Brazilian coral reefs and their “jeitinho”

Written by Carla Isobel Ellif

The “Jeitinho brasileiro” is an adaptive strategy to when conditions are less than perfect. It translates roughly to the “Brazilian way”, our unique way of life. Our “Jeitinho” involves all sorts of creative thinking to get things done and, although it is used for good, it can also be a way to trick the system and get away with it… Unfortunately, corruption has become a form of institution in Brazil, partly because of our “Jeitinho”. Talking your way out of tickets, skipping ahead in line, rigging a contest… However, I prefer to focus on the stubborn side of “Jeitinho”: when things look like they won’t work out, don’t give up and try to think outside the box! Your computer stopped working in the middle of your presentation? Ask someone in the audience for theirs. You didn’t get funding for your Scuba field work? Maybe adapt your methodology and learn to freedive. You need to access a scientific paper that isn’t open access? Don’t be shy and send an e-mail to the corresponding author.  The list just goes on…

When looking at our coral reefs, I can’t help but think that in their own way they have applied a “Jeitinho” to trick the system and thrive against the imminent threats of temperature increase, ocean acidification, and human impact.

Brazilian reefs have demonstrated important differences when compared to other reefs around the world. Brazil is a known biodiversity hotspot, but there are less than 20 reef-building species in our waters. Compared to the hundreds of species observed in the Indo-Pacific Ocean, that is really low! However, major reef builders are endemic species, meaning they only occur in Brazilian waters, which is pretty special but also more vulnerable to extinction. If they die off here, they can never be replaced!

Some of these endemic species have affinities to species in the Caribbean, while others are related to Tertiary coral fauna, which means their closest relatives go way back (between 2.6 and 65 million years) and thus earned them the name of archaic species or relic forms.

Fig. 1 Mussismilia braziliensis, an endemic relic coral in Brazil. Resource: Photo: Amanda Ercilia,
Fig. 2 The sturdy Siderastrea stellata living comfortably in a tidepool in the island of Boipeba, Brazil
Fig. 3 Siderastrea radians, a close Caribbean relative of the Brazilian S. stellata. Resource: Photo: Paul Humann

Additionally, Brazil is the only place you will find chapeirões, which are amazing structures found in the reefs of the Abrolhos bank. These mushroom-shaped coral pinnacles can reach more than 25 m in height and 50 m in diameter.

Fig. 4 Schematic view of a chapeirão. Resource: Kikuchi et al, 2010

Another important aspect of Brazilian reef structure is the role of encrusting coralline algae. This form of algae grows over rocks, dead coral colonies and any other hard substrate, acting like a type of cement. The problem here is that, while encrusting coralline algae are important reef-builders, they are not corals. Then, if a reef is composed mostly by coralline algae and not corals, can it still be called a coral reef? This issue has raised much discussion in the past regarding the only atoll found in the South Atlantic Ocean, the Rocas Atoll, which is formed mostly by encrusting coralline algae and subordinately by corals. However, the small and unusual Rocas Atoll is indeed considered to be a true atoll nowadays given its full range of characteristics. “Jeitinho” strikes again!

Fig. 5 Rocas Atoll. Resource: Google earth

Lastly, unlike most reef systems, Brazilian nearshore bank reefs are surrounded and filled with muddy sediments from the continent. For most coral species, this condition would make the waters uninhabitable. However, do you remember when I said the endemic species were special? Turns out these species seem to have developed efficient cleaning mechanisms to cope with the higher sedimentation rates that can affect turbidity and can be particularly sturdy and resistant to fluctuations. Most endemic species in Brazil have larger polyps, which has been shown to make it easier to expel sediment grains that settle on top of the colony.

Fig. 6 Diving in pea soup at the reef of Boipeba Island, Brazil. 

To recap, these Brazilian reefs support immense biodiversity and provide important ecosystem services to their coastal communities. Many of its species only occur in this area and show unique characteristics not found anywhere else. They just had to apply their “Jeitinho” to make sure they’d still be around today to continue fulfilling their roles.


4 thoughts on “Brazilian coral reefs and their “jeitinho”

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