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Dr. Germán Forero-Medina is the Science and Conservation Director at the Wildlife Conservation Society Colombia. He also coordinates the projects for the conservation of freshwater turtles and tortoises in the Amazon Orinoco region. Germán completed his undergraduate training in Biology at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. He received his MSc in Ecology from the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and was awarded his PhD in Ecology and Conservation from Duke University, in North Carolina. He has been recognized for his exceptional work by being elected as a Member of the National Academy of Sciences. In our interview, Germán shares more about his life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:31)
Outside of his work, Germán loves spending time with his wife and twin sons. They enjoy traveling and exploring the outdoors together. Germán also likes playing basketball with friends on the weekends and supporting his sons at their soccer and water polo matches.
The Scientific Side (3:36)
In his research, Germán studies the way animals live in nature and the problems that challenge their survival. He works with local communities and people in Columbia and across Latin America to find solutions for the environmental problems that affect the species they work with, as well as the people who co-exist with those species.
A Dose of Motivation (4:57)
History is not about what happens to great people and heroes, but history is what happens to everyday people in their everyday lives across our country. (Paraphrased from Alfredo Molano.)
What Got You Hooked on Science? (8:25)
Germán has always loved the outdoors. When he was young, he enjoyed traveling with his family and catching frogs at his grandmother’s farm. In college, Germán quickly discovered that a career in biology would allow him to learn more about wildlife and spend time in nature studying wildlife. As an undergraduate student, Germán began to travel for field work and learn about ecosystems and species across the country of Colombia. He realized he wanted to study the biodiversity of his country and to preserve it. This set him firmly on the path of pursuing research and conservation.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (19:22)
Early in his PhD, Germán wanted to survey animals across elevation gradients on mountains to see if climate change was forcing species to move to higher elevations. This is known as an elevation range shift, and it had been observed in other parts of the world, but Germán wasn’t sure whether it was also happening in the tropics. Germán decided that, as part of his PhD, he would travel from the U.S. back to Colombia to do transects to sample amphibians in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world. He found historical records from someone who had done an expedition along the elevation gradients there, and he was excited to start collecting data. Once he began visiting the places where the prior samples were collected, he realized that the historical records were very imprecise. Each record of an amphibian was listed with the farm on which it was found. However, the farms spanned 1,000 – 2,000 km above sea level, and it wasn’t clear where within that range a sample was collected 50 years ago. Working in the field by himself in Colombia, Germán began to realize that he wasn’t going to be able to identify the locations with enough precision to determine whether the species were migrating. This was disappointing, but he knew he had to cancel the project and move on. Later, through a collaboration with one of his professors, Germán was able to do a similar project in Peru, resampling the elevation gradients of mountains there for prevalence of different bird species. This project worked out really well, and it provided the first evidence showing that birds were moving upslope and shifting their ranges, though this was happening a little slower than the climate changes that were observed.
A Shining Success! (23:44)
The Orinoco crocodile is a critically endangered species that is only found in parts of Colombia and Venezuela. In Columbia, the last population estimate had been conducted over 20 years ago, and researchers had estimated that less than 200 of the crocodiles remained in the wild. Since then, no one had returned to re-survey the area due to the prevalence of armed conflict in the area. However, in 2016, the government signed a peace agreement with the armed groups, and the situation has improved substantially. Germán was excited to have the opportunity to travel there to check on the population of Orinoco crocodiles. During this project, they captured the first ever drone footage of this critically endangered species, and they were able to generate a new population estimate. The project was a big success, and they are continuing to work with the local communities to mitigate human-crocodile conflict.
Book Recommendations (32:39)
The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction by David Quammen, The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould
Most Treasured Travel (27:04)
A few years ago, Germán had an opportunity to travel to Cambodia for a workshop and meeting of turtle conservationists. This was his first time in Southeast Asia, and he enjoyed making new friends and learning more about how people do things there. It was interesting to see parallels in their work, and he enjoyed the wonderful people, food, and biodiversity.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (30:14)
Field work is filled with funny moments, and seeing how people react to these moments can be equally funny. When Germán was a PhD student conducting bird surveys in Peru, there was an ornithologist working in the field with them. He was looking for a particular species of a bird called a curassow. This bird is only present in the area they were working, and this was the researchers main purpose for joining the expedition. After weeks, he still had not spotted the elusive bird. One afternoon while Germán and another colleague were working in the field, they saw the bird just standing on a log in the forest with a brilliant beam of light shining down on it. There was no doubt that this was exactly the bird the ornithologist was seeking, and of course it quickly flew away. When they returned to camp, it was already dark. As they settled in to eat dinner, no one knew how to share the news that the bird was spotted in the ornithologist’s absence. When Germán finally mentioned it, the ornithologist jumped from his seat and ran off into the forest determined to see if he, too, could catch a glimpse. While he was not successful in seeing the bird in the dark forest that evening, he did manage to see it a few days later.
Advice For Us All (35:42)
Respect others’ points of view, especially if they are coming from different backgrounds. The way we see the world is not the only way to see the world. Also, careers in science are great. Science gives you the freedom to think, and thinking freely is one of the most valuable things in life.
Germán’s research combines his early love of nature with his desire to study and preserve the biodiversity of his home country Colombia. As an undergraduate, he studied the population ecology and natural history of the white-throated mud turtle (Kinosternon scorpioides albogulare), reptile living in the island of San Andrés, Colombia. During his master’s degree, Germán investigated small marsupials from the Atlantic Forest and the functional connectivity in the landscapes where they live. He continued to expand his research expertise as a PhD student, conducting research in ecology and conservation, including studies on elevation range shifts of Peruvian birds. Germán’s main research interests are tropical ecology, conservation biology, natural history of tropical vertebrates, landscape ecology, climate change effects on tropical ecosystems, and environmental education. His current work spans a variety of species, including river turtles, crocodiles, and birds, and he has led multiple initiatives for the conservation of threatened vertebrates in the tropics, particularly freshwater turtles.
Support for this episode of People Behind the Science was provided by LAMPIRE Biological Laboratories.