The Atlantic Forest (known as Mata Atlântica in Portuguese) is the second largest rainforest in South America after the Amazon. It originally extended along the Atlantic coast of Brazil from Rio Grande do Norte state in the north to Rio Grande do Sul state in the south, and inland as far as Paraguay and the Misiones Province of Argentina, where it is known as Selva Misionera.

It was the first environment that the Portuguese colonists encountered over 500 years ago, and where 70% of all Brazilians presently live, including some of Brazil’s largest cities like Rio do Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Curitiba. As a result of this colonization process, an estimated 93% of the original Atlantic Forest has been transformed.

Due to differences on elevation and distance to the ocean, the Atlantic Forest includes several distinct ecosystems such as coastal forests on stabilized coastal dunes or restingas, mangroves, lowland rainforests, montane moist forests, Araucaria forests and shrubby montane savannas, which occur at the highest elevations. The combination of different ecosystems and a humid tropical climate accounts for one of the highest levels of biological diversity in the World. The Atlantic Forest harbors around 20,000 species of plants, with almost 450 tree species being found in just one hectare in some occasions. Also, an estimated 2,200 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians live in the Atlantic Forest.

This biological diversity is complemented by high levels of endemism. Because of its isolation from the Amazon Basin by a drier region to its west, the Atlantic Forest contains many distinct species of plants and animals.

Atlantic Forest Map

Brazilian atlantic forest

Taxonomic groupSpecies diversity
(number of known species)
% of endemism
(species only found here)
Vascular plants20.000 species20%
Freshwater fishes133 species40%
Amphibians> 450 species50%
Reptiles> 300 species95%
Birds> 900 species15%
Mammals260 species27%

Mangrove

Atlantic forest

Howler monkey

The Atlantic forest also provides water for most of the Brazilian population, helps to mitigate climate change and to prevent natural disasters, and its associated coastal mangroves act as nurseries for much of Brazil fisheries. It is also home for several indigenous groups such as the guaranis and kaingangs, plus other traditional groups as the caiçaras and quilombolas.

Photography by Zig Koch & Luciano Candisani