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April 25, 2005

Research Station In Patagonia Must Be Rebuilt After Fire

The pristine brushland and steppe of Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, southern Chile, home to llama-like creatures known as guanacos, has drawn researchers from UConn for many years.

In February, that research suffered a setback, however, when a wildfire swept through the area and consumed more than 37,000 acres of land. The fire was finally extinguished two weeks later by rainfall, but a research station used by UConn faculty members Isaac “Morty” Ortega and Jack Clausen was lost in the blaze.

The station, which included a three-room cabin, was constructed in the 1980’s by an Iowa State University research team. Ortega, now an assistant professor of natural resources management and engineering at UConn, first traveled to Torres del Paine in 1978 as a graduate student at Iowa State.

When he became leader of the research expeditions 20 years later, he acquired the cabin, along with a refrigerator and animal trapping tools. He later added a solar panel and electric generator. The blaze destroyed nearly $20,000 worth of equipment.

Ortega’s research teams survey and catalogue the flora, fauna, and ecology of the park. Each expedition has nearly two dozen members, including up to eight faculty and students from various UConn departments; the rest are Chileans.

Ortega’s research focuses on guanacos and their relationship to the surrounding plant habitat.

Clausen, a hydrologist and associate professor of natural resources management and engineering, studies the wetlands of the park. He has been describing the ‘vegas’ – wet meadows that serve as a territorial ground for male guanacos – for the first time.

Other researchers use Global Positioning System technology to identify and map the various habitats; and another group engages in aquatic research, studying the fishes and amphibians that make their homes in Torres del Paine.

“Our research expeditions are fun and entertaining,” Ortega says. “Research is the main motor that moves us to spend up to 20 days in a rough camp, without sanitary facilities or showers.”

Ortega, who visited the site in early March, says wildfires are rare in the region. The last occurred in 1985. Because they are so infrequent, he says, the expeditions did not have insurance against fire.

He is now raising money to reconstruct the cabin, and is considering a site just outside the park that will both suit the needs of future expeditions and provide a more secure location.

Although raising funds for a new research station will take time, renewal of the habitat surrounding Laguna Amarga will take even longer. The flames destroyed the “mata negra,” a black brush habitat consisting of shrubs up to five feet in height, that surrounded the campsite. Portions of the shrubs were burned all the way to the ground. Because the “mata negra” grows very slowly, its loss will affect the local ecology for years to come.

“We know it is going to take a long time to recover, if it ever does,” Ortega says.

Ortega is also concerned about the vegas. Several were completely lost in the fire, and the destruction of these wetlands holds dire implications for the guanacos and other wildlife whose reproductive and feeding patterns depend on them.

Ortega plans to lead another expedition in December or January, during the Patagonian summer, to assess the reconstruction and resume his research.

For more information about Torres del Paine or to contribute online to the station’s reconstruction, go to

Checks, payable to the University of Connecticut, may also be sent to: Patagonia Research Center Reconstruction, Dept. of Natural Resources Management & Engineering, 1376 Storrs Road, Storrs, CT 06269-4087.