This article was first published in Espores on the
6 Apr 2020

Botanist of the month: Ricardo Garilleti

Ricardo Garilleti collecting mosses in the West Coast of the United States. / F. Lara

His passion for Botany awakened during his first university years and he has since not stopped travelling and researching on his main area of study, bryology. An expert in moss taxonomy, he states that every new expedition is like an adventure for him. He is worried about how our society is progressively losing interest in plants, from what he has observed. As a professor at University of València, someone who trains a new generation of botanists, he tries to convey to his students how necessary it is to be meticulous in what they do, since there are “no short nor comfortable pathways”. Ricardo Garilleti (Madrid, 1963) is our botanist of the month.

What attracted you to Botany?

That is an interesting question. Although I consider myself to be a strongly vocational and dedicated botanist, this discipline was actually not my first option. As many other biologists from my generation, my interest in Biology comes mostly from documentaries by Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente and Jacques-Yves Costeau. I was initially interested in animals, more specifically marine cetaceans, very far from where my current scientific career has taken me. It was while I was a student at the Autonomous University of Madrid that I progressively discovered plants and they started to take over my interest in animals. The reasons behind this interest in botany are many and have more to do with my classmates than my lecturers. Let us say that my three General Botany lecturers during my second year did not really try to appeal to students. One of them seemed to want to scare us off, based on how little attention she paid to her classes -reflecting her general uninterest in science-. Another one of them, Antonio García-Villaraco was very knowledgeable, yet his classes were not very amusing. In any case, he managed to convey so much information on plant structure that he captured my attention; I must have been one of the very few students who actually enjoyed his classes. Finally, my favourite lecturer out of them, Javier Fernández Casas, was a renowned botanist whom I met when he was tired of university and preparing to join the CSIC (Spanish National Research Council). His classes were quite sui generis, filled with anecdotes and probably less formal knowledge. Interestingly enough, he ended up being my thesis supervisor.

How did you develop that interest in Botany?

My class gathered very interesting people -botanically speaking- together. Ours was a unique year, in that out of it came the greatest number of professional botanists that our university had ever had. Many of my classmates were very invested in Botany, some of them being the most brilliant students from our year, which further affirmed my interest in learning about plants. At the time I was still suffering from a serious flaw -unnamed then- that used to afflict and still afflicts most people now: plant blindness. What that means is that we pay so little attention to plants that we could stare for a while at a picture with animals and plants in it and we would be unable to perceive or remember those plants at last. It may seem like it, but this is not incidental; underneath this situation lies the fact that people do not really appreciate how important it is to protect plants, while taking care of animals counts on a much more immediate support. 

Ricardo Garilleti (in the middle), next to Belén Albertos and Francisco Lara during a moss collection campaign in Japan. / R. Garilleti.

During my years as a student, I started to get into this group of organisms. Since the Autonomous University of Madrid really invested in study expeditions, I learned about their importance in landscapes, what they can tell us about the environment they grow in, about environmental conservation, about human use of the territory and plants, about the relationships between them and with animals and fungi as well. I realised that plants were the best way to approach an understanding of the natural world and our position within it. Additionally, the beauty of plants and plant communities is just irresistible. Having finished my studies, I was determined about becoming a professional botanist and working as a researcher. 

What has your professional career been like so far?

After finishing the degree, I started my PhD thesis at the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid (Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid) on terminological aspects in works by Valencian author Antonio José Cavanilles, which I take as a sign that I would end up working in his hometown. Botanist terminology regulates how a plant must be called, which is a relevant task among those of a taxonomist. This research was not very experimental, but highly educational for the development of my scientific career: during these years I learned how to find and deal with historical bibliography, to read Latin used in natural sciences, I had to study the Code of Botanical Nomenclature, that is, the norms that regulate how to name and publish plants and which establish which name is the correct one when many have been applied to the same plant. Finally, I struggled with the collection from the greatest herbarium in Spain, specially working with historical collections, which have suffered many changes throughout their history and are difficult to handle.  The aim of the results of the research was to shed light on which plant names were to be allotted to Cavanilles and to identify the specimens which he had used for the over 1 100 plants that he described. These original plant specimens are called nomenclatural types and they are the base of every further taxonomical study. They allow us to understand the exact concept that an author had in mind when describing a new species and to determine in this way if any problematic specimen could be included within that species or rather belongs to a different one, which could be a new one. As a result, two monographs were published to serve as reference for any scientist working with plants described by Cavanilles, or very similar to them.

