The fog fern is in critical threat of extinction
UN/DICYT In order to find this tiny fern a Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) expedition headed by Natural Sciences Institute Professor Favio González along with two colleagues traveled the three Colombian mountain ranges with the purpose of finding Neuropterir, which in Latin means fog fern.
This unique plant grows in three specific locations in Colombia: the Chaquiro Andean Tundra, in the Province of Antioquia (Western Cordillera), in the Belmira Andean Tundra (Central Cordillera), and in Labranzagrande and Güicán (Eastern Cordillera).
This tiny fern was rediscovered by a UNal team of scientists after travelling for a year and a half along the Colombian mountains between 2,900 and 3,100 meters high (9514 and 10,170 ft.) and enduring temperatures below zero and 62 º F. The leaves of this fern are not at all like all other ferns, on the contrary they are very unconventional and are irregularly shaped; they are also very close to the ground and extend in green patches to retain water underneath.
“We found one on the eastern mountain range close to the municipality of Labranzagrande near the source of the Cusiana River in the Andean Tundras close to the city of Sogamoso,” said González.
The result although promising in face of the extinction threat, is an alert for this plant which is now categorized as in critical threat of extinction.
The amount of individuals per population is worrisome as in neither locations the amount surpasses 16 individuals.
Professor González says that in the central mountain range there are only eight individuals in a population of less than 40 square meters (430 sq. ft.) and 16 (50 sq. mts/538 sq. ft.) on the central mountain range.
The fertile individuals of the fog fern are close to 50% of the population on both mountain ranges where they were discovered.
Neuropteris was originally described as a unique genus in the world from a 1916 collection from the Chaquiro Andean tundra which is currently in a dire situation, both socially as economically.
Fortunately there are specific records on all three mountain ranges and located in threatened tundras areas, threat coming from different activities such as mining, cattle ranching, agricultural barrier extension, extensive agriculture and land burning. These tundras are increasingly getting smaller and compressed; therefore knowing the history of the fern along with the plants that live alongside is very important for proposing protected areas. Another option is calling attention to the local authorities for them to protect these tundras.
According to González, a sample of this scenario occurred when the UNal expedition was in the area; due to land issues, peasants set fire to a farm and the tundra was burning, compelling the UNal team to leave and return three months later.
The researchers took a very small and less invasive sample of the discovered population which was a piece of leaf of 5 square millimeters (0.002 in) to extract the DNA and perform molecular systematics analysis.
This DNA produced four molecular markers which enabled comparing it to a world fern database.
In water terms, the Andean tundra where the fern was discovered is linked to the source of Cusiana River and the Belmira tundra which is an important water source for the city of Medellín. However the central mountain range fern requires greater attention.
“If there had been a link between the individuals of the three mountain ranges there would also be greater genetic exchange among populations, but this is not the case. We then presume that being endogamic, each population is becoming more uniform in regards to its genetics, which increases it vulnerability,” said González.
Plant and animal conservation policies are not directed to preserving just one species. For plants it is not to preserve ferns or orchids but the whole habitat where they live.
“The status of the Andean tundras in Colombia is critical and its preservation is really what can save us from large catastrophes because they act as climatic buffers and natural water reservoirs,” he added.