Ancient myths have more to say than western science on Amazonian sustainability?


Edinburgh University’s Innovative Learning Week is an annual festival of creative learning, a chance for students, staff and alumni to develop skills, meet new people and celebrate innovation in our academic community. This year rbgeColombia will contribute an event that aims to inform on how the indigenous communities that have inhabited the forests of Amazonia for millenia maintain a sustainable relationship with their environment. A principal goal is to explore how other cultures transmit information.


The event will take place on Thursday the 19th of February in Lecture Theatre 5 at 7 Bristo Square and will run twice, from 11.30 until 13.00 and from 15.30 to 17.00.



Tony Conrad at Inverleith House

In the gallery at Inverleith House RBGE is privileged to have an internationally recognized centre for arts within our grounds in a space that hosts a continuous programme of temporary exhibitions by invited artists. The most recent exhibition is by Tony Conrad, an artist, composer, musician, filmmaker and performer working with drone-based minimal music and avant-garde film for almost five decades. Conrad was a key contributor to the experimental music group The Theatre of Eternal Music (also known as The Dream Syndicate) alongside La Monte Young, Angus MacLise, Marion Zazeela and John Cale (a founding member of the Velvet Underground). The exhibition explores Conrad’s contribution to improvised music with a comprehensive presentation of his invented acoustical tools made from everyday materials and adapted instruments.


Tony Conrad was in attendance on Sunday 9 November from 12-3 pm to perform with the instruments. It turned out to be much more than just a performance but also a discussion on sound production throughout the course of human history. Another fantastic example of how Inverleith House adds to the vibrancy and rich experience that RBGE offers. The exhibition runs from 25 October to 18 January (2015).


Orchid Festival at Bogota Botanic Garden

The National Orchid Exhibition and Meeting is aimed at promoting scientific research, conservation and use of these plants. In Colombia there are more than 4000 species of which over 1500 are endemic. The Botanic Garden has designed a program for all audiences, with more than 60 cultural and academic activities.
The exhibition takes place from the 31st of October to the 4th of November. Visit for more information.

Páramo – ecosystem services and threats from climate change

This is a link to a video by Conservation International that shows the vital ecosystem services that the Páramo provides….

An article written by researchers at the District and National Universities of Colombia and published in the journal Colombia Forestal details the threat to this ecosystem posed by climatic changes over the course of this century…

From the end of the world to everlasting lightning and fireflies

JULIETH SERRANO-  PhD Student at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Scotland (still UK!). I use the plant family Sapotaceae as a model group to explore the evolution, and biogeographic history of Neotropical lowland rain forest. 

Why am I doing a PhD? Part of my motivation is scientific curiosity and wonder about how biotic systems in the world were formed, but it is also my concern about the future of some of the most impressive places I have seen. Human populations are growing and changes in land cover are increasing.

I think it is our responsibility as a scientific community to face these changes, and react facilitating the preservation of biotic resources. Science should not only serve to satisfy the curiosity of a few. It has to have an impact on the way natural areas are being exploited. I don’t advocate strict preservation in all ecosystems, that works for dry forest or páramo since so little of them are left, but rural communities that depend on natural resources need to harvest forest products. I advocate sustainable use in areas like those covered by lowland rain forest, and hope research like mine will help to provide the scientific background for this to happen. Science for the sake of science? I don’t think so….

My research has several components but a key element is fieldwork, where I have to travel to Colombia to collect plant specimens. During the first phase of my work in the field my destinations were La Serranía de los Churumbelos in Putumayo, La Serranía de la Macarena in Meta, La Serranía de las Quinchas in Boyacá and Santander, and El Catatumbo in Norte de Santander.

All these places were amazing and I found many species of the family I study, Sapotaceae, along with many others. In Putumayo despite the strong impact of increased oil exploitation, its rivers and water falls (including el Fin del Mundo – the end of the world) still have crystalline water and conserve their greenish colour. Many rivers are named after this, for example the Pepino River (pepino means cucumber). The well-known biotic diversity of Amazonian ecosystems is no less impressive for Sapotaceae, and we collected more than 20 different species in just four days.

