Scientists race against time to document Colombian fern species


Colombian botanist Alejandra Vasco is fulfilling a long-held dream: to document the great diversity of ferns in her home country, racing against time to find new species threatened by climate change and other human activities.

Vasco, a research botanist at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (FWBG|BRIT) says his current project, which included a recent collecting expedition, will give humanity a better understanding of how many species of ferns exist in Colombia, where they are found, and how many of them are threatened with extinction.

“We have collected plants that have not been collected for 50 years, and some that are probably not described to science,” she says, “We now have funding for the next four years to do this project and making that dream of studying the ferns of Colombia come true.”

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country on Earth when it comes to plantsin accordance with the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Vasco says that the four researchers from abroad traveled together 19,650 km to come to Colombia.

“In 20 days, we have traveled over 750 km through the Andes, making over a thousand collections, plus duplicates, or 4000 specimens – we will be exporting to the United States for our in-depth study around 3000 collections”, she says, adding that in some of the places they visited, the diversity of ferns was so high that the researchers didn’t have time to collect all the ferns there.

“We want to go back,” says Vasco, “The project is very close to my heart, and I started thinking about it, because I decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to the study of ferns.”

“The biggest challenge is that the process of documenting and describing biodiversity often cannot keep pace with habitat loss and species extinction, and this is especially true in tropical regions of the world, where the number of undescribed and poorly known species is highest and biodiversity is most seriously threatened,” she says, adding that her team will now visit natural history collections in the United States and Colombia and travel to places in Colombia that have not been visited much by researchers or plant collectors in the last 40 years.

“We are also teaming up with a large group of botanists and students in Colombia interested in working and learning about ferns, so hopefully this project will bring us all together to strengthen this group so that we can continue to understand and learn about ferns. protect the diversity of our great country,” says Vasco.

Inspired by a teacher

Vasco was born and raised in Medellin, Colombia and says she was inspired by her high school biology teacher, a “very smart, very sweet” woman, who was also a great teacher.

“During a difficult time in Colombia, she had the courage to take us (about 40 high school students of 16 years old) to see whales in the Pacific Ocean of Colombia and on the island of Gorgona”, says Vasco, “It was one of my happiest experiences and one of my first experiences to see so much marine and plant diversity.”

Vasco will continue his undergraduate studies in biology at the University of Antioquia in Medellin before moving to the United States to do a doctorate in botany under the joint program of the New York Botanical Garden and the City University of New York , then postdoctoral work. in botany in New York, before working at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Since 2017, Vasco has been part of the Fort Worth Botanical Garden.

Vasco says much of his collaborative work between the United States and South America involves translating not only the language, but also understanding the particular idiosyncrasies of how scientists do their research and interact with their colleagues from both regions.

“As a researcher who lives and works in the North, but was born and raised (and has part of her heart and academic interest) in South America, I always try to facilitate interactions and conversations between the two parties,” says Vasco, “My hope is that my work experience in both the North and the South will bring the best to all of us, so that students, researchers and global challenges themselves all benefit from the collaborations.”

Another Colombian botanist is Slendy Rodríguez-Alarcón, currently a doctoral student in botany and ecology at the University of TartuEstonia.

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