What did you do when you finished your thesis?

When I finished my thesis, back in 1991, I came back to the UAM (Autonomous University of Madrid), first as a postdoc and later as a researcher.  It was a truly interesting period that I remember as one of the best in my career and personal life thanks to those who were there with me and because of the diversity in the lines of research that we started, mostly still active today. I joined the group of bryologists that were completing their studies at the university, and we still work together on everything; they are my scientific group. I have been closely working with one of its members, Dr. Francisco Lara, ever since we were studying together our degree in Biology, and we have always worked effectively as a team. My relationship with this active group is so important that I cannot help but often talk as “we” rather than “I” in this interview. I simply cannot understand my activity as an individual one. At the UAM I experienced not only a professional turn, but also a personal one; my life changed completely when I met Belén Albertos, who was starting her PhD thesis there at the UAM’s bryology laboratory. It was love at first sight, and we got married shortly after hat. And after all these years we are still together, happy to share our different facets.

Ricardo Garilleti and Belén Albertos during a moss collection campaign in the West Coast of the United States. / F. Lara

At the UAM I worked in Bryology, the branch of Botany which studies bryophytes: mosses, hepaticas and hornworts. There at the university we started a moss family taxonomy that became the group’s main interest, in which we are now recognised as reference worldwide experts. This is the line of research that most of my scientific publications follow.

However, that could not be our only activity: the need for being awarded technical projects to make a living while we applied for a contract at the University led Paco, Lara and me to collaborate with the Ministry of Development on studies about environmental impact, the declaration of protected areas or the characterisation and conservation state of riparian Spanish vegetation, a subject that ended up having a great importance in our careers. These studies, greatly aimed at environmental management, would be very useful for my later teaching activities in Environmental Science.

How has your professional career evolved from then?

I started working as a lecturer at the European University of Madrid, a private university, in 1997. Those were five interesting years, in that I started out in the field of university education, but they were also quite tough: the heavy teaching workload characteristic of private centres greatly interfered with my research, almost leaving me with no time for it. I felt supported and valued within the Department of Environmental Science; in fact, it was them who requested me for the opening lesson for the 1999-2000 year, which I imparted very honoured. However, my difficulties in balancing teaching and research eventually led me to look for a different workplace. Leaving Madrid was not a problem for me.

To the left: Francisco Lara, Josep Antoni Rosselló and Ricardo Garilleti, on the day Ricardo was appointed professor of Botany at the University of València. / B. Albertos. To the right: Ricardo Garilleti at the Jardí Botànic of the University of València. / B. Albertos

In 2002 I passed civil servant examinations and became a lecturer at the University of València, at the Faculty of Pharmacy, and some years later I was appointed professor. Coming to Valencia was an important personal change for me that I have never regretted in the slightest. In general terms, from a scientific perspective, there have not been many changes other than the difficulties in establishing a laboratory from scratch, initially without an appropriate space for the type of research that I carry out. Luckily enough, it was not long since I obtained the basic means to start off and establish the laboratory little by little. I must say that at some point I counted on the faculty’s help to renovate a space that was barely used at the time and rearrange it into a laboratory which fitted our needs.

What is your current job about?

It is very scientifically diverse and involves more technical and management tasks that one may imagine at first. My preferable line of research is bryophyte taxonomy. As taxonomists, our task is to classify living beings. I could simply put it as differentiating the different organisms from our planet, defining what is it that makes them different from others, establishing which species are most similar and making sure that each taxonomic rank (family, species, subspecies) has a single name. This last part can be the most difficult, since the same plant may have been given different names throughout history. We have to take into consideration the fact that information exchanges were not as fast in the past and in some periods were hindered -although not completely cut off- by European wars. In other cases, some descriptions of new species were so incomplete that they were misleading and led to the doubling and tripling of names for the same species. We taxonomists are new species discoverers, but we must also make sure that every species, subspecies… only has one name.

