far-reaching environmental impacts and help guide private and public investments towards environmentally sustainable portfolios.

JK: The introduction of keystone species, species that have such critical effects on nature is key.  Do these species gain enough attention?

AA: Keystone species have a disproportionate impact on the ecosystems in which they live. Although they are being increasingly recognised in conservation projects, most people are still probably not aware of their importance. Their presence in healthy numbers is a sign of habitat quality, which can help us guide conservation priorities as well as restoration targets. While most species recognised as keystone are animals, I hope plants and fungi will also gain more attention and appreciation for their ecological roles.

JK: We are undergoing a mass extinction with species now being lost hundreds to thousands of times faster compared to pre-human times. What would be your message to governments and to individuals globally in terms of halting this? How can each of us make a difference?

AA: THIS IS REALLY, REALLY SERIOUS!! The consequences of this new wave of human-driven mass extinction cannot be overstated – neither for us nor ecosystems. In many regions, we are on the brink of ecosystem collapse, and are already seeing massive impacts on people’s livelihoods as well as domino effects affecting food webs and ecosystem functions. I honestly do not know of a challenge that is higher priority than bending the curve on biodiversity loss, so that we can start living in harmony with nature. It is a fact that all sustainable development goals benefit – directly or indirectly – from us protecting and restoring nature, both on land and at sea. Achieving that will require actions from governments, industries, philanthropists, you and me. I added two big chapters in my book about what we all can do, based on best available evidence, and why it matters for biodiversity. These chapters range from things we can do in our own garden to the choices we make in the supermarket, how to detox our homes, our soft power at work, taking control of how our savings and pension are used, and much more.

JK: You and your family have bought some virgin Atlantic Forest near Rio de Janeiro to research and conserve it. What motivated you to do this and what do you hope this project can acheive?

AA: I have been a researcher for over 20 years and published a large number of scientific publications, but I felt that my work wasn’t having the positive impact on the ground that I wish it did. At the same time, I was growing increasingly frustrated with the way things were going in Brazil, with a government not committed nor properly resourced to protect and restore the Atlantic Forest. So my wife and I used nearly all our savings to buy 120 hectares of pristine rainforest, not far from Rio de Janeiro. We plan to use that forest as the headquarters of a large initiative in the region – the Atlantic Forest Research and Conservation Alliance ( We have set up non-profit foundations ( to gather funds to support projects in conservation, restoration, research and training. We are really optimistic about the prospects and have received a generous initial donation, but are very keen to find further supporters willing to contribute.

JK: In May this year, global media reported on a plan to introduce legislation which would dilute the powers of Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment by removing its responsibility to police the rural environmental registry—a key tool used to combat illegal deforestation.  Reports also suggested that the Ministry of Indigenous People may have its powers to demarcate indigenous territories moved to another ministry. What impact do you feel this will have on biomes in Brazil if passed?

AA: These are very worrying developments in a government that initially promised a great level of positive change for environmental protection. It is hard to predict what these changes would lead to in practice but I hope the government will carefully consider the consequences of passing any laws that reduce the ability of authorities to carry out conservation and monitor the sustainable use of natural resources. There is also a risk of the image sent to international media and observers, and how this might negatively influence international investments in the country, such as support for restoration and conservation to help tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.

JK: What would be the incentive that would make a difference to ensuring that the remaining Atlantic Forest in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina is preserved and expanded?

AA: My dream is for the Atlantic Forest to double its current extent – from its c. 8% to about 16% – in my lifetime. The financial incentives to realise this dream will certainly not come from a single source, but I know there is a tremendous amount of money out there, and many people and organisations wanting to do the right thing. So I hope that the right investments will be made to understand, protect and restore this amazing part of our natural world.

We absolutely can, and must, revert the current negative trend for nature. We know – from all research produced to date – that there IS still time to reverse this situation. It is just a matter of priorities, funds, and action.

The Hidden Universe:  Adventures in Biodiversity by Alexandre Antonelli is published by Penguin Random House, 2022.

A bird eating a spider © Alexandre Antonelli

Stemonitidaceae / Slime mould © Alexandre Antonelli

Selenidera maculirostri / Spot-billed toucanet © Alexandre Antonelli

Scinax nebulosus / Spix’s snouted tree frog © Alexandre Antonelli

Proceratophrys melanopogon / Horned Frog © Alexandre Antonelli

Pleurotus / Oyster mushroom © Thomas Berg

Cyathea / Tree fern © Thomas Berg

Piaya cayana / Squirrel cuckoo © Alexandre Antonelli

Lichens growing on tree bark © Lydia Shellien-Walker / Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Researchers João Araújo, Igor Kessous, and Alexandre Antonelli © Lydia Shellien-Walker / Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Researcher Alexandre Salino studying ferns in the Atlantic Forest © Thomas Berg

Leucochloris albicollis / White-throated hummingbird © Alexandre Antonelli

Atlantic Forest in the mountains of Três Picos estate park © Alexandre Antonelli

Atlantic Forest from above © Alexandre Antonelli

Deforestation of the Atlantic Forest © Alexandre Antonelli

Deforestation of the Atlantic Forest in APA Macaé de Cima © Alexandre Antonelli

Ceratinia vitrea / Clearwing butterfly © Junia Carreira

Atlantic Forest © Alexandre Antonelli

Atlantic Forest © Alexandre Antonelli

Basileuterus culicivorus / Golden-crowned warbler © Alexandre Antonelli

Atlantic Forest © Alexandre Antonelli

Automeris beckeri / Moth caterpillar © Thomas Berg

Alexandre Antonelli identifying plant species in the Atlantic Forest © Rhian Smith / Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Julia Knights

is the

Ecology & Conservation Editor for Panorama.

A soil and climate scientist, Julia has over 20 years experience in ecology, climate change, sustainable agriculture and conservation as a writer, policy maker, diplomat, and in public engagement. Previously Julia spent 12 years working in China, Russia, and Latin America overseeing major research funding programmes including for UK-Brazil research for new plant species in the Amazon rainforest. Julia is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology and a member of the Royal Society’s Committee on Public Engagement.

Alexandre Antonelli

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Prof Alexandre Antonelli is the Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the UK, where his goal is to strengthen and further develop Kew as a global centre of excellence in plant and fungal knowledge and to promote evidence-based solutions to major challenges. A botanist by training, he is a professor of Biodiversity at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, a visiting professor at the University of Oxford, founder of the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre, co-founder and president of the Antonelli Foundations for Biodiversity Research and Conservation, and one of the world's most cited scientists. Alexandre's research to date has encompassed the study of the formation, extinction, and migration of species, identifying the roles of abiotic (e.g. climate, landscape) and biotic (e.g. competition, adaptation) drivers of biodiversity change through space and time. He is also engaged in interactions with society and scientists across disciplines, with the main goal of increasing the knowledge, awareness and protection of biological diversity around the world. In 2022 he was awarded the Senckenberg Prize for Nature Research.

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