Dr Jackie Rosette (standing, white shirt) at the base of the 83 metre tree discovered in the Amazon, with her colleagues on the research expedition.

Dr Jackie Rosette (front, white shirt) with other members of the research expedition at the base of the giant tree in the Amazon.  Credit:  Rafael Aleixo

A Swansea geographer has recently returned from the Amazon with vital data on giant trees of over 80 metres, which she first helped discover in 2018. As a result of this work, the State government in Brazil has pledged to enact a Bill to protect them and their surroundings.

Dr Jackie Rosette is part of a Brazilian and UK team that first detected six giant trees - up to 88.5 metres high – using airborne laser surveys. The discovery was remarkable as the Amazon was not previously thought to be capable of supporting trees of such size.

The Amazon is the largest tropical forest on Earth, covering 5.5 million square kilometres. Of all the carbon that is stored by vegetation around the world, 17% of it is kept locked up in the Amazon.

At the end of 2021, Dr Rosette and colleagues embarked on a research expedition to the eastern Amazon region to reach the trees – through exceptionally difficult terrain – with the aim of gathering data about them in the field.

Supported by members of two forest communities, the researchers succeeded in reaching their target of one of the giants: a tree that is over 83 metres in height, the third tallest of those first detected in 2018.

Known scientifically as Dinizia excelsa (Angelim vermelho locally), the researchers estimate it to be 4-500 years old. As the majority of the canopy foliage is around 45 metres in height, these giants tower above the surrounding trees.

The team’s work combined traditional field survey techniques, such as measuring the tree’s dimensions, surrounding trees and terrain, and taking samples of the soil around it, with using the latest technologies to collect data. Professor Pedro Anderson launched a drone through a gap in the forest canopy to observe the emerging treetop, and Dr Rosette used a handheld laser scanner to collect structural data about the tree and its habitat.

They found that the giant trees account for a substantial proportion of the biomass found in their surrounding area. This means that these individuals hold an important responsibility for storing the carbon of their habitat - estimated to be 60-70% of the local carbon. Their preservation, continued survival and recognition of their role are therefore fundamental in our own fight against climate change.

As well as gathering vital scientific data, the expedition also succeeded in another of its aims, which was to raise awareness of our responsibilities over this unique environment and to secure protected status for the giant trees.

Their research was covered widely in the Brazilian media and whilst in the country they held meetings with several government officials. This led to a written commitment by the Public Ministry of Amapá State to recommend enactment of a Bill to protect the giant trees and the areas around them, giving them “National Monument” status. The team’s research results will be used as evidence to support this legislation.

Watch:  Brazilian TV news report on the expedition, including footage of the tree and interview with Dr Jackie Rosette  

The participation of members of forest communities was essential in making the expedition a success, with the local support team providing expertise and knowledge of the forest, its dangers and resources. The team are now hoping to establish a research base in the region for scientists to use, which would provide employment and income opportunities for community members supporting future research and projects.

A further research expedition to the region is planned for 2022, with the aim of reaching the very tallest tree, which is over 88 metres high and located in even more remote and challenging terrain.

Dr Jackie Rosette, Royal Society University Research Fellow in the Geography Department at Swansea University, said:

“It really was amazing to stand in awe beneath the giant that we had detected in our analysis, and exciting to be within primary forest surrounded by the noise of life in the Amazon!

The scientific data we obtained are vital in enhancing our understanding of the giant trees, their habitat and the dominant role they play in capturing and storing carbon.

A major achievement from our expedition was the commitment from the State government to use our findings to help assign protected status to the trees and their surrounding areas. This is a huge result. It shows how research can have a direct impact on the most important issues the world faces.

Our expedition was a true team effort, led by my colleague Professor Eric Gorgens, involving six researchers with complementary expertise, and working closely with forest communities with their intimate knowledge of the Amazon Forest. Protecting the Amazon and its giant trees is vital for us all. I am proud that my research is part of this important and exciting discovery.”

Professor Eric Bastos Gorgens is from Universidade Federal dos Vales do Jequitinhonha e Mucuri. Fellow Brazilian senior researcher Professor Pedro Anderson is from Instituto Federal do Amapá.

Read the team's recent research paper about the trees

Study geography at Swansea University

Sustainable Futures, Energy and the Environment - Swansea research

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