Alcatrazes archipelago is a living laboratory for evolutionary studies

The Alcatrazes Archipelago was a former target for cannon fire, Alcatrazes is a living laboratory for evolutionary studies.

The Alcatrazes Archipelago is just a few kilometers off the coast of the state of São Paulo, a small group of islands of strategic importance to Brazil that has been the target of different interests.

Alcatrazes Archipelago
Alcatrazes Archipelago

Isolated from the mainland for around 20,000 years, the land animals of the Alcatrazes Archipelago, located 35 km off the coast of São Paulo, hold secrets about the process of evolution.

Location of the Alcatrazes Archipelago
Location of the Alcatrazes Archipelago

The Alcatrazes archipelago is made up of five larger islands and several smaller islets and rocky outcrops that point out over the intense blue of the Atlantic.

Map of the Alcatrazes Archipelago
Map of the Alcatrazes Archipelago

About three hours by boat from the port of São Sebastião, the largest island in the group, also known as Alcatrazes, has a great diversity of plants and animals, many of which are threatened with extinction and occur nowhere else on the planet.

This wildlife sanctuary, its animals and plants have been studied for decades.

The island’s history, its scenic beauty, as well as the ease with which you can observe some of the most iconic species that inhabit this huge mountain in the sea, continue to attract the interest of conservationists and nature lovers, such as birdwatchers, divers and biologists from all over the world.

Two species are especially abundant there – the common frigatebird (Fregata magnificens), also known as the shearwater, and the brown booby (Sula leucogaster).

As soon as you arrive on the island, and well before you disembark, you can already see hundreds of birds flying over the sparse forest that looms imposingly over the huge rocky outcrop.

Disembarkation takes place under the watchful eye of the frigatebirds and boobies of Alcatrazes, the largest island bird breeding site in south-eastern Brazil.

But the archipelago is not only home to seabirds.

Among the residents, three others are worth mentioning, and were the reason for my visit, accompanied by a group of scientists from the Butantan Institute, in November 2020: a snake (Bothrops alcatraz), a frog (Ololygon alcatraz) and a frog (Cycloramphus faustoi).

The snake and the frog were only described after the turn of the millennium – in 2002 and 2007, respectively. Because they are restricted to Alcatrazes, a small and fragile area, the three species are in the critically endangered category, the highest on the Official National List of Endangered Fauna Species.

Although researchers visited the archipelago sporadically in the early 20th century, these discoveries and descriptions were the result of intensified research on the island in the 1980s and 90s, the same period in which the island began to be bombed, literally.

Brazilian Navy used Alcatrazes Island as a target in cannon-firing exercises

At the beginning of the 1980s, Alcatrazes was used by the Brazilian Navy as a target for gunboat firing exercises.

Despite protests from environmentalists who were beginning to discover the biodiversity of the place – ignited after a fire caused by gunfire destroyed 20 hectares of the island in 2004 – military practices continued until 2016, when the Alcatrazes Archipelago Wildlife Refuge was created.

Visitation by tourists was opened at the end of 2018 and is tightly controlled – landing on the islands is still forbidden.

Today, the main island is fully protected and firing exercises, when they take place, are held on Sapata, a smaller island that is not so densely populated by species of fauna and flora.

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