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Day 5: a Stroll in the Beautiful Andes


a panorama of the area surrounding Salto río Maule and the adjacent waterfall

After our last night in the bustling city of Santiago, we left in early morning to make our way to our next stop: Talca.

The class was joined by Flavia Schiappacasse and Steffen Hahn our guides for our time in Talca, and left on a scenic bus ride through the Andes towards Laguna de Maule.  We made several stops to observe the flora of the area- alpine species were flowering everywhere! Mistletoe, Alstroemeria, Rhodophiala, and a terrestrial orchid to name a few.


flora by the SAG station


Sapphire blue waters of Laguna de Maule










It was also interesting to see a micro-ecosystem created by the water running through a ditch next to the SAG station by the Argentinian border.  The man-made ditch juxtaposed with the colors in flower inside of it.   We later saw this phenomenon on a larger and more impressive scale later at the waterfall where ferns thrived only under the constant humidity of the falls.


Solanaceous flower


Boraginaceae flowers, clinging low to the ground










Schizanthus sp. found by the ditch


ferns thriving under the waterfall’s mist










Plants were not the only feature on this trip; Steffen pointed out unique bird species as well as the volcanic pumice and obsidian in the area.  From the bus, we peeked into the valley below and caught sight of a stallion galloping alongside the river.

As we stepped off the bus again at Salto río Maule, Flavia warned us not to step on the native violas as they were tiny and colored like the soil. Before we found them, we weren’t sure what to look for, and they were nothing like the violas we knew from the US.


Chloraea alpina, a terrestrial orchid species native to Chile


a Viola, the size of a golf ball, the color of sand









Needless to say, being at the waterfalls was incredible.  Salto río Maule is perhaps one of the most beautiful places on the earth.  Alpine flora all around, wind coursing through hair, and mist flying up the waterfall onto our faces.  The view itself was breathtaking.  I can speak for others in the class when I say I intend to return and see it again.


Patty Chan (me) by one of the two falls


an alpine stream


Dr. Elizabeth Lam crossing a stream to reach Salto río Maule


Salto río Maule

Endemism in Chile

What I appreciate most about the biodiversity of Chile, is the great wealth of endemic species that the country is home to. There has often been debate over whether endemism or biodiversity should be used as a measure of conservation, but I propose that the two go hand-in-hand. For a country such as Chile, the overlap between biodiversity and endemism is much easier to appreciate.  Though Chile as a whole does not contain a vast number of species, it has the largest percentage of endemic species in the world. About 50% of all species are endemic. For vascular plants alone, 2,698 species are endemic to Chile. I would challenge anyone who dismisses these 3,000 species of regional importance as not representing the country’s impressive biodiversity.

In fact, there are complete plant families that are endemic to Chile. This uniqueness only attests to the importance of endemism for biodiversity, and conservation as a whole. There are three families endemic to Chile. The Lactoridaceae is a family of flowering shrubs endemic to a specific forest on Robinson Crusoe Island, of the Juan Fernandez Islands. The Thyrsopteridaceae family is also found in the Juan Fernandez Islands. This tree fern family, however, has given rise to a only one species – Thyrsopteris elegans (shown below). The Gomortegaceae family is endemic to the coastal  region of central Chile. Also producing only a single species, Gomortega keule, this tree is facing threat of extinction due to over-harvesting and deforestation. The tree produces an edible fruit, that is rather sweet and commonly used to make a kind of marmalade (also pictured below).


Images of Thyrsopteris elegans


The fruit of Gomortega keule


Chilean Flora

The overall diversity of Chilean flora is relatively modest, but because of its unique geographical location, Chile has the highest number of endemic plant species in South America. It is estimated that there are about 5,000 known vascular plant species in Chile, with roughly half of those being endemic to the country. So as we travel from Santiago to Valdivia, we can expect to see a great many plants that we are unlikely to see anywhere else in the world. A few of those species are shown below.

Araucaria araucana – Monkey Puzzle Tree

This evergreen coniferous tree is native to Argentina and Chile and has an unusual appearance that is often admired by viewers. It gets its name from the fact that with its spiny leaves, even a monkey would be puzzled with the task of climbing it. The tree produces edible seeds called piñones, which continue to be an important part of the diet of the indigenous people of the area. Even though this species has been declared a National Monument in Chile in 1990, which prohibits the cutting of wild trees, it still faces conservations threats and is currently listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.


A. araucana female cones


A. araucana stem with leaves


Lapageria rosea –  Copihue

This twining vine is highly revered as the National Flower of Chile, and is also endemic to the country. It can be observed in the southern third of the country as well as in the coastal mountains and the lower elevations of the Andes where forests are damp. Its vibrant pendulous flowers are hummingbird pollinated, and have inspired many different cultivars in horticultural settings. It bears an evolutionary relationship to the Lilies, and is the sole member of its genus, and one of only two species in the family Philesiaceae.

L. rosea in flower

L. rosea in flower


Fitzroya cupressoides – Alerce

This tree, sometimes referred to as the Sequoia of South America, can be found in the foothills of the Andes Mountains in Chile and Argentina, and is an important species in the Valdivian temperate rain forest. It is widely recognized as the tallest and oldest tree in South America. An individual from Argentina was measured at 187 feet tall, with a 7 foot trunk diameter, and an individual from Chile was dated at over 3,600 years old. This makes it the second-oldest living tree after the Bristlecone Pine of western North America. The wood of the Alerce is lightweight and durable, and has historically been used for the production of a variety of products, but logging was officially stopped in 1976 to ensure conservation of this extraordinary tree.

F. cupressoides foliage and cones

F. cupressoides foliage and cones

F. cupressoides growth form

F. cupressoides growth form

The Spectrum of Human-Nature Interactions: Exploitation to Preservation

If we’ve learned anything from our class this past semester, it is that humans are inextricably linked to the natural world.  What we are just beginning to holistically understand, however, is that we as humans have the ability to regulate and manage how we interact with our surroundings. The ways in which we interact with nature can be visualized as a spectrum, with exploitation and preservation as the two extremes:


Though commonly used interchangeably, preservation is an overarching term that encompasses conservation efforts.  Preservation, at its most extreme, seeks to eliminate human impact on nature by protecting biodiversity and ecosystem integrity through isolation.  Examples of preservation include nature reserves and wilderness areas, where biodiversity in ecosystems remain intact. Conservation, on the other hand, refers to the proper use and regulation of how humans use and interact with nature.  Conservation is best demonstrated through rainforest protection initiatives and ‘Big Game’ wildlife refuges, where regulations on how humans interact with their surroundings may either be relaxed or regulated.  Finally, the notion of human exploitation refers to the use of nature for economic or social gain.  These actions may include anything as harmless as a photograph for aesthetic purposes to the over-logging of forested land.

This spectrum is not intended to necessarily declare one category of the spectrum as better than another, and it certainly does not highlight the blurred activities within each category.  It’s intent, rather, is to raise awareness about the need to understand and consciously decide how we interact with the natural world.  We have the ability to decide how we want to related to our surroundings, and engagement in this conscious activity will be of utmost importance in the development of future enterprise, policy agendas, and biodiversity efforts.

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