How diverse are your activities?

Although one must not step out of the laboratory to do taxonomy, if you ask herbariums all around the world for collaboration, our group holds a different view. We are botany explorers: we make moss exploration and collection campaigns around the world for those mosses that we study. Our working ways provide us with a greater amount of study material, which allows us to establish clear morphological divisions among species, to know their ecological requirements, which species they coexist with and how they replace each other when environmental conditions change. What is more, since these explorations are highly specialised and aim at specific objectives, they have allowed us to discover and study many species that were formerly unknown in depth. Up until now we have collected mosses from very different places other than Europe such as Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, America -from Alaska to Cape Horn (Chile)… We are not done and yet the list goes on. Each of our collection expeditions is, in its own, a personal and scientific adventure that is very enriching in every way, except economically, of course.

Fieldwork trips are not always easy. Collecting samples during a storm in Patagonia (Chile), one of the areas with the highest precipitation rates in the world. / F. Lara

As a result of this line of research, we have described or claimed an important number of species, as well as rearranged a couple of genus from the family that we study, Orthotrichaceae, one of the most abundant within moss species. Without turning our backs to Bryology, Belén Albertos and I coordinated from Valencia the creation of the Atlas y Libro Rojo de los briófitos amenazados en España (Atlas and Red List of endangered bryophytes in Spain), reference work in bryophyte conservation in Spain, a volume in which almost every member of the bryologist Spanish community was involved -and not only Spanish but some foreigners too-. A further step in this line of research was my contribution to the red list of European bryophytes as an expert in the Orthotrichaceae family. The list was compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

What about other research lines?

I cannot not mention my studies on bryoflora or conservation in Antarctica. Although a very promising line, it needs more development.

A parallel line -completely different from the previous one- studies woody riparian plants in Spanish rivers. It started as a series of works for the Ministry of Development through which I earned a living and it ended up as a complete synthesis of plant formations in Spanish rivers and ravines, a project I am very proud of. The physiognomic-floral-ecological classification that we established after over fifteen years of field and office work is used by the Ministry for the Ecological Transition for the monitoring of Habitats of Community Interest of the Habitats Directive. Following these studies, we were asked to create methodological guidelines for this monitoring. New perspectives have emerged recently, and it is possible for this line of research to grow in importance in the near future. This line, without undermining the previous one, entails a greater conveyance of knowledge to society.

Your specialty is moss taxonomy, what interested you in this field of study?

There is an easy answer to that question: curiosity. The many unsolved mysteries that arise immediately after one starts to study mosses and the high number of potentially new species can definitely be a magnet for those who have a vocation for taxonomy, as it was my case. Moreover, taxonomy implies applying different scientific perspectives to your work -morphology, biogeography, ecology-, which is always appealing. Finally, we soon saw the possibility of finishing our studies with a general treatise which would solve many of the problems that come with the complex taxonomy of the Orthotrichaceae. This yet-to-be-achieved final contribution also represented a good incentive.

Are you proud about having participated in any particular project?

Overall, I think that all of them were very rewarding and enriching. I may have a preference for some in particular, but it is hard to say. Many lines of research are carried out through interconnected and consecutive projects that branch out. Therefore, I understand my career in plant taxonomy or the study of riverbanks as two great projects with different steps or periods, some more interesting than others, but I am equally satisfied with both of them. Normally you would feel prouder about the one project you are working on at each time, probably because it is when you see yourself answering your own questions and making scientific progress. For that reason, perhaps rather than being prouder about any period or project, I can say that there are some that do not represent me as much. But I will not talk about them here. 

OPTIMA (Organization for the Phyto-Taxonomic Investigation of the Mediterranean Area) meeting in 2013, with Ricardo Garilleti as the guest speaker. From left to right: Olaf Werner (Murcia, Spain), Jan Kučera (České Budějovice, Czech Republic), Tom Blockeel (Sheffield, UK), Francisco Lara (Madrid, Spain) and Ricardo Garilleti (València, Spain). / Rosa M. Ros

Tell us what project you are working on at the moment

I am currently mostly focused on the study of the Ulota genus in the Southern Hemisphere. This genus of small corticolous mosses, considerably rich in species, has an extremely complex and poorly known taxonomy. Traditionally, mosses have been considered -perhaps not very accurately- to have a tendency for wide area distributions thanks to their small spores which can be transported to far away distances. Yet, this genus seems to behave differently in this southern territory, and all species in Patagonia -the main point of diversity for this genus as far as it is known- are exclusive from here. Although the existence of an “aerial bridge” between Patagonia and New Zealand, created by the strong east winds, has been proposed, it does not seem like species of this genus use it, so the two territories cannot be said to be that well-connected. Southern species count on a series of strategies that are characteristic to them and allow them to reduce their long-distance dispersal ability, such as their big spores -the greatest in this genus- which, in some species, start their meiosis before germination and even germinate inside of the capsule, before being released. Moreover, everything points to the conclusion that the already high diversity here observed has been underestimated, with its final number of species being probably greater. 

This project aims at identifying and explaining -through morphological, molecular, ecological and biogeographical approaches- the taxonomic diversity and evolutionary relationships within this genus in the Southern Hemisphere. We are obtaining very positive results, with the description of four new species and the identification of some potentially new species, on which we are currently working.

What is the impact or implications of such results?

Knowledge on biodiversity is a good result in itself. If, on top of this, these results expand on what is known about evolutionary relationships and the coexistence between species of the same or different ecosystems, their different -or not so- geographical origins and how their distribution has changed overtime, how communities structured in space and time… you will obtain data and tools allowing you to delve into biological evolution, the state of nature in our planet and maybe, just maybe, you could learn about how to preserve it. 

Has your work changed over the years?

Some aspects have radically changed. Regarding morphological studies, apparently stable, the development of statistic techniques that are more appropriate for these studies, the different types of optical or electron microscopy available, image analysis software, etc. have improved the conclusions reached in this more traditional way. What is more, these developments make studies more efficient, which is a positive improvement that makes up for the considerable increase in the number of samples and morphological characters used.

Ricardo Garilleti in his laboratory at the Faculty of Pharmacy of the University of València. / B. Albertos

The molecular revolution has obviously been the most impactful: first the Sanger sequencing method of a few markers and now the new generation of sequencing, which paved the way for genomics, provides us with highly precise tools for the study of family relationships and evolutionary processes in plants. It allows us to delve into aspects that were previously unthinkable.

On the other hand, other methodologies have not experienced any changes for a very long period of time: we still need accurate representations of the species of study as to estimate their morphological variability, we make use of nomenclatural types to make comparisons, we “rummage” herbariums and ask them for loans like we used to do over a century ago. This would be the more romantic side of science, in that it continues the legacy of the founding fathers of modern Botany.

As a lecturer at the University of Valencia, you have taught different generations of students. What is most important to you, as a teacher?

To convey a passion for what we do, that is, without a doubt, the most important part. As a Botany enthusiast you are able to pass on a good dose of knowledge, some of which your students already have access to through their notes and reference books, but much will come directly from your professional experience. If you succeed at this, at conveying your professional knowledge and love for this science, you may, ideally, instil such a passion in them. Apart from that, it is essential for them to learn to be meticulous in their activity, which applies to any other science. They must learn that there are no short or comfortable paths and that if you do not seriously commit to your profession you will not reach your objectives, the main one being finding what you do rewarding.

Have you met interesting people through your work?

You get to meet many people when you are involved in this type of activities: you travel across uncommon or little-visited areas and also attend national and international meetings that gather rather unique people; most of them botanists, but not all. One person who left a special impression on me, for a sad reason, was Cristina Calderón. She is, and I speak in the present because I think that she is still alive, the last person belonging to the Yahgan culture and having the Yahgan language as her mother tongue. She was born in 1928 and we met in 2012, during the inauguration of a biological station in Navarino Island, Chile, in the Beagle Channel’s southern shore. Despite the event’s scientific and political nature, this woman was the centre of attention. Everyone -soldiers, politicians, scientists- was aware of what Cristina Calderon represented and they let her know in a respectful and loving manner. The Yahgan people and their culture were native to the island, and they still preserve their craftmanship and language, since Cristina passed it down to her granddaughter, who is trying to pass it down to her children as well. With her, the last traces of a society whose grandchildren try to revive in every way possible will disappear. She spoke a bit in Yahgan to us, mainly so that those who came from abroad could listen to her parent’s language, but not her children’s, as she told us. I cherish this memory of this little woman speaking a language with sounds that were so different from what I am used to hear.

