Andean Encounters

Congratulations to Mafe who has published the first article from her PhD. Her work tested for congruence between the phylogenies of Azteca ants and their hosts Tococa of the plant family Melastomataceae. Incongruent phylogenies and differing divergence times indicate that co-divergence was unlikely. However timing in both groups coincided with periods of Andean uplift. It seems likely that Andean uplift had a greater impact on diversification than the mutualism.

Mafe is an expert on multiple groups of ants and can now distinguish between them based solely on the differing painful sensations inflicted by their bites.

The paper was published as part of a special issue entitled “Exploring the impact of Andean uplift and climate on life evolution and landscape modification” in the journal Global and Planetary Change and it can be accessed here.

Andean orogeny and the diversification of lowland neotropical rain forest trees: A case study in Sapotaceae

Congratulations to Julieth and all our co-workers on getting this paper published. The result of much collaboration and about 15 years of field collections!

Much has been made of the affect of the Andean uplift on diversification of montane taxa in Northwestern South America. However, perhaps somewhat less attention has been paid to the affect of these geological events on lowland restricted taxa. In this paper we assess the impact of uplift on diversification in Sapotaceae using what we consider to be the most densely sampled phylogeny of lowland plants in the region. We did not detect increased diversification rates coincident with either Andean uplift, Pleistocene climatic changes or the closure of the Isthmus of Panama. The Andes appear to have been somewhat porous in that they did not completely prevent dispersal occurring across the range. In addition, we find many examples of paraphyletic species, providing insights into speciation processes in the lowland Neotropics.

Thanks to all who contributed to the project! The paper was published in a special issue of Global and Planetary Change with the theme of exploring the impact of Andean uplift on life, evolution & landscape modification: from Amazonia to Patagonia.

Sapotaceae in the lowland rain forest of Putumayo, Colombia. Photo by: Julieth Serrano.

Natalia Contreras – a belated welcome

We would like to make a belated introduction to Natalia Contreras. Natalia began her PhD with us in 2018! She is a tropical botanist and researcher interested in the evolution and biogeography of Neotropical plant species. She has studied diversification patterns and morphological variation in tropical high-elevation or páramo flora, specifically the genus Lupinus in Colombia. During that project she gained insight into the drivers of speciation in tropical alpine environments, as well as improving our understanding of species diversity and taxonomy of Andean lupines.


Her current research as a PhD student with us at the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, is focused on another highly threatened biome, lowland Neotropical Dry Forest. Specifically, she will focus on determining species relationships, patterns of genetic structure and adaptive variation of drought-related genes in Guazuma, a representative of the tribe Theobromeae in the family Malvaceae. As a widely distributed and ecological generalist adapted to a range of water limited conditions, from seasonally dry to riparian forests, Guazuma possesses the genetic toolbox necessary to explore the genes and pathways regulating drought-induced responses.

Understanding the physiological and genetic responses of wild tropical plants is important to comprehend ecosystem dynamics and might help to predict responses to climate change and our knowledge of molecular mechanisms of drought tolerance in similar Neotropical species. Importantly, this work could form the basis for studying the possible responses of other representatives across the tribe Theobromeae that includes rain forest restricted genera and, in particular, the economically important source of chocolate, Theobroma cacao.

Botanical Resources Available Online (BRAVO) for the Colombian flora: workshop Villa de Leyva

Thanks to support received through the Newton Fund, British Council and Colciencias a project that will work on a series of permanent ecological forest plots in different regions of Colombia has been initiated under the direction of RBGE, Universidad del Rosario, Universidad del Tolima and Colombian NGO ColTree. The aim of the project is to improve identification of individual plants in plots through the creation of a virtual herbarium of images of the specimens collected in each of the plots and the generation of DNA barcode data. The project is running in parallel with one at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew that aims to develop an online portal for plant species of Colombia.


An essential part of this project is the standardization of naming across plots. The project is currently running a workshop at the museum of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, Claustro de San Augustín, Villa de Leyva, studying the 5,000 or so specimens collected thus far.


