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Plant Focus

Quercus peninsularis
A Red Oak (Section Lobatae) endemic to inland ranges of northern Baja California, Mexico

The Long and Hilly Journey of Oak Conservation: Carlos Vila-Viçosa

Some people in the field of conservation did not follow a straight and narrow path to get to where they are today in their careers. This was certainly the case with Dr. Carlos Vila-Viçosa. I had the privilege of interviewing Carlos to learn more about his career path, how he got started in the field of oak conservation and research, and what he is working on today.

Carlos studied biology at university, but like many students in that field, he was initially unsure what he wanted to do as a biologist. He was interested in reptiles and amphibians, so his career started there. Part of the reptile and amphibian project he was involved in focused on habitat restoration. Over the duration of the project, Carlos became interested in a geobotanical approach to restoration. He was working in southern Portugal at the time and he noticed changes in the landscape: the soil, the forests, and the climate were all changing. The forests, for example, were being turned into agricultural fields. Oaks were numerous in the landscape, so Carlos started working with oaks as part of his research; he assessed their distribution and later extended his studies to oak taxonomy and hybridization research.

Collecting Q. x alentejana (Q. faginea x Q. pyrenaica) in Northeastern Portugal for his PhD thesis (photo credit: Carlos Vila-Viçosa)
Carlos collecting Quercus ×alentejana (Q. faginea × pyrenaica) in northeastern Portugal for his PhD thesis © Carlos Vila-Viçosa

At the same time, Carlos immersed himself in conservation initiatives, taking what he had learned in the academic field and applying it on the ground. For example, he worked as a consultant, restoring forests in areas of Portugal. Carlos’s academic work, research studies, and on-the-ground conservation initiatives culminated in a career in oak conservation and evolution.

Carlos highlighted some of the most positive experiences and achievements he had in oak conservation. Working in the Algerian oak forest in southern Portugal, he and his colleagues became very familiar with an oak native to Portugal, Quercus canariensis. Aware of the threatened status of the species, they are working hard to collect acorns and propagate them to ensure the species is well preserved in ex-situ living collections. In total, Carlos and his colleagues have cultivated over 150 individuals of this oak. The collections are established at the Botanical Garden of the University of Porto and Associação BIOPOLIS, Carlos’s research center. He also collects scion material for grafting the threatened oak species. He aims to develop an orchard and conserve a large number of individuals ex situ so as to have seed for future restoration efforts. As for in-situ work, Carlos and his colleagues participate in active restoration projects, planting Q. canariensis in southwest Portugal to reinforce the native populations. In addition to Q. canariensis, they work with Q. lusitanica in the northern part of Portugal, where populations of this species are scarce and threatened. They are seeking to restore these populations, conserving individuals ex situ, and learning more about them through genetic studies. He is collecting leaf samples for DNA analysis to understand the evolution and phylogenetic placement of the oaks in this region, collaborating with Dr. Andrew Hipp and other partners on this work. The sequencing and seed orchard projects are being financed by The Navigator Company.

Collecting Q. canariensis (photo credit: Herlander Azevedo)
Collecting Quercus canariensis © Herlander Azevedo

Given Carlos’s extensive experience and expertise in oak conservation and research, I asked him to provide some advice for those getting started in the field. He recommends visiting international institutions involved in oak conservation and research. He emphasized that the researchers/conservationists at these institutions have a lot of experience, intel, and dynamic international connections that could offer a lot of knowledge, resources, and tools to help you get started. He also recommends connecting with local experts and communities where threatened oaks occur; there are normally dedicated groups of people/organizations that are eager to preserve the regional forests.

Carlos highlighted the importance of working with these networks to address the challenges and threats that are negatively impacting oaks around the world. In Portugal the majority of the forests are on private land and only 2% are public property, so trying to identify the people to work with and where to work to conserve these forests and the threatened oaks within them is difficult. There are also challenges involving fire protection and land management. Carlos emphasized that people’s main interests lie in the economic value that natural forests hold as the carbon market grows. Finally, there is a lack of practical and empirical knowledge, and botanical issues are poorly studied or known, so people in Portugal are replanting forests with non-native species such as Eucalyptus. This has led to more fires due to the flammability of these exotic trees.

Collecting Quercus estremadurensis in Southern Portugal (Algarve) (photo credit: Carlos Vila-Viçosa)
Collecting Quercus estremadurensis in southern Portugal (Algarve) © Carlos Vila-Viçosa

However, despite all the challenges and threats the forests and oaks face, Carlos is noticing a shift in people’s perspective in Portugal towards wanting more native forests and well-preserved parklands in the urban environment. Also, the cork oak (Q. suber) is a nationally protected species, so it is forbidden to cut it down. This protection for cork oak is good, but Carlos mentioned that means the other oaks are more threatened by timber harvest due to the restrictions on harvesting cork oak.

Although oaks face many threats and challenges globally, Carlos encourages everyone involved or wanting to get involved in oak conservation and research to stay motivated and to never give up. “This is a long, hilly path, but if you keep working and have enough courage, it can be done, and it is worth it in the long run.”