A passion for the diversity of species
Alexandre Antonelli falls silent for a couple of seconds. He turns a little in his chair, choosing his words with care.
“I want to bring people together to work towards a common goal. Just imagine if we could get ten percent of all biologists and work to solve the ‘tree of life’, in other words how a common ancestor resulted in all living species during the course of evolution. The equivalent of how particle physicists have come together with CERN – I’m almost a little jealous of how successful they’ve been.”
Alexandre Antonelli’s office in Gothenburg is like an open book about his life and his research. One moment he’s pointing out the town where he was born – Campinas in Brazil – on a large map of South America that hangs on the door. The next, he’s leafing through the enormous Flora of Ecuador books that were a source of inspiration during his undergraduate studies, or showing a giant seed from one of his many research trips to remote forests and mountains in the tropics.
“I want to understand how biological diversity has changed over time and space, how plants and animals have moved between different areas and climate zones. We can then use this knowledge to get a better understanding of how plants and animals will be affected in the future by a changing climate.”
This subject is called biogeography, and South America is an excellent area for researching it. Together with Central America and the Caribbean, this region is known as the neotropical zone. The zone is home to more species of plants and animals than any other region on earth.
“The emergence of the Andes completely changed the landscape and the climate in this area, and hence also changed the conditions for new species to develop. The entire South American continent is fantastic from a research point of view – every time we go there, we find new species and make new discoveries.”
Today, Alexandre leads a successful research team. His ambition is to include a broad field of researchers in the team – from evolutionary biologists to systematists, geologists, mathematicians, computer scientists and ecologists – in order to obtain an overview of how biological diversity has developed. He carries out research trips to South America four or five times a year, for two to three weeks at a time. These trips are planned in great detail, in order to be as effective as possible. They often consist of gathering plant and animal samples and cooperation with local universities, such as arranging symposia or workshops.