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I was told that Patagonia was always cool and incredibly windy – but things that are always true usually slip up sometimes! We hit a heat wave – today the temperature reached 40°C, and there is absolutely NO shade. We began the day looking for Benthamiella again – they are so tiny you need to get up very close…  Gloria used the handlens to figure out if we even had a Benthamiella! One we thought was turned out not to be once we looked closer in the cool of the car. We did find one though…. They certainly are a struggle!

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Searching for the elusive Benthamiella.


About 3 in the afternoon we went looking for a collecting locality called Manantiales near the town of Fitzroy (named for the captain of HMS Beagle, on which Charles Darwin travelled, more about this later!) and ended up walking along an old abandoned railway line (probably built by the English) in the blazing heat – it was a bit like the end of the world. All the plants were dried up and crispy – we felt the same. It was starting to be a not such a great day.

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Juan rather desperately looking along the railway

 

So on we went – slightly desperate by now, to the next locality – to find one of our stars for the trip – Petunia patagonica. We had some pretty good locality information, so headed off on a tiny dirt road across the steppes. It seemed we were the only people in the world, so deserted was it – but we were accompanied by wonderful Patagonian wildlife – guanacos, maras (Patagonian hares, they look a bit like a cross between a hare and a kangaroo) and more rheas. This time the rheas were smaller – they were the endemic choique, or Rhea darwinii, first collected in Patagonia and described from his collections which are now in the NHM in London. He killed and ate his specimen – ours just ran away too fast even to photograph!

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Guanacos are so much more elegant and beautiful than their cultivated cousins, llamas and alpacas, this group had males, females and babies.

 

We went to what we thought was the locality, and spent quite a time looking for Petunia – no luck, and we thought it really was going to be a bad day. After some heated discussions about the map, distances and whether or not sat-navs actually work in places like Patagonia for measuring distances, we decided to head for Puerto Deseado on the coast for the night and try one last place that might be the locality. Good job we did that rather than continuing on the road in the other direction! There it was – a big population of Petunia patagonica in sandy soil in an old river bottom.

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Collecting plants in the dark has its advantages - it is nice anad cool by then, even if you can't see very well! The blobby green mounds are all Petunia patagonica.

 

By this time it was almost dark (about 9pm) so it was almost other worldly walking amongst these most peculiar plants. This is certainly NOT a Petunia! The shrublet forms mounds to about 1.5 m in diameter and the woody bases were as big as 5-6 cm in diameter (that is when they could be seen- they were mostly covered in sand!); the leaves are tiny round blobs that are slightly sticky – most peculiar. No flowers, and very few fruits, but seeing this plant in the field will certainly be one of the highlights of the trip. All the more for finding it at the end of what was a really hard, very hot day. The rest of the way to Puerto Deseado we invented new names for it – we’ve come up with a good one, but let’s wait and see if it really is a new genus; we need a bit more study. More populations beckon…. 

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A new genus?

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This was the day when the plants were to begin – again though we began by driving a very long way! Our destination was the Pampa del Castillo where three species of the Solanaceae genus Benthamiella had been collected - old collections, but these plants are very rare and we are trying to hit every locality in the hopes of finding at least some of them. Benthamiella is a genus that is endemic to Patagonia, with 12 species in Argentina and Chile. These are tiny cushion plants of the steppes, hard to find!

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As we drove south the landscape became more and more desert-like, the plants lower and lower and drier and drier. We began to see guanacos along the road, grazing in the weeds, and also in the native vegetation. These camelids are the wild ancestors of the “cultivated” llamas and alpacas of the Andes and are absolutely beautiful – they look like proper wild animals, sleek and beautifully colored.  Petrol stations are few and far between in Patagonia, so every time one appears everyone tries to fill up, there are always queues!

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Petrol queues in the middle of nowhere!

 

We turned off for Pampa del Castillo, and began to search the steppe for Benthamiella. We found lots of interesting things, and it was very hot!, but no luck. The sight of four botanists, heads down looking at the ground must have looked absolutely crazy! The only creatures that would have seen us were rheas though – the area was absolutely deserted.

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You can just make out Juan, Franco and Gloria heads down searching the steppes for Benthamiella!!

 

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Rheas - the epitome of avian elegance, and not the slightest bit interested in us....

 

We drove and collected and drove – all the way to what was on maps as the town of Holdich – abandoned long ago. It must have been so difficult living in this dry exposed area – today it is a large oilfield, full of “grasshoppers” extracting black gold…..

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This abandoned house had a deep basement and was full of beautiful old tiles - it must have been quite some residence at one time.

 

In a last attempt, we stopped at the last locality – not hoping for much – but success at last! Two species of Benthamiella! The flowers were less than 4 mm long, and dried up and almost falling off – we wondered if we had just walked by these plants earlier. Once you get your eye in for a plant, it appears everywhere – let’s see if we can find Benthamiella more efficiently tomorrow!!

Gloria+Benthamiella_MG_2783.JPGGloria with our first Benthamiella find.

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So – after having to buy a new tyre in Bahia Blanca, another day of driving to the south…  Patagonia is a long way from central Argentina! Although we were in Patagonia strictly speaking in Bahia Blanca, we still had a long way to go before our plants appear. After an early start we hurtled along the excellent roads – along the sides were harvested fields, all pretty normal looking until you looked closer to see flocks of rheas (South American ostriches) grazing the stubble!

 

Passing into Patagonia proper there are strict controls on the transport of fruits and food products – this is a big agricultural region and many diseases are absent (like brucellosis for example) – so all vehicles are carefully inspected at the border of the province of Rio Negro…  so we had to eat out fruit before crossing over! The lovely salami from Cordoba didn’t pass muster, so had to be thrown away...  a tragedy.

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We headed for a beach resort right at the mouth of the Rio Negro, not for the usual, but again in search of Jaborosa bergii. This plant is proving totally elusive – we failed again! We did collect a beautiful composite – Grindelia – whose chromosome Franco is studying, and a couple of other things.

 

We also failed to see whales or dolphins, but then again that requires going out on a boat and that is not really what we are here for! We did, however, take a tiny detour to see the largest parrot nesting site in the world – 12 kilometres of coast line is occupied by thousands of burrowing parrots who nest in holes in the soft cliffs. The fledglings were leaving and the hawks circling – an amazing sight.

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The Atlantic in the distance, mouth of the Rio Negro

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Burrowing parrots near the nest - slightly out of focus - I do plants not birds!!

 

We headed for the tourist town of Puerto Madryn for the night, a mistake as it turned out. Gloria and Franco had had trouble there before finding a hotel, and we ought to have learned from that experience! No rooms were to be had anywhere. It was Franco’s birthday – so we had a nice meal with a birthday ice cream cake and singing in a restaurant on the sea front (by this time it was almost midnight – the sun doesn’t set until 9pm this far south in the austral summer!), and drove on to the next town – Trelew. We finally reached a hotel at 2 am….  a very, very long day!