Returning to Colombia in search of river-weed plants

October 15, 2018 | Ana Bedoya Ovalle

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.

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.

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.

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.

A close up view of a plant with closed bud
Photo: Ana María Bedoya
Photo: Ana María Bedoya

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

A close up view of a blooming purple plant
Photo: Ana María Bedoya
Photo: Ana María Bedoya

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

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.

Three researchers posing by the river
Photo: Ana María Bedoya
Photo: Ana María Bedoya

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

Two researchers posing outside surrounded by white sand that looks like snow
Photo: Mateo Fernández
Photo: Mateo Fernández

White sand-savannas have a special and diverse flora.

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 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.

A researcher wearing a helment and life jacket rafting on a river
Photo: Daniel Ocampo Rincón
Photo: Daniel Ocampo Rincón

Ana rafting down the Samaná Norte river.

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.

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.

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