Rhynchonelliform brachiopods were diverse and often dominant benthos of tropical seas in the Paleozoic. In contrast, they are believed to be rare in open habitats of modern oceans, especially at low latitudes. This study documents numerous occurrences of rhynchonelliform brachiopods on a modern tropical shelf, particularly in areas influenced by upwelling. Extensive sampling of the outer shelf and coastal bays of the Southeast Brazilian Bight revealed dense populations of terebratulid brachiopods (>103 individuals / m2 of seafloor) between 24° and 26°S. On the outer shelf, brachiopods are more abundant than bivalves and gastropods combined. However, brachiopod diversity is low: only four species belonging to the genera Bouchardia, Terebratulina, Argyrotheca, and Platidia were identified among over 16000 examined specimens. Brachiopods occur preferentially on carbonate bottoms and include two substrate-related associations: Bouchardia (40–70% CaCO3 weight content) and Terebratulina-Argyrotheca (70–95% CaCO3). All four species display a broad bathymetric range that contrasts with a narrow depth tolerance postulated for many Paleozoic rhynchonelliforms. The most abundant populations occur in the depth range between 100 and 200 m, and coincide with zones of shelf-break upwelling, where relatively colder and nutrient-rich water masses of the South Atlantic Central Water are brought upward by cyclonic meanders of the South Brazil Current (a western boundary current that flows poleward along the coast of Brazil). This is consistent with previous biological and paleontological studies that suggest upwelling may play a role in sustaining brachiopod-dominated benthic associations. The presence of abundant brachiopods in the open habitats of the tropical shelf of the western South Atlantic contrasts with current understanding of their latitudinal distribution and points to major gaps in our knowledge of their present-day biogeography. The ecological importance of rhynchonelliform brachiopods in modern oceans and their role as producers of biogenic sedimentary particles may be underestimated.