Journey Across Florida: Featured Floridian

Natali Ramirez-Bullon, Population Ecologist

When I decided to start Journey Across Florida, I knew I wanted to incorporate information about research projects that are going on around the state. I don’t know about you, but I am so fascinated by the collective depth of knowledge about the flora and fauna in the state. The folks in the field and in the labs are the ones building a web of knowledge that then turns into conservation plans, laws, and policies. It was this thought that made me reach out to FSU’s Ecology & Evolution outreach coordinator to see if I could meet some PhD students and learn more about their research.

I met Natali Ramirez-Bullon for coffee last December to chat about her research with native and endemic plant species in Florida. Natali is a PhD candidate at Florida State University who has been studying native and endemic plant species in Florida since 2010.

Natali Ramirez-Bullon, PhD candidate, in the field

Natali Ramirez-Bullon, PhD candidate, in the field

Natali’s journey to becoming a population ecologist started when she was a small girl traveling with her family from Lima, Peru to the Andes. While on these trips, she observed the changes in vegetation from desert communities to the highlands. She also observed wetlands that she loved being degraded from mining pollution. She discussed these observation with her mom a who told her that people needed to understand the value of nature in order to want to protect it.

Her masters research focused on the Telephus spurge (Euphorbia telephioides), an endemic and rare spurge that is only found in the Florida Panhandle. (We’ll come back to the Telephus spurge in November 2019).

Natali is a population ecologist. Population ecology is the study of how populations of plants, animals, and other organisms - change over time and space and how they interact with their environment. Population ecologists study the factors that affect population growth or decline so that scientists and decision-makers can understand, explain, and predict population dynamics.

Natali is pursuing her doctorate and is interested in learning more about populations of plants across Florida. While we chatted, Natali shared with me the reason behind her passion for researching plants - plants are more endangered, but are afforded less protections than endangered animals. It’s not a surprising concept; it’s much easier to encourage public advocacy for cute animals like manatees and polar bears than it is for tiny plants.

But what we so often gloss over is that wildlife conservation is meaningless unless we have the diverse habitat capable of supporting wildlife populations. These plants may not be cuddly or cute, but they are the backbone of ecological biodiversity. Understanding plants and plant communities is imperative to becoming better stewards of the land.

Natali is planning her doctoral research project on identifying mechanisms that make plant species low abundant (rare) and learning whether these mechanisms aid in keeping the population stable or if they are causing populations to decline. For example, some species are technically “rare,” but only because they have adapted mechanisms to limit their population size. Whereas some species are “rare” because they are in decline and need intervention. Natali hopes that her research will help prioritize conservation efforts by identifying species that need to more resources.