What it’s like to ACTUALLY be a Neotropical Pollination Biologist?

Video en español sobre “¿Qué significa ser una Bióloga de la Polinización Neotropical?
Subtitles in English

Would you like to study pollination in the tropics?

Exploring the Amazon rainforest, navigating mighty rivers, surviving thunderstorms in the middle of the tropical jungle… all to spend hours upon hours observing flowers or capturing bees, hummingbirds, or nectar bats. Rossana Maguiña does that for a living!

Pollination is the reason we not only have a third of our food, but we also have forests and everything they provide us with. Pollination is a very important process for the maintenance and regeneration of the forests. Studying pollination is also contributing to the conservation of Neotropical forests.

Not only is the science fascinating, it can be quite the adventure! Sometimes Rossana Maguiña, M.S. Neotropical Pollination Biologist is worn out, and even a little surprised she survived! 😂

So… Where are the Neotropics?

There are many different ecosystems in the tropic, but Rossana Maguiña’s experience is mainly in the rain forest, mountain forest, and Amazon. Tropical environments where she says it’s helpful for scientists to be a little crazy to work there (whether studying pollination or any other scientific field).

There are many adverse conditions in the tropical forests. Sometimes it’s hot, sometimes it rains a lot. Sometimes, the rain brings danger… like branches or entire trees falling! And don’t forget to watch out for the venomous snakes and other animals lurking about.

So… How do you prepare to work in tropical environments?

To be able to cope with all of the tropical conditions, you need to be quite brave and strong. Most of all, you have to like what you’re doing! Rossana Maguiñal loves her work, otherwise she wouldn’t be there. She enjoys the whole process of research, but always experiences the most intense experiences and emotions while in the neotropical forest. It’s her “happiest place”.

So… What is studying pollination in the tropics?

To start, pollination is the process of transferring pollen grains from one flower to another for fertilization and producing seeds. Pollination is done by abiotic vectors (air or water), and biotic vectors (pollinators). For her studies as a Neotropical Pollination Biologist, Rossana Maguiña studies pollination by biotic vectors such as hummingbirds or orchid bees. More specifically, she studies how new species of neotropical plants were formed.

Some of the questions she tries to answer are:

  1. Which of these 2 groups of pollinators (orchid bees or hummingbirds) is more efficient and successful?
  2. What is the function of different parts, shapes or colors of the flowers?

So… How does the research get started?

First, she focuses on learning as much as possible about the biology of the organisms she’s studying. Some of that information comes from published studies. Also, she learns by working in the forest with the organisms themselves. Many Neotropical species are currently very understudied. It’s known they exist, but little is known about their ecology.

With all this information, she can make better decisions about how to collect data and design experiments. Then, it’s lots of walking through the tropical forest to find the plants to study. Unlike temperate zones where plants grow in patches, the distribution is very dispersed in neotropical environments.

Once the plants are found, then what?

Setting up ways to monitor! For example, motion sensor camera near the plant to record the visits of the pollinators. Or, transferring potted plants to an area to increase the number of flowers there. Also, she spends many hours near the flowers waiting and watching for the pollinators. Every time she’s able to observe the visit from pollinators first hand, it’s a great triumph!

Sometimes, she catches the pollinators and keeps them cages or tents with the plants she’s studying. That way the interaction can be observed in a controlled environment, and likely more frequently. A lot of care is taken, as the flowers of the plants are very delicate and the pollinators can become stressed.

What happens after the work in the tropical forest is done?

It’s back to the lab! The samples are processed, and results analyzed with statistical tests.

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