Conserve an Orchid, Conserve an Ecosystem | Protecting Colombia’s Biodiversity

Orchids may be delicate, but they need tough conservationists to stand up for them. 

The Colombian Andes are home to the highest number of orchid species in the world – and the highest number of threatened species. Together with the rest of the tropical Andes, this global biodiversity hotspot will face the greatest effects of global warming compared to any other mountain ecosystem worldwide. 

Fortunately, orchid expert Dr Tatiana Arias has dedicated her career to studying and protecting Colombia’s orchids. She is the Scientific Advisor of La Reserva Orquideas, a natural reserve in the Colombian cloud forest that conserves orchids and their ecosystems. 

Read on to find out how Tatiana fell in love with botany, what her research involves and how you can become a botanist, too.

Why do you work in conservation?

I learned to love biology and the natural world as a small child. I used to visit my father once a year in Bahia Solano, Choco, Colombia. We spent our vacations exploring the jungle there, and I decided to become a biologist because I wanted to know more about my country’s biodiversity. 

I applied to a public university, which is a highly competitive process in Colombia. I worked hard in my classes and suddenly biology became hugely fascinating to me. 

I shared a passion of biology with my best friends from college, and early in our careers we decided to focus on and learn everything we could about particular organisms. We formed study groups and explored Colombia looking for birds and reptiles, but eventually my interests gravitated toward plants.

Why did you focus on botany?

I decided to study botany when I took a plant morphology class with my former professor Ricardo Callejas, a world specialist for Piperaceae (the pepper family, which includes about 3,600 flowering plants). I never will forget the passion with which he taught his classes and how exciting the thought of becoming a botanist was. 

What do you think are the biggest conservation challenges and opportunities in Colombia? 

The biggest challenges are the loss of habitat and the lack of interest. The biggest opportunities are our enormous diversity and beautiful country!

The tropical Andes are a global biodiversity hotspot intended to undergo the most pronounced effects of global warming compared to any other mountain ecosystem worldwide. The area covers less than one percent of the Earth’s surface, but holds one sixth of the planet’s total plant diversity. 

The Colombian Andean region has the highest number of orchid species (2,542 species, or 77% of the species registered for Colombia) and the largest number of endemic species (944 species). But it also has the highest number of threatened species (151 species, or 76% of the threatened species recorded for Colombia).

After my stay with the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science (ICCS) at Oxford University, UK, I came back to Colombia and started thinking about what kind of science I could use to positively impact my country. 

I decided to focus the general theme of my research on finding solutions to the modern challenges that affect agriculture and the loss of biodiversity in Colombia. I came back to Colombia right when negotiations with leftist groups were finishing and a new era was starting to open for my country. There’s a huge opportunity in this new phase in our history to consider our great biodiversity. 

What does your research involve? 

The main goal of my research is to understand the diversity and evolution of tropical plants. I am particularly interested in evolutionary processes and patterns that have given rise to the diversity of Colombian emblematic plants such as orchids. 

Orchid research in Colombia has focused mainly on taxonomic work of particular groups, species lists, conservation techniques, propagation of horticulturally important species and ecological studies. But there has been little effort to understand their genetic diversity, evolution and the extraordinary species diversity and endemism of orchids in the Northern Andes.

In the country, private collectors who are members of associations, societies and foundations are those who have promoted knowledge about orchids. Recently the Colombian orchid conservation plan has been published. This plan outlines the main guidelines for future studies and regulations for the conservation and sustainable use of orchids in the country. 

My research combines the knowledge, impressive orchid private collections and expertise from collectors with disciplines across different biological scales including novel molecular sequencing techniques, phylogenetic studies, population genetics, and conservation to explore the molecular diversity of the main groups of endemic orchids of the Colombian Andes for first time. 

I try to integrate contributions from communities, undergraduate and graduate students and collaborations with other researchers and institutions in Latin America, the United States and Europe.

What’s the best part of your job? 

Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and it is also a country a long, complex and violent history. Knowing that I can contribute to make my country a little better, it is what drives my life. 

Knowing that what I do is meaningful to some people such students, farmers, and in general people from communities around Colombia is the best part of my job. Also I love to be in the field, walk the mountains and landscapes, traveling. 

What’s the worst part of your job?

Dealing with bureaucracy, male chauvinism and lack of funding. In Colombia a strong woman is not always well perceived by her peers and colleagues. To do well in the sciences we’d better be quiet, we should not complain, let alone question any male authority.

Money is another issue; getting money to do sciences is a highly competitive process and one that does not protect researchers but institutions. More than once I have gotten funds that I have lost completely after losing my job. Paperwork and formalities is also one of the worst parts of my job. 

What are your career highlights so far? 

I was named “Young Colombian Scientist” in 2017 by The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) and the Academy of Sciences from Colombia (Academia Colombiana de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas y Naturales).

I cling to the day I got this recognition just because I have worked so hard since I was really young to do the best I can, for me and for my family, and so many times I have felt is not worthy. This day I thought all is worthy and I can keep working hard to contribute and make my country a little better. 

What key steps have you taken in your conservation career? 

Focusing on orchid conservation allowed me to meet different kinds of people and communities I can help with my expertise; from these people I have also learned a great deal. 

Having La Reserva Orquideas as the main focus of my conservation studies on orchids, to implement different kinds of experiments related to restoration, orchid conservation in situ and circa situm, Sphanum reproduction and reintroduction, among others. In this way I can see how these experiments work here and if I can implement them somewhere else.

I have also mentored and taught students from different regions in Colombia about my country’s biodiversity, focusing on plants.

Lastly, meeting important actors and colleagues in national and international settings and advertising what we do here. 

What careers advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps? 

Keep working hard on your goals and do not be discouraged by everything that is going on in this world at the moment. The news and the recent global crisis including deforestation, biodiversity loss, the COVID-19 pandemic and the political crisis we are going through can definitely be transformed into an opportunity to make a better world for all. 

Are you fascinated by the world of orchids? Or think you might want to become a botanist yourself? Visit Tatiana’s website, check out her recent publications or follow her on Twitter @TatianAriasGar or Facebook.


Careers Advice, Interviews, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Educator, Scientist