How Columbian Hummingbirds Are Related To The Plants They Feed On
Colombian researcher Mónica Ramírez Burbano has turned her fascination with hummingbirds into a project to examine how these birds interact with the plants they feed on.
Ramirez, who is currently a stay-at-home mother, began her research on hummingbirds and the plants they use as nectar resources in Munchique National Park (southwestern Colombia), in the only place in the forest Andean clouds where an endangered, endemic hummingbird species, the Colored Puffleg (Eriocnemis mirabilis), has been spotted in the present day.
“I was very lucky to take a lot of data on the colorful Puffleg and the other beautiful hummingbirds there, and decided to also take pollen samples from their feathers and beaks (the pollen they carry when using a flower in search of nectar) as pollen samples from plants I have seen being visited by hummingbirds (and others likely to be visited) with the idea of having data for future research,” she says.
Ramirez says she began her research by trying to understand what all hummingbird species used as nectar resources, and how they shared or competed for them, as well as some favorite plant nectar characteristics.
“These mutualistic interactions are crucial for the maintenance of biodiversity since the plants used by hummingbirds need their visit to flowers to ensure their reproduction through pollination, while hummingbirds depend on these plants for food to survive,” says- she, “It’s a complex web where some species are more vulnerable than others to things like climate change, habitat loss, or the loss of their mates; and, at the same time, certain pairs of interactions and some systems of interactions are more vulnerable than others to human intervention.
Ramirez says that at the beginning of his research experience, the fieldwork was quite difficult because although the Munchique National Natural Park was an extremely beautiful place, it was dangerous due to the armed conflict, where guerrillas and the army paramilitary were present. However, she says it is essential to study these areas.
“Understanding these systems provides ecological foundations for conservation actions, in which the interaction networks approach allows us to analyze not just pairs of species but the whole system, including other variables that could explain their functioning as well as their vulnerabilities,” she says.
From the small town to the small birds
Ramirez was born and raised in Popayan, a small Andean town in southwestern Colombia.
“I decided to become a biologist thanks to a good high school teacher who showed me the pleasure of discovering nature, combined with my fascination for the beauty and complexity of nature; hummingbirds; and their relationship with plants. “, she says, “This interest was heightened when my undergraduate adviser showed me the papers of Gary Stiles, a North American ornithologist who has lived in Colombia since 1990.”
Ramirez says that several years later, with the financial support of her mother, she had the opportunity to do her master’s degree at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in the Colombian capital of Bogota, with Gary Stiles as her thesis supervisor.
“My adviser was the same author of the articles that inspired me when I was younger,” she says.
Ramirez completed her doctorate in December 2019 and had her child in April 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Since then I have been a stay-at-home mom, I have also worked on my own papers and on collaborations with other scientists who have also worked on the subject of hummingbird-plant interactions,” she says, “Now I looking for an opportunity to work in post-doctoral research, hopefully in another country, where my skills and experience can be useful to others and I could learn a lot more about how science is done from other kinds of viewpoints and cultures, and hopefully where more logistics and funding are available.”
Daniela Garzon is another Colombian scientist who studies hummingbirds.
In December 2020, Garzon was invited to be part of a five-woman expedition called “BIO: Wings, Songs, and Colors.” These women spent four days in the vicinity of Fresno, Tolimafinally bringing together 89 species, including some endemic species and those in danger of extinction.