Returning to Colombia in search of river-weed plants

April 16, 2018
Ana Bedoya Ovalle
The Don Diego river in the Magdalena basin.

The Don Diego river in the Magdalena basin.

Photo: Ana María Bedoya

After three months in Colombia, I am back in Seattle. Looking back, this last trip was the most successful field trip I have conducted so far as a graduate student at the University of Washington and researcher with the Burke Museum Herbarium.

As I continue researching the impact of mountain building on the evolution of aquatic plants in Northern South America, my purpose in this new trip to Colombia was to collect plants in the Podostemaceae family. These plants live in fast-moving water and they resemble algae but produce flowers. I also aimed to collect species of Ludwigia, also known as water primroses.

Last year I had embarked on a similar field trip to collect them for my doctoral thesis. This time around I aimed to collect in many more areas and get all the samples needed for the project, with support from the UW Graduate School through the Boeing International Fellowship.

Ludwigia affinis, collected in Inirida.

Ludwigia affinis, collected in Inirida.

Photo: Ana María Bedoya

In the beginning, I traveled with my field assistant Maria Paula Contreras throughout the Caribbean region of Colombia. We visited the Piedras, Mendihuaca, Guachaca, Don Diego, San Salvador, Ancho, Palomino, Jerez, Badillo, and Guatapurí rivers. We collected river-weeds in each of them and were lucky to find all the plants in flower and in fruit. We moved by car, walked, used a boat and also went tubing down one of the rivers, managing to stop whenever we found Podostemaceae in flower.

Two different species of Marathrum growing on the same rock. The one to the left has pink flowers and highly dissected leaves, whereas the one to the right has white flowers and entire leaves.

Two different species of Marathrum growing on the same rock. The one to the left has pink flowers and highly dissected leaves, whereas the one to the right has white flowers and entire leaves.

Photo: Ana María Bedoya

We also visited Mompox, a historically important town located on the Magdalena river in a wetland to collect Ludwigia. Two female botanists by themselves, along roads that used to be unsafe to travel, was a reminder of the immense progress made with regards to safety in post-conflict Colombia. It also opened our eyes to the extent of how the political and social situation of a country can affect the ability of scientists to conduct field research.

Marathrum (Podostemaceae) fruits are capsules. These ones have an expanded cupule.

Marathrum (Podostemaceae) fruits are capsules. These ones have an expanded cupule.

Photo: Ana María Bedoya

Podostemaceae flowers are always emergent and have very reduced tepals! This specimen has pink stamens.

Podostemaceae flowers are always emergent and have very reduced tepals! This specimen has pink stamens.

Photo: Ana María Bedoya

I then joined Burke Museum Herbarium curator and my advisor Richard Olmstead, and my colleague Mateo Fernández, in Inirida, Colombia. Under the heat of the dry season, we collected water primroses on an island in the confluence of the Guaviare, the Atabapo, and the Orinoco rivers. The region that we were visiting is located in northern South America and occupies the western part of the Guiana shield.

Richard Olmstead (top), Ana Bedoya Ovalle (left), and Mateo Fernández by a river rapid in Inirida.

Richard Olmstead (top), Ana Bedoya Ovalle (left), and Mateo Fernández by a river rapid in Inirida.

Photo: Ana María Bedoya

White sand-savannas have a special and diverse flora.

White sand-savannas have a special and diverse flora.

Photo: Mateo Fernández

There were many highlights of our time in Inirida! We visited white-sand savannas with unique flora, navigated for several hours through white-water and black-water rivers, stopped by indigenous communities, crossed over river rapids by boat, and navigated along the Inirida river between the Mavicure mountains.

We followed the steps of the great Alexander von Humboldt, who explored the region at the end of the 18th century. Like him, we were fascinated by the colorful landscape, the color of the rivers, the deep blue of the sky that contrasted with the green of the forest, the white of the savannas and the darkness of the granitic outcrops. These outcrops are among the oldest geologic formations on earth.

The granitic outcrops in Inirida are part of the Guiana shield.

The granitic outcrops in Inirida are part of the Guiana shield.

Photo: Mateo Fernández

The best was yet to come as I was joined by an incredibly talented and diverse group composed of ornithologist David Ocampo, filmmaker Daniel Ocampo and adventurer / kayaker Jules Domine. Together we explored the eastern slope of the central Andean cordillera in Antioquia. As part of this expedition, we spent three days rafting down the Santo Domingo, Verde, and Calderas rivers, all tributaries of the Samaná Norte river.

The Samaná Norte river in Antioquia holds impressive and very diverse rapids!

The Samaná Norte river in Antioquia holds impressive and very diverse rapids!

Photo: Daniel Ocampo Rincón

Ana rafting down the Samaná Norte river.

Ana rafting down the Samaná Norte river.

Photo: Daniel Ocampo Rincón

The Samaná Norte is one of the last undammed rivers in Antioquia and we found a tremendous diversity of species in it. Of all the rivers I have ever visited for fieldwork, this may be the one that holds the greatest number of Podostemaceae species. However, a current hydroelectric project threatens to transform this pristine ecosystem.

Marathrum utile growing in a beautiful waterfall by the San Carlos river.

Marathrum utile growing in a beautiful waterfall by the San Carlos river.

Photo: Ana María Bedoya

It was a very enriching experience to visit remote areas and collect samples that are crucial for my research. But it is also my duty to share the beauty of the places that I visited and the plants that I collected in them. This will hopefully encourage others to visit these areas that can now be safely explored. In addition, I hope this serves as a reminder of the outstandingly beautiful and diverse regions that are currently threatened and that need to be preserved.

Back to Top