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New species emerge as rebels fade from Colombia's rainforest

Now that Colombia has boosted security in Las Orquídeas National Park, ecological researchers are able to investigate a region that could be more diverse than the Amazon.

By Autumn SpanneContributor / August 26, 2011

Scientists (l.-r.) Paola Pedraza-Peñalosa, Julio Betancur, and María Fernanda González carefully wrap plant specimens from Las Orquídeas National Park in newspaper to ship to Universidad Nacional in Bogotá for further study.

Fredy Gómez

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Bogotá, Colombia; and New York

A band of humid rainforest hugs Colombia’s Pacific coast, isolated from the rest of South America by the formidable Andes mountain range. Known as the Chocó biogeographic region, it is a treasure trove of biodiversity. And Las Orquídeas National Park, straddling the border between the rainforest and the mountains, is like a jewel in the crown.

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Despite the biological bounty of Las Orquídeas, much of it remains unexplored. For 13 years research was all but suspended here because of the presence of illegal armed groups in and around the park. But stepped-up security efforts by the Colombian government have recently made it safe enough for a team of scientists from the New York Botanical Garden and the Universidad Nacional de Colombia to return in a three-year effort to document its ecological riches.

Earlier this month, the researchers returned from their second expedition into remote areas of the park with close to 900 plant specimens – among them are perhaps dozens previously unknown to science. The goal of the project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is to create an inventory of as many plants as possible.

“The tropical Andes is now the top priority for conservation in the whole world,” said New York Botanical Garden biologist Paola Pedraza-Peñalosa, one of the project’s leaders. “It’s far more diverse than the Amazon region, far more endemic species.”

Conservation International (CI) agrees that it is one of the world's most ecologically important and threatened places, having designated both the tropical Andes and the Chocó biogeographic regions as biodiversity hotspots – among the top priorities for conservation in the world because of their combination of high plant endemism and rapid deforestation. But in order to protect them, they must be better studied, according to Erwin Palacios, coordinator for CI’s Amazon region.

“There are black holes of knowledge about our diversity, for the Chocó and for many areas in the country,” said Mr. Palacios. Like Ms. Pedraza-Peñalosa, he believes that if better documented, Colombia could prove to have the highest concentration of biodiversity on Earth.

The Las Orquídeas project is a significant step.

“We have been waiting for the right moment to do this for the longest time,” said Pedraza-Peñalosa.

An ecosystem isolated by violence and threatened by deforestation

Named for the more than 200 species of orchids known to grow within its boundaries, Las Orquídeas lies at the junction of the Chocó and the tropical Andes regions. Rising from lowland rainforest to peaks of more than 10,000 feet, the park’s geographic and climatic diversity make for a wealth of ecosystems that are home to thousands of plants and animals, including many endemic species found nowhere else.

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