Encompassing more than 7,000 square miles, Madidi National Park in northeast Bolivia is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. The park and its surrounding regions encompass the Andes’ snow-covered peaks, hazy cloud forests, and a portion of the tropical Amazon Rainforest. Yet until recently, relatively little was known about the plants and animals that call the region home.
Madidi National Park was established in 1995, with support from botanists who reported high levels of biodiversity in the region from quick assessments. In 2001, the Missouri Botanical Garden and Herbario Nacional de Bolivia launched the Madidi Project, a long-term collaboration aimed to thoroughly document plants in this region that scientists hadn’t previously explored.
“Since then we have been corroborating the enormous diversity of plants present in the region, helping to position the park as the richest in plant species in the world with more than 5,000 species reported,” says Alfredo Fernando Fuentes Claros, who has been with the project since its start.
Exploring the Unknown
Taxonomy, which includes taking an inventory of known species as well as describing new ones, was the initial focus of the Madidi Project. To date, researchers have discovered 230 new plant species, and have named and described 101 of those species.
A few new species highlights include:
Described by: Zenteno Ruiz & A. Fuentes
This plant, widely known and used by the indigenous Andean populations of northern Bolivia, turned out to be a species new to science that was described from specimens collected by researchers from the Madidi project. It is an endemic tree of montane forests found in the edges of the Yungas of La Paz. It produces an aromatic resin— a sticky substance excuded by some trees— that is used as incense as an offering to the Pachamama, the Andean deity that represents mother earth.
Described by Pedraza & Luteyn
This humid montane forest shrub grows only in a small sector within the Madidi National Park. The scientific name pays tribute to the Madidi National Park, which preserves more than a third of the flora of all of Bolivia.
Described by: A. Fuentes & J.F. Morales (Apocynaceae)
This endemic liana grows in the humid forests of the department of La Paz. The species was dedicated to the Leco indigenous nation, in whose ancestral territory the type specimen was collected, in a deserved tribute to this indigenous nation that constantly struggles to maintain its territory and its traditional way of life.
The team has also developed an extensive network of forest plots, where over 170,000 individuals and 2,500 species of trees have been surveyed. This was no simple task. The “easy to reach” sites required a day-long car trip and 3 to 5 hours of hiking. The farther away trips started with an 18 hour drive, followed by a 3 day hike. By visiting those sites, the team has been able to put together the largest data set of forest plots in the Andes, where other research groups have only been able to measure 20-30 plots.
“We have almost 500,” says Sebastián Tello, Associate Scientist for the Garden’s Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development. “No one else has been able to do that.”
This foundational taxonomic information is essential as the project team begins to shift their focus to study the ecology of Madidi National Park, Tello explains.
“If we did not know this information, much of our tools and concepts to study and protect biodiversity would be useless.”
Carbon and Climate Change
The Madidi Project is now focused on providing important insights into many aspects of how plant biodiversity has originated and plants function within ecosystems. Of particular interest is how climate change affects Andean forests and its species.
The Madidi Project’s focus is now studying the ecology and evolution of plants in the region, particularly how climate change affects this unique ecosystem.
One key finding, published in a 2021 paper, was that Andean forests act as carbon sinks, meaning they capture more carbon than they emit.
“Andean forests are providing a service to the planet,” Tello says. “They are not making things worse by releasing carbon, but are storing more carbon, which potentially helps de-accelerate carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere.”
This is good news for forests in Madidi and across the Andes, as well as for conservationists and policy makers—protecting Andean forests and restoring lost habitats can have an important impact in mitigating future climate change.
Researchers are also studying climate change by looking to the past. They are studying how species responded to the formation of the Andes to understand how plants and their ecosystems have previously changed in the face of major environmental shifts. The two leading hypotheses are that, as the Andes arose, species evolved new adaptations to live in the new environments at higher elevations, or that the new highland environments were colonized by “pre-adapted” species from other similar climates, such as temperate North America.
“We’re trying to understand how this created opportunities for evolution,” Tello adds.
The answers will provide information about how ecosystems could respond long term to future climate change.
From the start, the Madidi Project has also made capacity building a top goal, with aims to generate research and training opportunities for people of many backgrounds—botanists, students, and people in the local communities.
Tello is proud to share that the program has helped more than 40 students complete their thesis in Bolivia. The Madidi Project has also supported many others to pursue graduate school in the U.S. and Europe. Now, some students are back in Bolivia with advanced degrees doing research and contributing to science in their home.
“It’s had a massive impact in Bolivia, where students have very few opportunities to have this type of training,” Tello says.
As the Madidi Project celebrates two decades of success, the collaborators are discussing what direction the project should take next.
There’s much interest in doing restoration work in Madidi National Park, especially from small local communities, according to Tello.
Researchers also want to continue to study the ecology of the region and continue to answer lingering scientific questions. They want to collaborate with an expert in measuring tree growth from rings to understand how environmental changes have affected tree growth. They want to know about how climate warming might shift interactions between plants and their enemies. And they’d like to continue to visit sites they’ve collected climate change data from for several years to continue measuring how forests are changing. Offering opportunities to students and young researchers will continue to be a major goal for the project.
“We’re at a critical point of deciding what the objective of the project will be in the next 20 years.”
Public Information Officer
Photos by Marcela Quiñonez, Jonathan A. Myers, Alfredo F. Fuentes, and Marcela Quiñonez.