Monthly Archives: June 2011

Species Profile: Mountain Vizcacha

At first glance, one might question the Mountain Vizcacha’s heritage – are these mammals part of the Leporidae family (rabbit) or the Chinchillidae family (Chinchilla)? If you guessed the latter, you are correct.  With their large ears, powerful hind legs, and small front paws, Vizcachas do share a striking resemblance to the rabbit family. However, their long bushy tail is a distinguishing trait unique to the Chinchillidae family. This tail not only serves as a species indicator, but can also tell us if the animal is feeling anxious or relaxed: The tail is extended when the rodent is distressed and curled when at ease.

The Chinchillidae family resides in areas throughout southern and western South America. The members include the Mountain Vizcacha (Lagidium viscacia), Plains Vizcacha (Lagostomus maximus), Northern Vizcacha (Lagidium peruanum), Wolffsohn’s Viszacha (Lagidium wolffsohni) and the familiar Chinchilla (Chinchilla lanigera). However, the Mountain Vizcacha is the only member that calls the future Patagonia National Park home, where they live among rocky outcroppings and boulders. It is quite unusual for a rodent to stray from underground burrows, but the Vizcacha has learned to transcend its inferior digging abilities and take advantage of its expert climbing skills. The Vizcacha can jump from rock to rock with such ease and speed, it’s hard for the eye to follow.

Mountain Vizcachas live in colonies that range from a few individuals to hundreds. To keep up with the colony chatter, they have acquired an impressive repertoire of vocalizations that are used in social interactions. Mountain Vizcachas are small mammals, but these vocalizations resonate with plenty of strength; it’s no wonder they are known for their gregarious behavior.

Vizcachas have a short gestation period that only lasts about four to five months. At this time, the mother gives birth to one fully developed offspring. Because the newborns are developed, the young are weaned at only two months.   However, at two months Vizcachas are still very small and vulnerable, which makes colony living a necessity.

With a body length of 1 to 2 feet and an average weight of 3.5 lbs, the Vizcachas are relatively large rodents, yet small in comparison to their carnivorous neighbors – the Puma and the Culpeo Fox. These two are fierce predators, but the Vizcacha has its own advantages: dexterity, speed, loud warning calls, and a home immersed in boulders and rocks (a less than ideal hunting ground). Because of these advantages, the Mountain Vizcacha doesn’t often suffer from competition or predation induced population decline. The rodent’s main threat is us. Humans put pressure on Mountain Vizcacha populations either by hunting or habitat loss. They are often illegally hunted for their meat and fur – their pelts are considered a luxury to some and are regularly exported out from Chile and Argentina. We’re lucky to have a flourishing population of the Mountain Vizcacha in the future Patagonia National Park. Here, the animals can live in their natural habitat, existing only by the succession of the region’s ecological cycle.

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Gigapanning Patagonia: by Dr. Stuart Pimm

Introduction: Dr. Stuart Pimm, a celebrated conservation biologist, Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University and author of The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth, serves on the Science Advisory Board of Conservacion Patagonica.  In this post, he explains a new project he has introduced to the future park: using Gigapan imagery technology to create a detailed and precise photographic record of ecosystem changes.  This innovative project will help inform the habitat restoration work involved in transforming former sheep ranches into a new national park.  

“Click… whirrrrrrrrr….click ….. whirrrrrr ” — accompanied by an incessant wind that beats you on all sides on bad days.  These sounds begin to fill my dreams at night. Most days are bad. Sonny Bass and I stand on the windward side of my tripod, sheltering it, holding it down firmly to prevent it blowing over. On more than one occasion, we fail.

Late February and summer is ending in Patagonia. When dark clouds race over the sun, the wind chills us quickly. At 47 degrees south and 500m (1600 feet) above sea level, summer is short. No longer the long days of when I was here in early January, last year. “click… whirrrrrrrrr….click ….. whirrrrrr” … and then silence. After 35 minutes, the equipment has stopped. I take the camera from its mount, Sonny packs the equipment in the back of our 4×4, and we recover inside it with a cup of hot coffee.

We drive another 10 kilometres (6 miles) down the dirt road and start again.

Our mission: to take photographs of what will become the new Patagonia National Park. These are not just ordinary photographs. They contain millions of pixels — ours have billions of them. These are gigapans — and the equipment that produces them was just the answer to a problem I had.

At the end of my visit last year, Kris Tompkins asked if I would advise on the scientific issues with the formation of this new national park. Kris is founder and president of Conservacion Patagonica. She and husband Doug are extraordinary philanthropists who have created huge protected areas in Chile and Argentina.

