Journal of Tropical Ecology

Demography of the Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa) in the Bolivian Amazon: impact of seed extraction on recruitment and population dynamics

PIETER A. ZUIDEMA  a1 a2 c1 and RENÉ G. A. BOOT  a1a2
a1 Programa Manejo de Bosques de la Amazonía Boliviana (PROMAB), Casilla 107, Riberalta, Beni, Bolivia
a2 Department of Plant Ecology, Utrecht University, PO Box 80084, 3508 TB Utrecht, The Netherlands


A demographic study was carried out on Bertholletia excelsa, the Brazil nut tree, in two primary forest sites in Northern Bolivia where Brazil nuts have been harvested for several decades. In spite of the large proportion (93%) of seeds that are harvested, reasonable densities of recently emerged seedlings were found. Seeds of Bertholletia are contained in woody fruits that are primarily opened by agoutis. Most fruits are left untouched on the forest floor for 1–2 y before they are opened, possibly due to high energetic costs of fruit opening just after fruit fall. However, the proportion of viable seeds is strongly reduced in older fruits.

Growth in diameter at breast height (dbh) was low for pole-sized trees (< 15 cm dbh) and adult trees (> 100 cm dbh) and peaked for intermediate-sized trees (30–60 cm). These trees often attained a growth rate of > 1.5 cm y−1, which is high compared with other non-pioneer tropical trees. This, and the strong growth response to increased light availability found for seedlings and saplings, suggest that Bertholletia excelsa can be classified as a gap-dependent species. Matrix population models were constructed for both study populations. Population growth rates (λ) were close to one, and were most sensitive to persistence in one size category. Age estimates revealed that age at first reproduction (at dbh > 60 cm) amounts to over 120 y, and age in the last category (dbh > 160 cm) to almost 300 y. Given the continuous rejuvenation of the population, the stable population size, the high age at maturity and the long reproductive period, it is concluded that current levels of Brazil nut extraction may be sustained at least for several decades and perhaps for even longer periods.

(Accepted April 22 2001)

Key Words: Bertholletia excelsa; Bolivia; Brazil nuts; demography; matrix population model; non-timber forest product; seed extraction; sustainable use; tropical forest.

c1 Address for correspondence: Pieter Zuidema, Plant Production Systems Group, Wageningen University, Haarweg 333, 6709 RZ Wageningen, The Netherlands. Email: