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Home to the guanacos, Patagonian
steppe draws researcher
(March 30, 1999)

The first glimpse of the permanent base camp at Torres del Paine on the Patagonian steppe where 20 explorers would spend two weeks last January was not encouraging. The team, led by Isaac "Morty" Ortega, an assistant professor of natural resources management and engineering, had spent nearly 36 hours getting there - only to find that a tornado had touched down just minutes before their arrival.

Undaunted, they reassembled the camp and helped the hired cook start preparing dinner. There was plenty of time. In the summer, the sun doesn't set on Patagonia until nearly midnight.

By the time they finished dinner and started pitching their tents it was after 9 p.m. All this time, the wind, gusting to 50 miles per hour, relentlessly raked the camp.

The campers looked for rocks to weigh down their tents. Under the rocks they discovered some of the first wildlife they would inventory during the two-week expedition - scorpions.

The expedition's first experience in the park belied the rest of their trip. Professors, students and alumni, their ages ranging from 19 to 71 years, had come to Patagonia for a variety of reasons - adventure, an unusual vacation, and the opportunity to participate in an important scientific inquiry. In Torres del Paine they found all those things and more.

A national park since 1970, Torres del Paine is accessible only by dirt secondary roads. Still, it attracts 60,000 visitors annually. They come from all over the world on the strength of Patagonia's reputation as a remote and beautiful place. And they are rarely disappointed.

The park, only a relatively small corner of the vast Patagonian region, has more than a half million acres, and 95 percent is wilderness. With geography ranging from flat plains to 10,000-foot peaks, it's a place of massive glaciers, torrential waterfalls and lakes stained vivid blue by glacial silt. It is also home to a remarkable variety of living organisms, including hares, foxes, skunks, armadillos, rodents, bats, several species of indigenous fish, more than 200 species of birds, and the primary focus of the expedition, guanacos and pumas.

Guanacos are llama-like South American relatives of the camel. In Chile, where they are protected by law, pumas (the cougar's South American subspecies) are their only current predator. That hasn't always been the case.

It's estimated that when the Spaniards first arrived in South America there were millions of guanacos. By the end of the 19th century, hunting and ranching had reduced their numbers to a few thousand. No one knows for sure how many there are today. Estimates run between 50,000 and 150,000.

Ortega has been studying these animals for two decades, in collaboratio n with William "Bill" Franklin, his former adviser at Iowa State University. Ortega, who is originally from Chile, met Franklin when he made his first guanaco expedition in 1976.

Among the things they have discovered is that when guanacos' natural habitat is protected, they flourish. There were 600 guanacos in Torres del Paine 20 years ago. Today there are 3,000. "The puma population has increased, too," Ortega reports. "The two go hand in hand."

Last year, Franklin succumbed to the unquenchable thirst for adventure once again and moved his research half way around the world, to Mongolia. He turned the guanaco study over to Ortega, who brought it to UConn.

When Ortega's team awoke at 4:30 on the morning of the expedition's second day in Chile, they were encouraged by the fact that the wind had finally died down. Crawling out of their tents, they found themselves encamped on the Patagonian steppe between two big lakes - Norsdenkjold and Sarmiento - and surrounded by the rugged eastern shoulders of the Andes.

Following breakfast, they divided into teams and began the work that would occupy them for the next two weeks. Each of the participants had been drawn to the expedition for different reasons.

For Tom Meyer, an assistant professor of natural resources management and engineering, the job was mapping. "There are maps of the region, but they lack the sort of detail we need to conduct extensive long-term inventories of the flora in the park," he says. Working with a global positioning system (GPS), a device that calculates latitude and longitude of any location on the globe, he gathered data that will enable him to produce new, detailed maps this spring.

He also brought back an exceptional learning opportunity for his students. "It was a real exercise in how to work under primitive conditions," he says. "I couldn't waste any space on the GPS, so I had to think very carefully and make sure my own calculations were as exacting as possible. How I did that presents a great learning exercise with plenty of challenges for the students in my map-making class."

Rob Neumann, an assistant professor of natural resources management and engineering and an expert on fisheries, began a long-term aquatic study with the park's first inventory of galaxias, a small fish native to the southern hemisphere, as well as amphibians and invertebrates, with the help of Rick Relyea, an herpetologist from the University of Michigan. "We tried to sample enough fish in the two lakes to define populations and start learning something about their size, age and diet," says Neumann. He looks forward to expanding the study to other lakes in the region, some of which contain trout, a non-native species introduced years ago.

Already, though, he has learned that because of the extremely cold glacial water and the region's short growing season, the fish grow slowly and seem to live longer than many other species. Like Meyer, he says the expedition has provided him with a wealth of information that enhances his students' learning experiences.

And for Ortega, the body of knowledge about guanacos continues to expand. "We know a lot about guanacos now," he says, "but we're still refining what we know. We have learned, for

instance, that they live longer than we thought. We also know about their social system, including territories and migrations. We're not sure what constitutes a good territory, however, and we're not sure guanacos remain faithful to a good territory when they find one. There is a still a lot we need to learn."

He hopes to keep learning and bringing others to Patagonia on future expeditions. Last November Ortega and a group of students, taking over the study from Franklin, worked quickly to capture and tag up to 100 newborn guanacos, called chulengos. "You have to get to them within two or three hours after birth," he explains. "After that they can easily outrun you."

Ortega is already recruiting for the next expeditions to Patagonia in November and January. The tasks will include tagging chulengos, finding pumas, compiling an inventory of waterfowl, fishes and amphibians, and other activities amid the aura of the Andes.

Jim Smith