Waterfall on the way to El Fin del Mundo, Putumayo
Apeiba aspera, Malvaceae. Putumayo

La Sierra de la Macarena presents a particular assemblage of vegetation caused by the confluence of Andean, Amazonian and Guyanan elements. Its scenery, however, is fragmented by the establishment of coca crops. Most will think this will cause difficulties in terms of security, but at least where we worked, the place is safe and very interesting in many ways.

Our cook was a very strong woman with a tangled past. She had followed her husband to join one of the guerrilla groups, but after five years of fighting actively against the Colombian army, she decided that working alongside FARC commanders was not the best path to keep her family safe. She is now trying to build a new life together with her two daughters under the protection of the Colombian government.

Finding a perfect time to visit the area is a bit tricky because of seasonal climatic variations. During the dry season the hikes are easier, and rivers like the Guejar are the perfect place to rest after a full day collecting. During the rainy season on the other hand, rivers like Caño Cristales are open for visitors. For us, the dry season coincides with the Scottish winter, and as lovely as the dark and cold days in Scotland are the last and first months of the year, we decided to go to the field during this time.

Guejar River, La Macarena

Tinamidae, eggs. La Macarena

In Boyacá and Santander, we visited La Serranía de las Quinchas. The area was of special interest for us as it is located in the valley of the Magdalena River (my aim is to collect in both sides of the Andes and in the inter-Andean valleys), and is thought to be floristically closely related to El Catatumbo (located on the border with Venezuela). The place is well known among loggers who have exploited species such as Clathrotropis brachypetala- Fabaceaeamong others, for yearsSadly they have now reached a point where valuable wood is hard to find outside protected areas.

Part of our team getting ready to work

Last but not least in terms of its beauty and diversity, the Catatumbo-Bari National Park (Norte de Santander) was our final destination. Here the violent past has in some way isolated its forests preventing agricultural expansion, oil or coal exploitation and many other activities from changing land cover in unsustainable ways, as has happened in other areas in Colombia.

This place is one of the greatest gifts of nature in Colombia.The Catatumbo lightning illuminates the sky at night, and beneath a black forest is spotted by tens of fireflies. These phenomena, a rain of flowers falling from trees in the canopy 30 meters above us during the day, and the most selfless people left us thinking once again on the importance of our work, not because of any incomprehensible science, but for the support we could provide to help local communities to preserve these unique places.

Sunrise on the Catatumbo River, Norte de Santander

All photos by Julieth Serrano.

Cabarets and Festivals

On Saturday the 2nd of August representatives of the rbgeColombia team participated in the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas at the Stand in the Square as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The discussion based event was attended by 60 people who were witness to an historical account, facts and opinions related to the social and environmental consequences of illicit coca cultivation. The debate was interactive with the audience asking many pertinent questions that helped inform the discussion.


The panel, that included some of our students Eugenio, Julieth and Mafe and Ann Simpson from the University of Strathclyde, spoke passionately and knowledgeably on a subject that is a huge issue in Colombia.


This was a new venture for us and we hope we can continue to run similar events in the future. We thank the wonderful Beltane Public Engagement Network for inviting us and for their organization of the event and Susan Morrison for compering.


The following day it was time for Festival Colombiano. Our usual eclectic mix of music (with Anthar and Suzanne), dance (with Ximena and Andrea), jewellery making (with Lorna from Tagua Designs) and science talks (Maca and Karina) was augmented by face painting, chocolate and yucca workstations, the Paramo mural, Colombian coffee supplied by Grumpy Mule and a live video link up with an indigenous elder from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.




First three photos by Silje Graffer, last two by Suzanne Harris.

Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas – Saturday 2nd of August

This Saturday the 2nd of August our Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas discussion based event “Cocaine – between white lines” will take place at 15.40.The illicit production of cocaine has serious environmental and social consequences for Colombia, the world’s leading producer of the drug. Colombian researchers from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh will tell you about the devastating effects of the cocaine trade on their country.

Follow the link below for more details of the event and how to get tickets for it.



Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas – tickets now available

Tickets are now available for our Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas discussion based event “Cocaine – between white lines”. Follow the link below for more details of the event and how to get tickets for it.

