Susana Sá Fontinha / Biologist

Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers

Susana Sá FontinhaSusana Sá Fontinha, 45, is a biologist and researcher on the Portuguese island of Madeira, which is in the Atlantic off the coast of North Africa. I travelled to Madeira on my honeymoon in 2005 and fell in love with the “Floating Flower Pot” as it is known. Two-thirds of this small, volcanic subtropical island is a national park and the total number of its terrestrial biodiversity includes more than 7,500 species.

Susana shares some of the botanical history of her homeland from its settlement during the Age of Discovery to it role in Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.” She also discusses topics of today, such as sustainable use of biological resources and organic farming.

The former director of both Madeira’s Botanic Garden as well as its Nature Park, Susana wrote her PhD thesis on Madeiran bryophytes, commonly called mosses. In one of many fascinating parallels between human communities and ecosystems, she points out that the smallest species can affect the largest. Her observations on how inter-connected all life is fits perfectly with ViewfromthePier’s tagline of “connecting with self, others and a sense of wonder through travel.”

There are only two days of the year in which nothing can be done.
One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow.
That means today is the ideal day to love, to believe, to create and to live.
Dalai Lama, 1935–


Meg: What inspired you to choose a career in botany?

Susana: I was born in the spring, in May, the Flower Festival month, in Funchal, the capital of Madeira. Since I was a child I enjoyed playing in gardens with ants, ladybugs and plants, feeling the salty waves, walking on levadas and climbing up in the mountains. Madeira is an Atlantic volcanic garden, thus I couldn’t be happier anywhere else.  Since I was at least since 16-years old I knew that I wanted to be a biologist.

Susana Sá Fontinha - FunchalThe city of Funchal is a cosmopolitan one, located in a natural amphitheatre, hugged by green mountains and touched by a deep blue ocean. Here the Botanical Garden and several public gardens exist alongside typical houses and quintas bordered by exotic trees and cultivated flowers.

I first visited these gardens with my mother to look at plants. My mother has an extraordinary feeling about nature and curiosity about plants, which deeply touches anyone. She is one of the first official tourist guides working with botanist’s groups. Many times I went with her to the gardens and walked on levadas, listening to interesting botanical discussions. I remember the nice, long meetings with the first director of the Madeira´s Botanic Garden, Engº Rui Vieira, a family friend, in order to identify plant species. Since then I became a plant lover and felt interested in knowing more and more about Madeira’s plants, mainly those that are less well-known and smaller, such mosses, liverworts and lichens.

I’m still enjoying visiting the Funchal gardens and visit them with many other people, researchers, friends, kids.

Meg: What is it about the smaller species of plants such as mosses that you find interesting?

Susana: My PhD thesis focused on Madeiran bryophytes, commonly called mosses.  As Thomas Taylor said “the attentive study of the little leads to the discovery of general laws applicable to the great; . . . and the knowledge of such laws arms the mind.” Thomas Taylor was a famous British botanist. His botanical research was mainly among the mosses, liverworts and lichens.

Susana Sá Fontinha

Photo courtesy of Serge Piquet

We as humans tend to look at the big things and miss the small things. Through looking at the micro we can learn about the macro. The small species in an eco system are the most sensitive and can affect the larger “picture.” By studying the smallest species, like mosses, we see how they connect with other species, and the ecosystem as a whole. Ecosystems are a proxy for our human community, and being a biologist is like being a psychologist in a way, trying to understand behaviors and why plants act certain ways.

Looking at the plant cover we can get a lot of information about the landscape and its health. Mosses, liverworts and lichens are very sensitive to climatic factors and to the substrate, and are considered good indicators of the climate of a region and of the microclimate of the site they occupy. They are also bio indicators of the conservation status of the ecosystem and whether pollution exists. These plants can be pioneers on very adverse terrestrial conditions. They can colonize and develop where no other plants or animals could survive, creating habitat conditions for other forms of live. Studying and understanding these processes can also help us to comprehend and improve human behavior.

Meg: Can you describe Madeira’s landscape?

Susana: In spite of its small geographical size, the richness of Madeira´s natural heritage is huge and clearly surpasses the geographical dimension of the Archipelago.  Due to Madeira geographical location, its climate and geology and topography, the island enjoys a great variety of microclimates that influence the vegetation.

Susana Sá Fontinha - hillsideOn the South coast, below 1,000 meters in elevation, the climate is mainly characterized by a dry season during the summer months. Above the 1,000 meters on the south coast and on most of the north coast, the climate is mainly temperate, without a dry season. Above the 1,400 meters, low temperatures– including the occurrence of snow–are common in January and February.

Madeira presents peculiar topographical characteristics with deep isolated valleys, which makes it an exceptional environment in terms of the evolution of different plant communities and ecosystems from sea level till the highest peaks. From the coastal line, through the forest, up into the mountains, diverse plant cover and landscapes–both populated and pristine–can be felt, visualized and visited.

A Nature Park occupies approximately two-thirds of the island surface, under special protection. The main ecosystem which characterizes this natural park is the Laurel Forest, classified as a Biogenetic Reserve and a Natural World Heritage under the UNESCO auspices. In this protected area, besides the Laurel Forest, other ecosystems with high biodiversity exist as well, such as the mountain peaks and the dry coastal zones.

In addition, testimonies of human colonization in the last 600 years and complementary cultural aspects enrich the Madeira´s landscape. Since the 15th century the land has been conquered by man. In rural areas, basaltic stone walls retain the arable soil for agriculture practices and channels of water (levadas) irrigate these terraces–many of them located in coastal cliffs or deep valleys. Other interesting aspects of our culture are the so-called Solares or mansions, with their chapels, the typical houses of Santana or the circular houses of São Jorge, the water mills and the haylofts where the cattle are kept.

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