Meet the Colombian Mysteries of Fossil Plants

Camila Martinez, one of Colombia’s few paleobotanists, studies plant fossils from an ancient era in Earth’s history, which may also tell us what might happen to the Earth’s biosphere as levels of carbon increase in the atmosphere.

Martinez, now a professor at EAFIT University in Medellin, Colombia, says she had the opportunity to study plant fossils from North America or Patagonia, but studying her own country had special meaning.

“I thought that if I didn’t study them, no one else would and they would end up being forgotten in boxes,” she says. “In the end, they trusted me and today I can tell the story behind these fossils: the first records of a tropical dry forest in South America.”

Martinez says that a few months before starting her doctorate, she had the opportunity to participate in a paleontological rescue project during the construction of a dam, in Santander, Colombia.

“I was lucky because one of the major discoveries of this project was a beautiful fossil flora from the Eocene,” she says, “The age and quality of the fossils immediately caught my attention because the Eocene is a geological epoch characterized by dramatic climate change and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations like those we expect in the coming centuries if we continue to release carbon emissions at the same rate as we do today. today.”

Martinez says plant fossils are essential because they can be used to estimate what the climate and carbon dioxide concentrations were like millions of years ago.

“You can also reconstruct those past ecosystems and get ideas about those lineages that are already pre-adapted to the climatic conditions we expect in the near future,” she says.

Tropical past, present and future

Martinez says tropical South America is the most biodiverse region on Earth.

“If we don’t study this region, we miss the essential story of life on Earth, its history and its evolution,” she says, “Biodiversity and climate change issues the world is currently facing cannot be resolved without integrating knowledge from all regions.

History has shown time and time again, says Martinez, that expeditions by aliens can only bring to the surface a small part of what is already known and yet to be discovered.

“We must learn to investigate through collaborative networks between international, national and local institutions and people, to materialize knowledge and findings in problem solving,” says Martinez, “As one of the few paleobotanists from Colombia, I feel I can use what I have learned abroad and integrated it with years of field experiences to create projects that connect knowledge of the immense past of tropical regions , climate change, biodiversity, and the importance of science to non-academic audiences and policy makers.”

office in the forest

Martinez was born in Bogota, Colombia, and says her interest in biology didn’t come until she was about to graduate from high school.

“I had never met a biologist or a scientist, but I imagined that being a biologist meant that I was going to have an office in the middle of a forest, and I was going to travel a lot and I was happy with this idea. , ” she says.

In 2009, she completed her undergraduate degree in biology at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota and then in 2011, a master’s degree at the same institution.

“Throughout these years I also had the opportunity to participate in different research projects at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and this inspired me even more to pursue an academic career,” she says, adding that she was going to do her doctorate in Plant Biology at Cornell University.

“Thinking back to my first idea of ​​what it means to be a biologist, I think I was not wrong: I also had many temporary offices in the middle of forests and deserts, and I traveled a lot, but I wish we had more opportunities to experience lesser-known careers and certainly examples of women pursuing them,” she says.

Another Global South paleobotanist is Aviwe Matiwane from South Africa who is cataloging fossils of a plant that can give us a glimpse into time of climate and even food chains from a time before the dinosaurs.

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Matiwane, says Glossopteris was an early example of a gymnosperm, meaning a plant that uses an exposed seed to reproduce, rather than a fruit.