The Amazon rainforest (Credit: Brazilian Things)


DURHAM, N.C. – Paul A. Baker, professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, has received a $2.01 million National Science Foundation grant to fund the Trans-Amazon Drilling Project (TADP), a four-year research endeavor aimed at unearthing new insights into the evolution of plant biodiversity in the Amazon.

“The Amazon-Andean rainforest hosts more than half of all terrestrial plant species. How this remarkable biodiversity arose remains one of the great unanswered foundational questions in modern science,” Baker says.

To help answer this question – which has spurred scientific debate since the days of Darwin and other pioneering 19th century naturalists – Baker and his colleagues will drill deep beneath the forest floor to collect core samples from ancient sedimentary basins at sites transecting the Amazon basin from the Andes to the Atlantic.

Drill holes will extend up to two kilometers beneath the surface, allowing the scientists to recover sedimentary samples spanning the entire 70-million-year history of the region.

An international team of researchers will then analyze the cores to document changes in plant species across the Amazon basin throughout its geological history, and determine how the evolution of the physical environment – including climate variations, the uplift of the Andes, and the formation of the Amazon River itself – shaped species development and distribution over time.

Terrestrial drilling will likely take place from late 2019 to the end of 2021, Baker says. Drilling in the Atlantic Ocean margin is scheduled for April and May of 2020.

Following the completion of the project, the drill cores will be archived in an NSF-supported facility for future access by other researchers.  

Baker and his team will collaborate with Brazilian partners to develop museum exhibits, educational programs on the Amazon’s geologic and biotic history for primary and secondary school students, and other outreach materials to stimulate greater public appreciation for the region’s remarkable biodiversity and the need to protect it.

“It is not an exaggeration to state that the TADP is one of the most ambitious scientific drilling projects ever to be undertaken,” Baker says. “After almost 8 years of preparation, planning, dreaming, working, this project is nearing inception.”