How do you assess the employment situation in the sector?

Anyone who claims any field in natural science to be in a thriving employment situation should change their medical prescription before it is too late. There have never been that many job offers in our area of interest, but the development of legislations for environmental protection at different administrative levels has opened the doors for some career prospects that should not be overlooked. Environmental management, including the specific land studies that it involves, is probably a relevant source of employment, both in administration and public or private companies. Yet this does not mean such jobs are abundant.

Regarding scientific activity, anyone with an interest in it knows that Spain suffers from chronic underfunding and, what is worse, does not seem to view science as an object of interest, even if it has been proved that there is a direct connection between research in any area and economic growth. Despite this, if one is highly capable and very, very passionate and perseverant, one may have a possibility in building a professional career in Botany. And there is always the option of starting that career in another country. But it is such a shame that great researchers are trained here and yet have no choice but to leave the country and start working overseas, where they will produce knowledge and, consequently, wealth.

What does the future hold for botany?

As for any discipline or group of disciplines, I believe the future to be as promising or even more as it was in the past, with the advantages brought by all sorts of new techniques that are already being implemented and will improve and surprise us in the future. We have everything that it takes for the scientific revolution that we are experienced to continue with plants, apart from having extensively wide fields of study. Without taking other areas into account, there is still much to be discovered about plant diversity and how to protect it. That being said, although the silver lining is sometimes hard to see in the darkness, in the end we must trust that we can actually find something positive among hardships.

To the left: Ricardo Garilleti in his laboratory at the Faculty of Pharmacy, University of València.  / B. Albertos. To the right: Coloured image of the Ulota maltiana as it is observed with a scanning electron microscope. This genus is the main object of study of one of Garilleti’s preferred lines of research. / R. Garilleti.

While tools that improve knowledge are available to us and the most avant-garde progress may continue to take place without any remarkable setbacks, for its part more basic knowledge may be at risk. Ever since industrialisation, we have lost a lot of general appreciation for plants; the plant blindness that I mentioned earlier. First, without this appreciation it will be impossible to preserve many endangered plants that are now dependent on us, after having gone through almost unsustainable situations. On the other hand, this disregard for plants has caused interest in Botany to fall; regardless of the fact that ever since the 19th Century it was never our favourite natural science -the ranking is led by zoology- still I have observed a startling disinterest on the part of too many of my students. The development of software for plant identification from an image, aside from its apparent advantages, presents us with some serious dangers. The first problem is that it may convey the idea that naming a plant is very simple and that plants are not complex groups, much more diverse than they seem. Actually, many necessary characters are not observable, and then identification is made on the basis of reasonable resemblance. It is unarguable that there is a lot of room for improvement for this type of software, which will potentially make correct identifications in the future, after having being presented with the necessary images, and which the software itself could request as it gets the first identification correctly.  Truly incredible. The problem here is, in my opinion, that we may end up losing our general interest in plants and with it the deep knowledge that is necessary to develop such software. On top of that, we cannot say to have all plants from our known environment identified, far from it! Let alone the great number of badly explored areas and poorly known plant groups.

What is an essential skill in your profession?

For my job I would say that it really helps when you have great observation and interconnection skills, along with a good memory, one that allows you to remember where and when you saw a particular plant or which plants share any key morphological or ecological character.  That is the basis of floristics first, and later taxonomy.

What era of Botany would you have liked to live in and why?

