High in the cloud forests of the Tropical Andes, picking her way through the misted foliage of Las Orquídeas National Park, NYBG botanist Paola Pedraza-Peñalosa goes about the business of collecting plant specimens. This northwest Colombian landscape is renowned for its biodiversity–it is said to have more examples of plant, animal, and microbial life than almost any other ecosystem on earth. But that’s not necessarily the only reason that Pedraza, a Colombian native and Associate Curator of our Institute of Systematic Botany, has returned. While her work is indeed groundbreaking, her motivations extend well beyond the everyday specimen collections that take place day and night here in South America.
Far from the mere process of cataloging plant life, it is the shrinking timeframe and the aggravating factors surrounding it that make Paola’s undertaking so significant.
Once controlled by armed revolutionaries, indicative of the struggles facing Colombia throughout its late history, Las Orquídeas–named for some 200 species of orchids that grow there–remained off limits to the efforts of botanists. Recording the diversity of plant life within its borders became a pipe dream for an academic community anxious to uncover the Andres’ secrets. But the recent withdrawal of these militias has opened the park to exploration and conservation efforts. And with the proverbial gates now open, scientists face a new suite of challenges–many of them a greater threat to the plants and animals being studied than the armed gunmen ever were.
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