Scotland has the highest per-head consumption of cocaine on the planet, and it damages more than just our health. The inhabitants of wealthy nations pay a high price for their drug consumption, but it‘s nowhere near high enough. The illicit production of cocaine has serious environmental and social consequences for Colombia, the world’s leading producer of the drug. Colombian researchers from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh will tell you about the devastating effects of the cocaine trade on their country.

In association with….


Upcoming Events

A quick post to let you know of the exciting series of events we have planned over the course of the next few months.

Monday the 7th to Sunday the 13th of April. Expedition Botanics with a Colombian theme, part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. This will be a fun, family activity travelling through our glasshouses and learning about the plants and people of Colombia along the way. Last year it was based on RBGE’s Malaysian program, so we are delighted that this year the focus is on Colombia. You can find more information or buy tickets in advance at

loresImage for Page 10 - Expedition Botanics (c) RBGE

Thursday the 17th of April – Botanics Late “Indigenous?”. A special evening event in the Gateway linking different indigenous cultures including those of Colombia. We will have the fabulous Khantara ( playing Colombian rhythms live, plus Scottish singer Mairi Campbell (, and activities such as our ever popular jewellery making from seeds and chocolate tasting. If you would like to volunteer, or offer an activity, please contact myself and I will pass on your details to the co-ordinator. Or just come along and enjoy the evening! Further information and advance tickets here

loresBotanicsLate13_066 (c) Eoin Carey

Photo: Eoin Carey

Saturday the 2nd of August – In association with the Beltane Public Engagement Network we present “Cocaine – Between White Lines” at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. As part of the Shared Responsibility program we will host a discussion on the environmental and social impact of the cocaine trade. This will be a one hour event compered by Edinburgh based comedienne Susan Morrison.


Sunday the 3rd of August – Festival Colombiano at the Botanics. Our fourth year of running this highly popular event and this year we plan to do one longer day instead of two shorter ones, AND WE NEED YOU. We are looking for ideas for activities, volunteers to help run the event, or if you have an activity you could offer to share with us we would welcome you. Please contact Suzanne Harris ( if you would like to join us.

Third Network for Neotropical Biogeography Meeting Bogotá

The Third Network for Neotropical Biogeography meeting took place at the University of the Andes in Bogotá last week. The meeting was attended by 150 delegates from a multitude of countries from the region, Europe and North America. The organization was seamless thanks largely to the efforts of Professor Santiago Madriñán who is RBGE’s main collaborator in Colombia. The meeting began with workshops on Marine Biogeography and an introduction to spatial analysis using R by another RBGE collaborator, Ivan Jimenez from Missouri Botanical Garden. This was followed by workshops on Conservation planning organized by representatives from the Von Humboldt Institute and R methods by Luke Harmon from the University of Idaho. The final workshop outlined processes for applying for collection permits in a number of Latin America countries and also highlighted some examples of international collaborations .


The organizers aimed to mix talks with early and advanced stage researchers working on a diverse range of organisms. Thus, undergraduates spoke before experienced researchers in an informal setting. Us botanists were able to learn about the biology and biogeography of caecilians to pseudoscorpions. A key message was the apparent lack of adaptability of organisms to climatic changes over geological time scales. Animals seem to be under a similarly severe risk as plants to anthropogenic climatic changes that are occurring over much shorter time periods.

The rbgeColombia team was well represented at the meeting….


From left to right: Dayana Sanchez (working on her Masters project on DNA barcoding of Micropholis at La Universidad Distrital), Javier Luna, Eugenio Valderrama, James Richardson, Tiina Sarkinen, Julieth Serrano, Santiago Madriñán, Ivan Jimenez (who collaborates on projects with Julieth Serrano on Sapotaceae distributions) and Karina Banda. Thanks to all of them for putting on a great show and demonstrating the tremendous advances RBGE is making in furthering our knowledge of Colombian biodiversity.

The NNB, initiated by Alex Antonelli of the University of Gothenburg, continues to grow at an extraordinarily rapid rate. The next meeting will be in Panamá this time next year.