To be honest, I do not believe that there is a better era than current times. Access to almost unexplored territories, the biological revolution brought by DNA sequencing and now genomics for the understanding of evolutionary relationships, the availability of materials coming from anywhere in the world, the access via the internet to information that was previous inaccessible or unknown… All strong arguments to think that work is better than ever today. That being said, as I understand that you want me to look at the past, I find the era of scientific exploration during the 18th and 19th Centuries to be fascinating. But the chances of having taken part in any of them or at least study what they would collect would have been so low that I would have probably stayed on the sidelines. This proves that science has become more democratic, yet another advantage in favour of our era.

Ricardo Garilleti opening a coconut with a knife in an Australian beach. / B. Albertos

Which botanist would you have liked to meet in person?

Alexander von Humboldt may not be the first name to come to mind when we think of Botany, but he has actually named over 300 plants. With such a number under his belt, he could even be considered as not just a botanist, but a meticulous one. Besides his taxonomical enterprise, Humboldt was first to observe and describe in detail altitude-related changes in plant distribution, laying the foundations of phytogeography. It would have been fascinating, having the chance to talk to him and listen to his opinion on nature from different parts of the world, after all of his travelling experience and his cultivated knowledge.

In all these years as a botanist, what is the most curious situation you have come across?

Curious situations tend to happen more often when you leave your comfort zone, during collection campaigns. That is not to say that they do not take place in the laboratory, just not as often. If I were asked to name three standouts, they would be: I have been shot, I drove a Moroccan dealer’s car without brakes and over a mountain track, and I was in a beach near a huge earthquake’s epicentre. When you elaborate on them, they may not be that interesting. Or are they? I do not know what to think anymore.

The shot was fired over my head at point blank range as a warning for having invaded a private property in Portugal. I could feel how the air moved on my face, that is how close it was. We tried to explain ourselves in a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish and we all ended up -in our case not without a terrible fright- drinking liquor and eating chestnuts and chorizo at the owner’s house, a hospitable and kind man if he puts the shotgun aside. Now, about the Moroccan car, that was an amateurish mistake. We asked a man about a mountain track to go up the Riff without realising that we may have been accidentally asking a drug dealer, which would not be that uncommon there, especially if that someone has a car in an apparently good condition. He said that he would take us there, on the condition that I would drive. The car was actually ramshackle and the brakes seemed to have been missing for a while, which I noticed on our first curve downwards, next to the cliff, and confirmed during the many other curves that followed. It turns out that he was taking us to his boss’ to try to sell some of the local production to us. Our diplomatic efforts, not without some worry, allowed us to leave the place only with a mint tea.  

Ricardo Garilleti (at the centre) discussing with William Buck (to the right) from the New York Botanical Garden and Xiaolan He (to the left), from the University of Helsinki the details of a botanising day in the islands at the Beagle Channel in Chile. / J. Larraín

Finally, the earthquake struck southern Chile and was the greatest ever registered in the country. We did not even realise it when it occurred, although we were just around 70 km away from its epicentre. We were inside of a car at that moment and so we thought that it was the wind that was moving us. We had gone down to a beach and were collecting samples as we received an unexpected tsunami emergency warning. We obviously took to our heels. That was the only area that we could not botanise in depth during the campaign.

Do you work alone or as part of a team?

I have always worked in a team and I think it is the best option both professionally and personally. For work to be pleasant, the group members must be on good terms, and I have been quite lucky in that respect. A well-built group gathers different characters and interests; as a result, you can expand your field of research and techniques, thanks to each member’s specialisation. We have clearly differentiated tasks in our group, but with a series of intersection points as well. It all adds up to having more enriching scientific discussions.

In my case, my group is rather unique since it is based both in the University of València and the UAM in Madrid. In Valencia there is only Belén and I right now, whereas the Madrid section is larger, with five people. There are both positive and negative aspects to this: the worst part is not enjoying day-to-day contact, not being able to discuss enriching collateral scientific aspects that may not be brought up again. You miss being in contact with your friends. At times, communication may not flow that well, but we always try to prevent this.

Despite the Valencian section’s group being very reduced right know, we manage to keep different interests and support each other in their development, which contributes to both keeping our spirits up and improving results.  Between two people we keep active, more or less intensively depending on each case, several lines of activity.

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