Biologist Tania Marisol Gonzalez, has spent her career unlocking the mysteries of the impact of wildfire on mammal species in her home country of Colombia, including the lowland tapir, which is listed as a vulnerable and decreasing species.
Gonzalez, who earned her Masters and PhD from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNAL) and now works at the landscape and ecosystems modeling laboratory (ECOLMOD) there, said her main project sought to understand how wildfires influence landscape configuration and small, non-flying mammals, that is, marsupials and small rodents.
“We focused on these species because they have key functions within the ecosystems such as predator-prey interactions, seed dispersal, and energy cycling,” she says, adding that to the team gathered information involving sensors and sampling vegetation and small mammals in burned and unburnt forests.
“I have been involved in research and projects that have sought to understand the effects of negative processes such as habitat fragmentation, deforestation, and forest degradation over biodiversity and other ecological processes,” she says, “We found that wildfires, in forested areas of the Orinoco region of Colombia, can severely affect the vegetation and exclude mammal’s species that depend on that vegetation to provide habitat specific requirements.”
Gonzalez says her research has involved extensive field work and collaborations with local and indigenous communities, who have worked as field assistants and key actors for the correct development of projects.
“For example, during my undergraduate thesis I had the opportunity to carry out a large field work to assess the use and fragmentation state of the lowland tapirs (tapirus terrestris) habitat at Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta,” she says, “For my Masters, I evaluated the movement ecology of this same mammal species in remote areas of the Colombian Amazon.”
In the course of her career, Gonzalez has been recognized with a Latin American student field grant from American Society of Mammalogists in 2017, a L´Óreal-Unesco Women in Science grant in 2018 and a small grant award from The Rufford Foundation in 2019.
Global South Challenges
Gonzalez was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia’s capital city.
“Since I was little, I was fascinated by nature, animals, and plants; this led me to take courses related to biology while I was at school,” she says, adding that afterwards, she decided to study biology at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia.
“During my training at the university, my curiosity and concern by nature conservation motivated me to choose a focus from where I could work towards the preservation of natural resources,” Gonzalez says.
But the path has not been easy. Gonzalez says it is extremely challenging to carry out any kind of research in Colombia, mainly by scarce funding and problems to access remote areas that face armed violence.
“As a woman is challenging to carry out field work, since people think is not a job for a woman; even so is harder to lead a group of men not used to be led by a woman,” she says, adding that on top of that, Global South scientists face “science colonialism,” where northern countries dismiss and gives no value to science and research carried out in the Global South.
“These challenges imply the need that different actions must take to cover the socio-economic and ecological context of the areas where they are taking places,” she says, “I believe that human and scientific talent are everywhere, the only difference is access to funding.”
Gonzalez says the Global South faces enormous environmental and social challenges such as biodiversity loss and deforestation, which degrades the ecological support systems that make human life possible.
“I firmly believe that considering the science done at the global south and an equitable promotion of scientific innovation and production can counter the effects that humans have over our most valuable resource: nature,” she says.
Another Colombian biologist with a passion for forests and grasslands is Slendy Rodríguez-Alarcón.
Rodríguez-Alarcón traveled all the way to Estonia in order to study how specific traits of plants change when there is a disruption to the ecosystem — which might give us clues for how they’ll adapt under climate change.