"I do not think I ever saw a spot, which appeared more secluded from the rest of the world, than this rocky crevice in the wide plain." - Charles Darwin (1838, Puerto Deseado, Patagonia, Argentina).
Rocky cliffs along the Rio Deseado
Charles Darwin landed in Puerto Deseado, where we woke up this morning, on 23 December 1838 – it must have looked quite different then! We usually associate Darwin’s ideas with his experiences in the Galapagos, but these Patagonian steppes had to have influenced his ideas – life is so difficult here, in the vastness of the steppes, living through incredible extremes of heat and cold. He rode and collected along the Río Deseado probably in the exact same area where we found Petunia patagonica yesterday. He probably even saw it!
We actually didn’t follow in Darwin’s footsteps today, we just went looking for more plants! Along the road we saw a large group of choiques – Darwin’s rhea (the “avestruz” Darwin shot and ate before remembering to make a specimen!). In this species the males have harems of several females, all of whom lay eggs in the same nest. He then looks after the chicks (called charitos) – this was a male with about 10 little ones!
Our first port of call was the Bosque Petrificado (Petrified Forest) National Park towards the west in the centre of Santa Cruz province. It is about 50 km off the main road on a dirt track and as we entered the landscape just got more and more spectacular. At the park headquarters where we needed to check in to show our permit and talk to the guardaparques (the national park system in Argentina is very organised, being a park ranger is a proper career and they are fantastically knowledgeable people) the ground is literally littered with the fossilised remains of upper middle Jurassic forests – huge trunks of long dead monkey puzzle trees more than 10 metres long abound; this was no crumbled fossil bed – it was amazing. The trunks are the remnants of Araucaria mirabilis – an extinct species belonging apparently to a clade now only found in Australia, thus providing rock solid evidence of the ancient connection of the southern continents. There was a really nice little museum as well, where there were great examples of some pretty amazing fossils that had been found there.
Bosque Petrificados - looking to the west, the large rocks in the front are fossilised tree trunks!
I haven’t yet properly introduced my colleagues… all are from the InstitutoMultidisciplinario de Biología Vegetal of the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba – a real powerhouse of South American botany. I am lucky tohave such good colleagues for field work – although my Spanish is pretty good, as a group we find more plants and have more fun!
From left to right - Gloria Barboza, Juan Urdampilleta and Franco Chiarini (note the Araucaria mirabilis!!)
Although we had gone in towards the park looking for a special Nicotiana (we didn’t find it, but we have more chances to come), we came away with a real prize – Fabiana nana, a plant we had been seeking for the last couple of days. It is a tiny spiky cushion plant and looks like something you might avoid if you had the chance – but there it was with beautiful white flowers. The whole thing is only about 10 centimetres high, and the flowers are tiny. There are no leaves, the green stems do the work of photosynthesis – this is a common strategy in dry desert areas, it reduces water loss from leaves. Tiny leaves do form on new shoots, but they don’t last long! My colleague Iris Peralta has a student who is studying these plants and she has had a very difficult time getting DNA out of them – they are full of resin. Coping with life in Patagonia can be difficult! Guanacos are everywhere – the grazing pressure must be very high.
The leafless stems and tiny flowers of Fabiana nana
We carried on looking for plants along the main road, heading for some specific places and all the time looking for characteristic domed shapes of Fabiana or Bethamiella. The roadsides in Argentina all have shrines to Gauchito Gil – a gaucho from Corrientes who defied the boss and eloped with his daughter, and was a sort of latter-day Argentine Robin Hood who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. The Gauchito is a driver’s “saint” and shrines vary from huge and elaborate to quite simple and personal. This one was kilometres from any village or habitation and quite new, older shrines have many little red huts and lots of flags. It is traditional to leave gifts of alcohol, cigarettes and red bunting.
At the last stop –again at 9:30pm – failing to find the target plant – we encountered another population of Petunia patagonica, it is becoming commoner now we are further south, but it seems we don’t find it unless it is almost dark! Still no seeds though, this will help tell us if this is a different genus to Fabiana. As we entered the tiny port town of San Julian it began to rain – it looks like the heat wave is over and we are really in for a big change.