Guanacos now replace sheep across this landscape. How will that landscape change over the years to come? Photo Stuart Pimm

The Chacabuco Valley is one of them — a “Pleistocene Park” filled with guanacos, foxes, flamingos, upland geese and other wildlife. On a global scale, it’s not merely huge — the valley connects upland areas to create an area over one million hectares (nearly 4,000 square miles) — but ecologically significant.

Some 13% of Earth’s land surface is now protected, but some places are much easier to protect than others. Temperate grasslands are among the hardest. Only a small percentage of temperate grasslands are in national parks. Think of how little prairie remains in North America. These are the places we graze cattle, sheep, goats and other livestock.

The problem is how Kris and her team will follow and understand the ecological changes that will follow their removing the sheep from the valley. They had been there for over 80 years and massively overgrazed the landscape.

Other changes are surely afoot too. Disruptions to the climate are more severe at these higher latitudes than near the tropics. “Disruption” — because the changes are more complex than a simple “warming.”  There will be changes to rainfall and snowfall. The permanent ice sheets on the nearby mountains will shrink and perhaps even disappear. The flows of rivers will change in size and timing, the wetlands with their water birds and flamingos may evaporate.

Certainly, these changes may be slow and some subtle.  They will surely be complex.  So how can we follow them?

That was the question that exercised me last year. Then I got an e-mail from Mary Jo Daines at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

“Could you imagine a Gigapan as a useful tool?

To which the obvious answer was “yes!”

What a gigapan does is really hard to show on a single page like this one — and that’s really the point.

The best solution is to click on this link — it will take you one of the gigapans we produced. It looks like a very long skinny landscape photograph — and indeed it is.  But it comes with controls — you can move the photo to the left or right, up or down, and most importantly, you can zoom in … and in … and in … to see extraordinary detail.

The photograph below is just a small piece of this image.  Click on the link above — and you will see the complete landscape, though not much detail because the image is too small.  How much detail is there?

On the image you see two very small boxes — one of a distant skyline, the other of a group of guanacos.  On the gigapan, you can zoom in and see these pieces of the larger image in great details.

Detail 1: a distant snow pack and skyline is only a smaller piece of the larger image above. Photo: Stuart Pimm

Detail 2: a small group of guanacos feed on the vegetation at the edge of the marsh. Photo: Stuart Pimm

After a training workshop, I planned a return trip to Patagonia, with Sonny in tow.

The gigapan unit sits on top of a tripod and my Canon camera and its telephoto fits into a mount. Basically, the gigapan is a drive that takes a series of overlapping photographs — sometimes as many as 200 and more of them.  To make that happen, one programmes it to overlap the images correctly, to set the top left and bottom right of the images — or to set up a 360 degree view, and so on.

Then one hits “start” and the clicking and whirring starts.  Yes, the camera has to be programmed correctly, the focus set, the GPS of the location recorded, and on down a long checklist. I have no better friend or colleague to help with data collection than Sonny.  Spending a day in the field and to have found I messed up would have been expensive and embarrassing. Sonny and I have worked together in the Florida Keys and the Everglades for over twenty years.

Home for dinner and a glass of wine and the images have to be processed — “stitched” in the jargon. One arranges the individual photographs on a grid — say five rows of 47 images and the stitch programme gets to work.

It takes a while.

That computer programme impresses the nerd in me.  A single photograph is not lit uniformly — it’s brighter in the middle than at the edges because the light has travelled through less glass.  Put two images together and the edges are obvious.  The programme corrects that.  It blends the colours too, so that one sees no seams.

OK, enough techno-speak.  Why does this matter?

The end point is an image of a large landscape. OK, you can take landscapes with your point and shoot!  Agreed.  But this landscape has extraordinary detail — each of the 235 pieces is itself a detailed image taken with a telephoto.

Simply, one sees the wood and the trees.  The gigapan captures the broad features of the ecosystem and the individual species that comprise it.  Both will likely change in the decades to come — and the gigapan provides a means to follow these changes.

Is this a new idea?  Not even close!  One of my favourite books is still J.R. Hastings and R.M. Turner’s The Changing Mile.  Lugging plate cameras by mules, surveyors photographed Arizona in the late 1800s — then a very, wild west.  Returning 70 years later, Hastings and Turner re-photographed 90 of the same places.

Sometimes one can see the same individual plants a human lifetime apart. One can also see dramatic changes. The paired photographs gave Hastings and Turner insights into ecological processes one could not get otherwise. Those insights are compelling nearly half a century after they wrote them.

“Can’t we just do this from space?”  You ask.

Well, “yes” and “no” and “both!”

