Colombian Botanist Alejandra Vasco is realizing a long-held dream to document the vast 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 her current project, which included a recent collecting expedition, will improve humanity’s understanding of how many fern species exist in Colombia, where they occur, and how many of them are threatened with extinction.
“We collected plants that have not been collected in 50 years, and some that are likely not described to science,” she say, “We now have funding for the next four years to do this project and make this dream of studying the ferns of Colombia come true.”
Colombia is the second most biodiverse country on Earth when it comes to plants, according to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Vasco says that the four researchers who came from abroad flew together 19650 km to come to Colombia.
“In 20 days we drove more than 750 km through the Andes, making more than a thousand collections, plus duplicates, that is 4000 specimens – we will be exporting to the US for our careful study by us around 3000 collections,” she says, adding that in some of the places they visited, the diversity of ferns was so high, researchers didn’t have time to collect all the ferns there.
“We want to go back,” Vasco says, “The project is very close to my heart, and I started thinking about it, since I decided 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 up with the rate of habitat loss and the extinction of species, 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 severely threatened,” she says, adding that her team will now visit natural history collections in the USA and Colombia and go to places in Colombia that have not been visited much by researchers or plant collectors in the last 40 years.
“We also are teaming up with a great group of botanists and students in Colombia interested in working and learning about ferns, so I hope this project bring us all together to strengthen this group so that we can keep understanding and protecting the diversity of our great country,” Vasco says.
Inspired By A Teacher
Vasco was born and raised in Medellin, Colombia and says she was inspired by her biology high school teacher, a “very smart, very sweet” woman, who was also an excellent teacher.
“During a difficult time in Colombia, she had the courage of taking us (40 or so 16-year-old high school students) to see whales in the Pacific Ocean of Colombia and to the island of Gorgona,” Vasco says, “That was one of my happiest experiences ever, and one of my first experiences seeing so much marine and plant diversity.”
Vasco would go on to complete her undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Antioquia in Medellin before moving to the U.S. to do a PhD in botany at 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 with the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.
Vasco says a big part of her collaborative work between the US and South America is to translate not just the language, but also the understanding of the particular idiosyncrasies of the way scientists do research and interact with colleagues in 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 both sides,” Vasco says, “My hope is that my experience working in both the North and South brings what is best of us all, so that students, researchers, and the global challenges themselves all benefit from the collaborations.”
Another Colombian botanist is Slendy Rodríguez-Alarcón, currently a PhD student on Botany and Ecology at the University of Tartu, Estonia.
Rodríguez-Alarcón traveled all the way to Estonia in order to study how specific traits of plants change when there is a disruption to the ecosystem — which might give us clues for how they’ll adapt under climate change.