The Pantanal is the most conserved biome in Brazil and among the last wild refuges in South America, but intensification of agriculture and other land use changes present challenges for protecting this exceptionally biodiverse wetland ecosystem. Recent studies have shed new light on the origins and biogeochemistry of a suite of >600 small saline-alkaline lakes in Nhecolândia, a floodplain setting located south of the Taquari River in south-central Pantanal. These soda lakes form a unique aquatic environment in Pantanal and nascent research on their geomicrobiology suggests that their biota may be analogous to early life, and extreme life in Earth's deep biosphere. We argue that the conservation of the soda lakes in the lower Nhecolândia region should be an important strategic component of any conservation plan that aims to mitigate the advance of unsustainable land-use change in the Pantanal. Soda lake conservation has important implications for the carbon cycle, as these landforms sequester carbon dioxide and transmit considerably lower concentrations of methane in comparison to macrophyte-rich freshwater lakes in the region. Further, minerals precipitated in the saline-alkaline lakes are leveraged for cattle consumption, and therefore the continued presence of the lakes is critical for allowing pantaneiro ranchers to pursue certified organic, sustainable beef production systems. Beyond protecting soda lakes and their surrounding forests (mata de cordilheiras) for food systems security, the conservation strategy would also allow further research of little studied extremophile biodiversity and biogeochemistry, with potential for biotechnological innovations attendant to UN Sustainable Development Goals.

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Published in Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation, v. 17, issue 1.

© 2018 Associação Brasileira de Ciência Ecológica e Conservação.

This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

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The authors are grateful to the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) for financial support of this project (grant #2014/06889-2). We thank the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) for research grants to LVW and MLA (grant #308563/2013-1), to Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (Capes) for a doctorate scholarship to RLG.

MM acknowledges support from University of Kentucky Vice President for Research for limnogeological studies in Nhecolândia.