Detailed satellite images now cover much of what will become the new national park. Many changes to Earth’s lands will now be easy to follow as the years go by.  But those images have obvious limits — not least because they are from directly above.  A side view helps to identify plants but a close up view is essential.

The final very clever feature of gigapan is that it combines both close up and space.  Click on the button located to the right of this image and gigapan takes you to Google Earth and you can see both the satellite image and the gigapixel image.

So, my gift to ecologists several decades from now? A chance to see how the Chacabuco Valley has changed and, I hope, help provide some of the “why.”

Please enjoy those changes. Refrain from making snide remarks about how crude the technology was “back in 2011.”  Withhold your jokes about that ancient 4×4 we drove — visible in some of the photos we took.  Or how much carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere as we did so. If you get a scientific paper using our original photographs, drink a good Chilean cabernet in our honour.

And, when you take your peta-pixel images in the same spots as ours, likely getting out of your non-polluting vehicle for just a minute to do so, imagine being in the wind for hours.  “Back in 2011, those chaps had the right stuff,” you proclaim.  Damned right.

Sonny Bass, dressed appropriately for a late summer’s day in Patagonia, heads back to the 4×4 for a cup of coffee. Photo Stuart Pimm

This post appeared on National Geographic’s Newswatch on June 20, 2011.  See the original post here.

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Finding Silencio, Huemul of the Baker River

For years, HidroAysen has claimed that the megadams planned for the Baker River would not disturb any habitat of the critically endangered huemul deer.  At the end of May, a team of Conservacion Patagonica park guards surveyed the area that the Baker 1 dam will flood.   The group included veteran huemul trackers Daniel Velasquez and Delmiro Jara, who have spent decades tracking and understand huemul behavior better than almost anyone.  They sighted several huemul, including a male they have monitored since birth, named Silencio.

 All native Patagonians, they wrote this account as an expression of their love for their land and its wild inhabitants.  Luigi Solis, head of trailbuilding and restoration at the future Patagonia Park, narrates the huemul survey, while Daniel Velasquez tells the story of Silencio’s life.  They shared this piece with numerous Chilean news outlets, not to provoke controversy, but rather to convey the beauty of what could be lost forever. Below is the poster image they created to distribute with their account.

_______________________

Tracking Huemules on the Shores of the Baker River

by Luigi Solis

“Neighbors of the park had told us stories of huemul sightings along the Baker River, where huemuls never before had been recorded. Early on May 26, Daniel Velazquez, Delmiro Jara, Cristian Rivera and I (Luigi Solis) set off from the Chacabuco Valley to investigate these reports.  We headed to the “Eses” sector, near the confluence of the Baker and Nef Rivers, about fifteen kilometers upstream from the park.  Whenever we survey wildlife on neighbors’ land, we invite them to join us.  This time, Fabian Ibanez, who manages sheep in this area for the Baker River Association, participated with enthusiasm.

“When we arrived at the “Eses,” we split into three walking groups, fanning out to survey the terrain.  I took the path closest to the Baker River: since few may have the privilege of walking by this river in its natural state, I wanted to record and share the experience through photographs.    Almost immediately, we found several sets of fresh huemul tracks, possibly only a day old.  For a long time, we walked following these tracks, waiting to find the animals that made them, to know for certain they had made a home here.

“After walking along the tracks for several hours, we had yet to find the huemuls themselves.  We regrouped and shared some lunch as we re-evaluated our route and surveying method.  Two options presented themselves for the afternoon: continue along our path, walking downstream along the Baker, or move to a different sector.  Any way we proceeded, our chances of sighting these shy and rare deer remained low.  Continuing along our previous route well might yield nothing.  Yet changing course and searching the new area seemed perhaps even more unlikely, since livestock grazed in that area.  As we finished our lunch, we resolved to continue on downstream towards the Chacabuco-Baker Confluence, once again following the fresh tracks of the huemul.

“We had walked only twenty meters, all together, when Don Delmiro said, with the steady certainty of a man who at 64 still walks the hills of his beloved Baker, ‘here we find the animals.’

“Right then, we caught sight of two, then three, and finally four huemul deer, docile and serene.  As we studied them, we determined that their little band consisted of an adult male, a juvenile female, a young female, and one fawn.  The male, Daniel realized, was Silencio, an animal he had tracked since birth but had lost contact with years before.  He tells the story of Silencio’s life below.

“Watching them watch us, we stood spellbound, and felt in our bones an obligation to help them survive in this land they call home.  We returned to the park deeply stirred by the creatures we had seen, so quietly dwelling in that fated landscape.  That evening, I sat down to describe what made this huemul sighting so stirring.  All of us have spent years watching these deer, but felt especially lucky be the first ones to record huemul in this place, slated for flooding if the HidroAysen project proceeds.

