Ancestral Mutualisms

One hundred and twenty million years ago, when dinosaurs lived on Earth, a mutually beneficial interaction started between small winged creatures and flowering plants. This ancestral relationship, known as mutualism in biology, had a great impact on the evolution of life on Earth.

Mutualisms are associations between species that are not related, in which both parties receive benefits. For example, lets consider how a hummingbird relates to the plants it pollinates or how a coral polyp relates to the algae that live within its cells. These mutualisms have endured for millions of years and are the reason why there are millions of species, especially in the tropics.

Due to its great biological diversity, Colombia has a very important role in studying and protecting biodiversity at a global level. Even if our country has a relatively small territory (20,116 km2), it has one of the largest biodiversity indexes: 1,889 bird species, 22,840 flowering plant species, 3,274 butterfly species, 4,010 orchid species, and so on… However, this magnificent and exuberant richness is endangered. The severity of the worldwide species’ extinction rates can be compared to any of the five massive extinctions that hit the tree of life in the past. And even if approximately 99.9% of the species that have inhabited Earth have become extinct due to natural processes, we have the moral duty to act and protect the natural legacy that we have and that we might lose forever.

A tangible example of our dependence on the natural world can be illustrated with this number: approximately 80% of the vegetable food that we eat on a daily basis would disappear without the bees’ pollination. With each species that disappears, we lose not only millions of evolutionary history, but also a great number of necessary ecological interactions such as mutualisms. The great ecologist and conservationist Daniel H. Janzen said that “what escapes the eye is a much more insidious kind of extinction: the extinction of ecological interactions.”

Even if we have always paid little attention to the amazing natural resources that our country has, we have the great opportunity of knowing and protecting this natural richness, and the reflection from an artistic perspective can help attain this purpose. This is exactly one of the achievements of Ana González’s work. Her Mutuum work is a detailed, thorough and learned research, about the literal and allegorical meaning of the biological concept of mutualism.

Mutuum particularly explores the intriguing relationship between the Gongora orchids and the Euglossa bees that live abundantly in Colombia’s tropical rain forests. Based on the research made by my study group during the last 15 years, we have been able to understand how, when and where the species involved in this relationship evolved. We have also been able to understand the mechanisms that have generated new species and the selection processes that have shaped them. Bees and orchids have captured scientists’ interest since Darwin’s time, because of the unusual behavior that the males have for collecting scents. Throughout their life, the male bees collect aromatic substances (scents) from the flowers of several orchid groups and store them in some specialized cavities in their hind legs to use them later on in courting female bees. In exchange, the plants are pollinated. This association is so intimate that the orchids only produce fragrances as a reward and therefore, the male bees are their only pollinators. If one species of bee disappears, around three species of orchids will disappear.

I have worked with Ana during the last year in order to develop the Mutuum project; she does it from the art aesthetics and I do it from the scientific approach. It has been an enriching experience for both and my participation in this project has given me a unique perspective about the ability that art has to relate to scientific knowledge, natural history and organic evolution. Likewise, this collaboration has demonstrated that my scientific research gains strength when interpreted from the art perspective. By establishing this intimate dialogue between science, natural world and aesthetics, the barrier that has prevented science and detailed knowledge of the natural world from reaching people has been removed. This collaboration demonstrates that art can be used as a way of effectively spreading abstract, difficult and sometimes esoteric scientific concepts. It also shows that collaborative dialogues like this one might one day have an impact on preserving biological diversity.

Ana’s work should be seen as an original and relevant way of exploring the connection between the natural world and the social reality of our country. It should also be seen as an innovative proposition that connects knowledge areas while it tells an original story inspired by our country’s natural history. This natural history grows and replicates everywhere, even when nobody knows it’s there.

July of 2015

Santiago R. Ramírez

Assistant Professor

Department of Evolution and Ecology 

University of California, Davis

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