Specialists in families of plants are identifying specimens and teaching identification skills to plot monitors and students associated with the plots from different regions of Colombia (from Chocó, to the Caribbean, Amazonía and Antioquia). The project will be of enormous benefit to studies in taxonomy, phylogeny, ecology and forest dynamics all of which contribute to the conservation of Colombia’s immense biodiversity and the ecosystem services it provides. An additional aim of the project is to provide plot data to the RAINFOR network.


Representatives from the following institutes were in attendance: Colegio Mayor de Antioquia, Instituto Alexander von Humboldt, Jardín Botánico de Medellín, Universidad de Antioquia, Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas, Universidad Industrial de Santander, Universidad de los Andes, Universidad de los Llanos, Universidad Tecnológica del Chocó, Universidad Nacional – Sede Medellín, Universidad Nacional Abierta y a Distancia -UNAD, Universidad del Norte, Universidad de Quindio, Universidad de Caldas, Universidad del Rosario, Universidad del Tolima, Fundación Convida, the Ticuna-Huitoto indigenous reservation in Amazonas, the Nonuya Villa Azul indigenous reservation in Caquetá, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. See below for a map of where participants are located.

workshop participant map

Photos: Lina Maria Corrales

Using dated molecular phylogenies to help reconstruct geological, climatic, and biological history

Many of our studies are based on determining how groups of plants have been impacted by historical geological or climatic events. However, in our recent article, published in the Geological Journal, we outline how dated molecular phylogenies may provide information for geologists that may shed light on tectonic and orogenic processes and may also help reconstruct climatic histories. Click here for a link to the article.

Last days of the field course

The field course concluded last Sunday in Chicaque, a private reserve close to Bogota.


The reserve is located between 2100 and 2600 metres above sea level with a diverse array of plant families giving our students even more to think about. There were also spectacular views across the Magdalena Valley.


We thank Julieth Serrano and Zoe Goodwin (principal professors on the course and recent graduates from University of Edinburgh/RBGE and the University of Oxford respectively), Francisco Fajardo and Natalia Contreras (Jardin Botanico de Bogota) and Carlos Vargas (Universidad del Rosario) for assisting with the course. We also acknowledge the help of staff at each of the reserves we visited whose help faciliated a highly successful first field course in Colombia.


Field course visits Otun Quimbaya

We travelled from Rio Claro through part of the coffee district stopping to see high altitude Páramo vegetation on the way.



We spent the last four days at the Otun Quimbaya Flora and Fauna Sanctuary that is located in an area of cloud forest at about 1900 above sea level.



The area is rich in RBGE focus research groups such as Begonia, Renealmia, Solanaceae and Gesneriaceae….


….as well as some spectacular localities….


The main objective is to teach how to identify plant families….



….and how to collect…


We are now heading to our final field site at the Chicaque Reserve in Cundinamarca.

RBGE Masters field course in Colombia

RBGE Masters students are now in Colombia where they will visit three sites at different altitudes with varied vegetation. We started in lowland wet forest on karst at the Rio Claro Reserve in Antioquia after a six hour journey from Bogota.


El Refugio, Reserva Natural Rio Claro.


The students hard at work learning the basics of identifying tropical plant families.


…and in the field collecting…


Begonia growing close to running water.


We are now on our way to our second field site in Otun Quimbaya, Quindio…heart of the coffee growing dstrict.


Congratulations Mafe!

Mafe successfully defended her thesis on Thursday! Her work focused on the interactions between ants and there Tococa (Melastomataceae) host plants. Mafe generated, analyzed and interpreted huge amounts of DNA sequence data to determine how these plant insect interactions were effected by the uplift of the Andes.




Mafe pushed the boundaries back with her research. We are sure she will continue to do the same in the future.


Congratulations Julieth!

Julieth Serrano successfully defended her thesis on Tuesday. The work focused on using herbarium and DNA sequence data to assess patterns in the distribution of Sapotaceae. Julieth is interested in applying this data to practical conservation particularly within Colombia.


Julieth conducted extensive fieldwork in various parts of Colombia.


She also immersed herself in Botanics and local culture.


Congratulations again to Julieth for being such a valued member of our research team.