“Son of hardworking and humble country people, I consider myself a Patagonian in and out.  My family lived almost self-sufficiently in a remote area.  Milking cows, planting gardens, making hay for harsh winters, and tending our small herd of sheep were my childhood pastimes.  For years, I did not attend school, but when I got the opportunity, I studied with the same determination I had brought to farm chores.   Although only simple farmers, my parents managed to pay for my technical studies and for those of my two sisters.   I am proud of my Patagonia: its hardworking people who brave tough conditions, its mountains and rivers, and its wildlife.  As a Patagonian, I will defend this place.”

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Silencio’s Story

by Daniel Velasquez

It was November of 2006, and we had spent several days following a pregnant female huemul named “Puntilla” to know when she gave birth.  As part of our huemul monitoring program, we use radio collars and telemetry to follow pregnant mothers, so that we can find and monitor their offspring soon after birth.  Newborn fawns suffer high rates of mortality, so insuring a future for the species depends on investigating major threats to fawns.

 Puntilla gave birth on November 21, tucked away in the rocky terraces of the northern shore of the Cochrane River.  She had hidden herself and her fawn well, making it challenging to locate them.  As we observed the pair together and then placed an ear tag in the young fawn, he made not one sound.  “Silencio,” we decided, would be a fitting name for this quiet animal.

For the next year, I saw Silencio often during my days tracking huemuls, taking many photographs of his development.  Always near his mother, he moved along the shores of the Cochrane River, gradually moving closer to its confluence with the Baker River.

When Silencio reached one year of age, his mother moved from this area : when female huemuls are about to give birth to a new fawn, they will often leave behind their year-old young to devote their energy to the newborn.   She gave birth to her fawn, but Silencio seemed to have disappeared. His radio transmitter had stopped working.  Although we searched for him carefully, we could find not a trace and never saw him in the park again. Since we found no evidence he had died, we classified him as “missing” in our study.

For five years, I followed Puntilla, who still lives in the headquarters of the Cochrane River.  Through tracking and monitoring her, I have recorded all her pregnancies and tagged all her young.  Yet of all her offspring, only Silencio made it to adulthood.

Rumors from neighbors of small family group of huemuls living along the Baker prompted us to survey this area, never before considered territory of the huemul.  On the day Luigi recounts above, we not only saw huemuls in this area for the first time, but also rediscovered Silencio after four and a half years.  Although his transmitter no longer functioned, his ear tag allowed us to identify him.

To our surprise and delight, Silencio had survived to seek new lands and establish his own territory, clearly marked with his antler scrapings on trees.  He had established a new family with various females and their offspring.  Silencio appears well on his way to becoming the pioneer of a new population of huemuls in this area.

Silencio selected his territory wisely: on the steep banks of the Baker River, this area is forested and away from herds of livestock.  But as he made a home and family here, Silencio could not know the human plans for the region.  With the construction of HidroAysen’s Baker 1 megadam, his new home territory will be flooded.  Heavy machinery and hundreds of construction workers will invade his silence, chopping their way through his home forests.

We returned to the park that evening inspired by these wild animals’ ability to survive and thrive, yet the knowledge of the fate of this area clouded our delight.  We share this story of the huemuls of the Baker River to tell the people of Chile how their totem animal, a proud presence on the national shield, is at stake in this decision.

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New Video: Kayak Club of Cochrane

We think of our part of Patagonia, Chile’s Aysen region, as one of the wildest, most beautiful and “best for adventure” places on the planet.  So we love seeing how these steep mountains, dramatic fjords, and imposing rivers inspire people to develop their skills and explore new places.  Outdoor enthusiasts from around the world flock to Patagonia for its extreme challenges, but Patagonia’s own residents give them a run for their money.

In the town of Cochrane, just south of the future Patagonia National Park, “Club Náutico Escualo” teaches kids everything from getting into a kayak to running Class V+ rapids.  In 1999, Roberto Haro Contreras and Claudia Altamirano founded the club as a way of introducing Cochrane’s children to the natural world around them.   They aim to build local pride through giving the next generation of Cochraninos the skills to explore their wild backyard.  And what’s their classroom? The mighty Baker River, next door to town–and slated to be dammed by HidroAysen.

Our friend Weston Boyles just finished this short video about the Club, which has aired on TV stations across Chile.  Thank you, Weston, for sharing it with us and telling another element of the Patagonia Sin Represas story!

Learn more about the Club Náutico Escualo here.

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