One of Alexander von Humboldt’s most important illustrations is a stylized cross-section of the Ecuadorian volcano Chimborazo, labeled with detailed information about hundreds of plant species according to the altitude range in which they grow. “This illustration made Humboldt immortal, because it shows for the first time the relationship between different climate zones and biodiversity,” says botanist Colin Hughes. A keen observer, Humboldt was able to recognize vegetation patterns during his research trips in the Andes. Reaching altitudes of over 6,000 meters, the Andes Mountains jut out of the ocean with steep peaks that cut through numerous climate zones, making it an ideal place to make the kinds of observations that Humboldt did. The explorer, who tried several times in vain to climb Mount Chimborazo, surveyed the mountain range and collected samples of just about every plant he could get his hands on during his arduous expeditions. Thanks to this work, Humboldt is now known as the father of modern biogeography. “He recognized how climate, location and geology are interrelated,” says Hughes, whose research makes him a direct heir to Humboldt’s tradition. Just like the legendary explorer, Hughes is also interested in biodiversity in the Andes, which is home to an incredible variety of plant species. Hughes focuses his efforts on tropical highlands above the tree line in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, where he researches topics such as elevated rates of speciation (a phenomenon known as evolutionary radiation) among certain kinds of lupins. These biodiverse grasslands show plants in all of their beautiful diversity – a veritable El Dorado for researchers. “The Andes fascinate me just as much as they fascinated Humboldt,” says Hughes with a grin.
Stefan Stöcklin; English translation by Gena Olson