Teo Zanini

Master in Biology

Research interests

After obtaining a Bachelor in biology at the university of Neuchatel in 2021, I decided that continuing my studies in the same university would be the appropriate choice. Indeed, I was quite interested in the Master specialisations concerning the field of conservation biology. It is in this field of research that the Functional Ecology Laboratory (LEF) currently gave me the opportunity to undertake a Master thesis project, a project which was able to combine a passion for botany I had for a long time with a worldwide problem we are facing today: the loss of biodiversity.

For this reason, under the supervision of Professor Sergio Rasmann and Olivia Rusconi and with the collaboration of the cantonal authorities of Ticino, I started working on a research focused on the conservation in situ of an endangered species of orchid known as Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium calceolus). This project stems directly from Olivia Rusconi’s master thesis and her PhD thesis focused on the study of C. calceolus’ ecological niche.

About the plant

C. calceolus is an emblematic specie found throughout the north of Europe and Asia. It is well known for the interesting shape of its flowers, characterised by a large slipper shaped yellow labellum and crowned by deep purple sepals. Curiously enough, the shape of the flower acts as a trap. The pollinators attracted by the scent of the flower fall inside the labellum and then they are forced to exit the flower through small openings situated close to the parts producing pollinia, which will then stick to the insect and allow the pollination of other flowers. C. calceolus is known to be a deceptive orchid. In this case, deceptive means that the plant does not produce any reward for visiting insects, but is still capable to attract them by imitating smells of other rewarding plants. 

The project in few words

C. calceolus grows in many parts of Switzerland where it is principally found in the undergrowth of forests characterised by nutrient poor soils. In the Southern Swiss Alps, the species became extremely rare. In the region of Ticino only one big population of C. calceolus persists and in the past 20 years it declined at an alarming rate, passing from 600 individuals observed in 1998 to around 250 estimated individuals remaining today. This project will be focused on determining the reasons behind the decline of this population and it will touch all sorts of ecological aspects which might influence the growth and the reproductive success of the orchid.
Hence, some data about plant life history traits will be collected from some individuals composing the population and then their relationship with the following biotic and abiotic factors will be analysed:
  • Pollinators 
  • Vegetation structure and composition
  • Edaphic factors
  • Microclimate
  • Herbivores influence 
  • Flower volatiles 
  • Sunlight 
  • Topography 
After collecting the data directly on the field, the next step will be confronting the characteristic of the population located in Ticino with data gathered by Olivia Rusconi during de course of her Master and PhD thesis from populations scattered around the rest of Switzerland. In the end we will be able to identify which factors are causing the decline of the population. Finally, with the obtained results, it will be possible to help the cantonal authorities in conceiving an action plan for the protection of the specie and the creation of a small forested reserve zone aimed at the conservation in situ of the orchid.

Final thoughts

The world of botany has fascinated me for as long as I can remember, and this same interest is the reason which brought me in undertaking a Bachelor in Biology and now a Master in Biology. This passion which sparked a long time ago stuck with me throughout my whole life and I am glad the opportunity of participating in this project dealing with plant conservation was given to me. It is a quite exciting and complex experience, which will allow me to explore all sorts of fields such as phytosociology, botany, entomology, pedology and chemical ecology. But most importantly, this kind of project consists in applied research. As such, by helping the authorities in conceiving a conservation plan, the project will directly offer a support for the protection of the endangered orchid C. calceolus. Hopefully it will be possible to stop the decline of the population in Ticino and prevent the disappearance of this beautiful orchid from the woods I grew up in, finally letting future generations get charmed by its beauty as well. 

Teo Zanini



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