Scientists are finding new species in uncharted territory of Colombia


Colombia (CNN) (07/31/20)— Not that long ago, being a botanist in Colombia was a risky business. Huge tracts of land, home to thousands of plant species, were occupied by rebel groups, locked in a bloody civil war with the government.

At best, fieldwork was a logistical headache; at worst, outright dangerous.

Mauricio Diazgranados, age 45, was born and raised in Colombia. As an 18-year-old biology student at Bogota’s Javeriana University in the early 1990s, he remembers collecting plants in the mountains and hiding in bushes as government helicopters shot at guerrillas nearby.

Diazgranados holds a bromeliad specimen on the program's latest expedition pre-lockdown in February.
Mauricio Diazgranados

Diazgranados says he and his peers would seek permission from both left and right-wing rebels to enter their territory. But things could go wrong.

In 1993, Diazgranados was detained by guerrillas in a mountain range near Bogota. At night he escaped with his friends, hiking over mountains to get away.

The experience did not deter him: “At some point I had to say, ‘Well, what do I do? … I can die, hit by a bus on the street, or I can die in the forest happy.’ I’d prefer to be in the forest.”

And revisit the forest he did, again and again throughout the 1990s and 2000s, through to the 2016 peace deal negotiated between the government and the FARC rebel group and beyond.

Colombia is the world’s second most biodiverse country, with around 6,500 species of plants and lichens unique to the country, Diazgranados estimates. And that’s only what is known.

The UK, in comparison, has fewer than 100. Colombia is less documented than other countries in South America, Diazgranados says. That’s partly due to the conflict, but also because of its geography.

“There’s no road access to half of Colombia, and the country still has 53% of its area covered by tropical rainforest. There’s still lots and lots of places totally unexplored,” he says.

Today Diazgranados is based at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London, where he is research leader for diversity and livelihoods in the Natural Capital and Plant Health Department.

He oversees the Colombia Bio Programme, a collaboration between Kew Science and partner organizations in the UK and Colombia that documents the country’s biodiversity.

Diazgranados is currently collating the findings from his latest expedition in February, to Boyaca, a department in central Colombia.

Two potential new species were found — a “small beautiful tree” of the sage family, and a member of the tomato family — making a total of 17 potential new species documented by members of the program since its inception in 2017.

Further investigation over the course of months and years will confirm how many of these are new to science.

Diazgranados and his collaborators have created a free online portal called ColPlantA, an encyclopedia of Colombian plants with more than 26,000 species listed to date.

Among them is “Espeletia praesidentis,” a new species of sunflower identified by Diazgranados.

The next phase, Diazgranados says, is to add the nation’s fungus varieties — of which “almost nothing” is known — to the list.

“We don’t know how many species of fungi Colombia has, but probably (Colombia is) as important for fungi as it is for plants,” he says.

A recent study found deforestation had increased in 79% of Colombia’s protected areas since the peace deal.

Between 2017 and 2019, forest was cleared at almost double the rate recorded from 2013 to 2015, representing the loss of an additional 330 square kilometers of protected forest, an area almost three times the size of Paris.

Diazgranados says if areas of land now safe from conflict are not quickly protected by the government, they are susceptible to deforestation for cattle and agriculture, and also illegal mining and illegal logging.

To protect the environment, it’s essential to empower local communities and develop ecotourism, he argues.

Andres Felipe Bohorquez Osorio, an agronomic engineer at Universidad de Caldas and one of Diazgranados’ collaborators, says “conserving the forest is a pillar of the community,” adding that “they want to attract tourists to teach them about nature, its mysteries, balance, and benefits to humanity.”

On their latest expedition, scientists consulted residents of Otanche, a town in western Boyaca, for an upcoming book on community use of plants and fungi.

Diazgranados says it’s important for scientists to share their findings with local people. Additionally, “we must learn from villagers their ancestral knowledge,” he says.

Over 1,000 plant species grow in the area and locals have already highlighted 77 to add to the book, including the carana tree.

Local women use sap from its roots to cure skin problems and as a weight loss aid, Diazgranados says.

The sap is being analyzed back at Kew, he adds, and if its medicinal qualities are verified, it could become part of a future project to create supply chains between local producers and consumers in Colombia’s cities, and potentially further afield.

With its huge number of endemic plant species, Diazgranados says Colombia is fertile ground for the discovery of new medicines, including antibiotics.

Yet some species could be lost before they are even documented. The impact of climate change is already evident.

“In the past … you would have rain throughout most of the year,” says Diazgranados. Now there’s months and months with no rain and rivers get dried (out).” If rainfall keeps decreasing, rainforest could be replaced by savanna.

There are fewer glaciers in the mountains, he adds, and in paramo ecosystems — areas of high grassland — climate change is causing plant distribution to shrink.

Some species have become restricted to high altitudes, isolating populations on disconnected mountain tops.

“The extinction in these areas might be huge,” Diazgranados says.

Despite a downbeat forecast, he suggests there are still grounds for optimism. In the last few years there has been a “profound increase” in the public’s awareness of Colombia’s importance in terms of biodiversity and natural resources, he says.

“There are still large areas very well preserved in the country, and good opportunities to keep them safe.”

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