Botanists as time travelers

“…by the way, how do you feel about going on field work to the Bolivian rainforest for a few weeks when the city is deeply blanketed by winter darkness?”

Of course, there was simply no way of saying no that offer! Admit it, you would have done the same.

We are Nataly Allasi Canales and Stephen Garrett, two of the Plant.ID PhD students based in Copenhagen supervised by Nina Rønsted, and back in the snowy spring of 2018, very shortly after being recruited, this was the question casually thrown at us.

Nataly is Peruvian and her project centers around ancient bark collections, using paleogenomics to explore the evolutionary history of the legendary Cinchona tree. These are known as ‘fever-trees’, they were used as an early cure against malaria and were a catalyst for much South American plant hunting, trade, and exploration. It also happens to be the national tree of Peru and accounts for the bitter taste in our treasured gin and tonic drinks! Let us just say, Nataly’s excitement and eagerness were fast piqued and easily seen, especially as she had never before been to the field! Stephen’s project is a little more distant to the steamy wilderness of the Amazonian tropics. He focuses on using modern lab techniques to explore the evolutionary history and difficult taxonomy of Euphrasia, a global, but almost strictly temperate genus of hemi-parasitic plants with intriguing molecular complexities making them a fascinating study group. He is, however, from Australia and before moving to Denmark his fervent love of tropical botanical work was irrevocably awakened during his MSc studies with the Royal Botanic Garden and University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Both of us are also strongly aligned in our efforts to exploit herbarium specimens (that being those invaluable, dusty, old sheets of dried plant material representing hundreds of years of botanical collection efforts) throughout our projects; to tap into the knowledge and resources offered from the great botanists of the past to inform and strengthen our own research. Being able to take part in active field work would allow us to add our own contributions to keeping the art of scientific plant hunting alive. Also, Bolivia, rainforest, escaping winter… The answer was YES and it didn’t take very long to get to that conclusion for either of us.

And so, right after finishing our first summer school in Barcelona in November, we headed to La Paz, a hectic and sprawling city full of colourful garments and electric cables forming dense networks above, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, filled with friendly street dogs and a palette of garden plants tantalizingly hinting at the more natural and beautiful networks awaiting us outside the city limits. At almost 4000m altitude, we had been warned to take it easy when arriving, to adjust to the potentially nauseating heights and thin atmosphere. However, with only a single day in the city we decided to explore with a hike up one of the prominent mountains to an aptly named peak, Devil’s Tooth. The views out across the city and behind to the stretches of severely undulating farmland were astonishing and well worth the giddy and dizzying effects of our slow climb.

Snow-capped mountain Illimani (meaning golden eagle in Aymara) on the outskirts of La Paz.

First thing the next morning we braved the traffic of the early-rising city and skidded into the airport just in time to make our 30minute flight north to Rurrenabaque. This saved us 12hrs+ of driving along the perilous route which includes a stretch referred to as ‘death road’ (surely no elaboration needed). We then drove out of Rurrenabaque and into the inner forest of a National Park (Biosphere Reserve Pilón Lajas, Beni and Madidi National Park). And so began our expedition proper, part of a Denmark-Bolivia collaboration which is currently working on producing a Flora of Bolivia, with the main endeavour being to collect and record plants from areas previously not collected in. Five scientists went from Copenhagen, including a postdoc specialising in microbial-plant interactions, us as two of the Plant.ID PhD students, an MSc student working on chemical analysis of the Cinchona genus, and a BSc student with an extraordinary passion for exploring the tropical plant world. We teamed up with a crew of six scientists out of the National Herbarium of La Paz. We headed in to face no connection with the outside world, this felt like just what we needed after months of lab work and data analysis!

Starting our expedition full of hope to find interesting species.

Once there, we felt, although not to the same extent, what Humbolt, Darwin, Spruce and other explorers felt when becoming immersed in the deep jungle. In this wild environment you need to be vigilant, so we had to divide our time between scouting for valuable plant specimens and not stumbling down the mountains whilst losing our footing on the slippery rocks. Even though our time in the field was demanding, we were full of joy knowing we were witnessing the flora diversity of an unexplored area. Just to give you an idea; our days would start by 6:30am, we would eat lunch as breakfast (things are done differently in the field!) and pack our lunches to eat on the go. We would then decide which terrain was better to start our plots for sampling in. Once we finished collecting and identifying trees, we would head back to camp for dinner after sunset. With no time to waste, we would put our leaf collections between newspaper sheets and then squat, pressing until 1am, because sleep is for the weak!

Even though it was a rainy season, there was almost no rain during our stay. Lucky.

One moment of great excitement was when we opened our way parallel to a waterfall and we climbed a mountain going up 750m more to find that elusive and legendary Cinchona tree. We were in awe for some minutes until the rain brought us back to reality, or perhaps we just needed more coca leaves?! This find obviously making one very excited scientist amongst the team! Suddenly we felt like time travelers, like the botanists of old, witnessing this beloved and historic tree not in its museum-state, in small pieces inside drawers or between sheets, but as whole individuals, alive and real, moving with the wind.

A beautiful Cinchona tree on top of the Andes!
Costa species (Costaceae), sliced and ready for pressing.

After two weeks, our time in the field came to end but more adventure awaited us with flash storms in the Beni grounding our flights back to La Paz. And so inevitably, when you give biologists one more day near such amazing forests, you’ll find that they’ll venture again into it. Abandoning exhaustion and worries about missing our flights home, we dove into a wet day canoeing through Santa Rosa de Yacuma where we saw capybaras and the mythical pink dolphins; it was just the perfect way to close the circle of an amazing fieldwork.

And whilst this was just a small part of the larger project, one day soon we will be holding the resulting Flora of Bolivia and know a little part of the story, of the adventures, that went into producing it.

And we’ll certainly be ready with a ‘YES’ for the next unexpected invitation to set lab work and the daily desk-grind aside to venture again into the wilderness.


Published Feb. 7, 2019 6:17 PM - Last modified May 6, 2019 12:01 PM