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.

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

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Guejar River, La Macarena
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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 brachypetalaFabaceaeamong others, for yearsSadly they have now reached a point where valuable wood is hard to find outside protected areas.

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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.

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Sunrise on the Catatumbo River, Norte de Santander

All photos by Julieth Serrano.

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