Studying tropical dry forest from Scotland!

By Karina Banda, PhD at  University of Edinburgh

I am a Colombian researcher in tropical ecology and conservation. Recently, I finished my Ph.D. studies at the University of Edinburgh, based at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. I worked supervised by Toby Pennington and Kyle Dexter on the  “Phytogeography and conservation of the neotropical dry forest with emphasis on Colombia”. My project started with a focus on the tropical dry forests of Colombia, but expanded to the entire area of Latin America and the Caribbean via my role in the Latin American Seasonally Dry Tropical Forest Floristic Network – DRYFLOR

Dry forest has been considered one the most threatened tropical forests worldwide. Although interest from scientists and policy-makers in dry forest has risen considerably, efforts in conservation have been insufficient. For example, in Colombia, the remaining dry forest covers only 8 % of its original extent, and it is found in highly transformed anthropogenic landscapes, mainly as small fragments.


Findings of the continental analyses were published by DRYFLOR network in Science magazine (2016) showing that dry forest in the Neotropics hold ca.7000 woody species based on 1600 surveys alone and these species are rarely present in more than one region. For that reason, it requires simultaneously conservation actions within multiple regions to safeguard the diversity of dry forests.

My project also includes a regionally focused study of floristic relationships in the Central American and northern South American dry tropical forest group, using quantitative approaches to conservation prioritization, including a new Conservation Priority Index (CPI). This emphasises the need for a biogeographical approach to conservation that cannot be restricted by political borders. Within Colombia, new quantitative floristic data were used to investigate controls of floristic composition in dry forests. Multivariate analyses showed that space-related variables and land use explain a larger fraction of the variance of the floristic composition than climatic or edaphic variables. The importance of these spatial variables implies that biogeography is a key element in understanding the structure of communities, and that the Andean cordilleras might be acting as geographical barriers isolating these seasonally dry formations.


I also assessed the value of floristic inventory data for the conservation status of tree species using IUCN criteria, which was evaluated in a case of study of the Andean Piedmont dry forest. By combining inventory data from the DRYFLOR database and herbarium records, the number of species for which we have sufficient information to make conservation assessments increases by 16% and the accuracy of predictive species distribution improves for 84% of the species. Together, these results reveal the importance of ecological inventory data as a complementary data source in conservation assessment for dry forest trees in the Neotropics.

Finally, my thesis conclusions place these results in the context of conservation planning for Colombian dry forests, including some suggestions for research, policies and actions.

Currently, my professional interests are focused on forest restoration and innovative conservation actions and tools, including effective uses of protected areas. For example, restoration programmes that aim to connect forest remnants focused on sustainable forestry systems involving local communities, and protected areas as mechanisms to preserve biodiversity. I am convinced that preserving biodiversity values depends on linking science with social and environmental components of these conservation units.


The post-conflict scenario starting in 2017 is unprecedented in recent Colombian history and represents a huge challenge for the academic community and society in general. There is the opportunity, for the first time, to execute expeditions in areas that have been unexplored due to security issues.  I am committed to promote international collaboration and scientific networking to improve fundamental baseline inventory and taxonomic data.  This might increase the knowledge and conservation of Colombian dry forest.

For any further information, please contact: