The plant, from the genus Espeletia in the sunflower family, was discovered by Dr Mauricio Diazgranados, Colombian-born Research Leader on Diversity and Livelihoods in the Natural Capital and Plant Health department at Kew.
The newly described species was collected during an expedition in 2009, when many parts of Colombia were in conflict, and were dangerous or inaccessible. During this expedition, Diazgranados met with left-wing armed guerrillas. At the time it was not known whether they were members of FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People's Army) or the ELN (National Liberation Army) as both groups were operating in the area.
Discovery in the páramo
The new species was found 28 km south of the city of Chitagá in the Páramo de Presidente ecosystem. Like many parts of Colombia, the páramo (ecosystems above the continuous forest line, but below the permanent snowline) are considered to be evolutionary hotspots – and despite being among the fastest evolving regions on earth, are yet to be studied in great detail.
Espeletia praesidentis is endemic to Colombia and is only known from the Páramo de Presidente, at elevations of 3,400–3,600 m. Although a large population of several hundred individuals growing in the grasslands of the páramo was observed, this particular area is not under any protection, and there were signs of grazing. In addition, the proximity of extensive potato plantations suggests that the species is likely to be critically endangered.
Commenting on the significance of the discovery, Diazgranados said:
“Kew is working ever more closely with the Colombian government in efforts to identify and protect the incredible biodiversity of this country which has been closed to researchers during 52 years of conflict. Naming this new species is a way to acknowledge the importance of the peace agreement brokered by President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, which will open up more botanical exploration. Espeletia praesidentis exemplifies the lack of collections from throughout the ‘páramos’, and shows some of the challenges taxonomists have to face when studying this group.”
RBG, Kew and Colombia partnership
RBG, Kew and Colombia recently signed an agreement to start a new phase of cooperation to help identify, protect and promote the country’s plant and fungal diversity through collaboration in the Colombia Bio programme. This includes several large joint field expeditions to discover and identify plants and fungi, as well as exploring their potential for sustainable use to benefit local livelihoods and the economy. Vegetation mapping and documentation of species diversity and traits, combined with climate models, will support vital climate change resilience assessments.
The research will help the Colombian government to achieve in situ conservation objectives by identifying priority areas and threatened species for protection, as well as supporting ex situ conservation in seed banks: an area which Kew has significant experience of via its Millennium Seed Bank Partnership.
Diazgranados, M. & Sánchez, L.R. (2017). Espeletia praesidentis, a new species of Espeletiinae (Millerieae, Asteraceae) from northeastern Colombia. PhytoKeys 76: 1–12. DOI: 10.3897/phytokeys.76.11220. Available online