The Pantanal Wetlands - A Traveler´s Guide

The highest concentration of wildlife anywhere in Latin America is hiding in plain sight in the Brazilian Pantanal.  It is the world´s largest freshwater wetland and one of the most pristine.  The  Pantanal is immense covering an estimated area of up to 81,000 square miles, or 210,000 square kilometres. This area is an unparalleled wildlife sanctuary of spectacular beauty, an ecological paradise containing hundreds of species of birds, thousands of varieties of butterflies, myriads of brightly coloured flowers, and shoals of fish. Capuchin and Howler monkeys, capybaras, toucans, anacondas, caimans and tapirs help create an aquatic and sylvan theatre of sights and sounds.

Pantanal Facts

How large exactly is the Pantanal?

The Pantanal is truly immense, but a quick internet search will make it obvious that there is no clear consensus as to its exact size.   According to the Waterland Research Institute, the most commonly encountered academic estimates place the area of the entire Pantanal of Brazil, and areas that straddle into Bolivia and Paraguay between 140,000 km2 (54,000 square miles) and 210,000 km2 (81,000 square miles). Principally this is because of the dynamic nature of the Pantanal itself.  The areas that become flooded vary not only from season to season, but from year to year, and sedimentation causes areas that were once permanently dry to become flooded and areas that were once flooded to become dry.  According to the IGBE, the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica, the area of the Pantanal within Brazil is 150.355  km², which represents 1.76% of the total area of Brazil. This figure reflects the limits of the biome drawn on a map as if is defined by law for land management practices, within this area are areas of Cerrado biome and outside of this area are places that biologists might attribute to the Pantanal.  35% of the Brazilian Pantanal is situated in the state of Mato Grosso while 65% is located in Mato Grosso do Sul.

It is hard to understand the immensity of the Pantanal from the numbers themselves.  To put this in perspective, the Pantanal is larger than at least nine countries in Europe, and 29 American states.  The Pantanal covers an area the size of Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal and Holland combined.  It is ten times the size of the Florida Everglades. The Pantanal has an area larger than the size of more than half of the world’s countries, containing millions of acres of biologically rich land and rivers,

 Why does the Pantanal have the largest concentration of wildlife anywhere in Latin America?

Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, comparable to rain forests and coral reefs. An immense variety of species of microbes, plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish and mammals can be part of a wetland ecosystem. Climate, landscape shape (topology), geology and the movement and abundance of water help to determine the plants and animals that inhabit each wetland.  Wetlands can be thought of as "biological supermarkets."  They provide great volumes of food that attract many animal species. These animals use wetlands for part of or all of their life-cycle. Dead plant leaves and stems break down in the water to form small particles of organic material called "detritus." This enriched material feeds many small aquatic insects, shellfish and small fish that are food for larger predatory fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals.  Wetlands, either saltwater, brackish or freshwater cover just over 6% of the land´s surface, and the Pantanal represents 3% of the entire world´s wetlands. Despite their global significance, an estimated one-half of all wetlands on the planet have disappeared. The Pantanal remains more intact and pristine that most other wetland systems.

Flood Pulse. 

 Is the Pantanal rich in Biodiversity?

The Brazilian Pantanal is a melting pot of influences from neighbouring biomes such as the Amazon, Cerrado and Atlantic Rain Forest as well as the Chaco in areas near the borders to Paraguay and Bolivia.  An interesting characteristic of the biome is that many species considered endangered in other regions are abundant in the Pantanal such as the Hyacinth Macaw, Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus and the Jaguar, Panthera onca.  Due to the amorphous and porous definition of boundaries of the Pantanal, there are also discrepancies in the number of species in the Pantanal. A conservative estimate by the Ministry of Environment suggests that the following number of species are catalogued in the Pantanal: 263 species of fish, 41 amphibians, 113 reptiles, 463 bird species, 132 mammals, with two endemic species.  According to Embrapa, Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária, approximately two thousand species of plants have been identified and catalogued in the Pantanal and several present potential uses in medicine.

The Pantanal is a refuge for iconic wildlife. This massive wetland has the largest concentration of caimans in the world, with estimates ranging between 6 and 10 million Spectacled-caimans.  That is about the same number as the human population of Paris, Rio de Janeiro, or the entire nation of Austria! Jaguars, the largest feline in the Americas, hunt caiman in the Pantanal, which has the highest density of Jaguars anywhere. The Pantanal is also home to the biggest parrot on the planet, the Hyacinth macaw. Sighting these animals and others help attract the 1 million tourists who visit the Pantanal every year making ecotourism more profitable to community members than the use of land for livestock and crops.

Its name comes from the Portuguese word pântano, meaning swamp or bog.

The Pantanal Conservation area—a group of four protected areas in the Pantanal—was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its ecological significance.

The Pantanal averages annual rainfall of 1,000-1,400 mm (39-55 inches).
The average temperature in the Pantanal is 25 degrees C (77 degrees F). Visitors need to be aware that the temperatures may fluctuate from 7 to 40 degrees C (45 to 104 degrees F). The best time of year to visit is from July to November, which is the dry season.

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