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Chile

Featured Chilean Plant: Yareta

You’re hiking far into the Andes mountain range, high above the sea.  For miles upon miles, all you see is sky, sand, and rocks— wait…except for that lime green amorphous mass right there.  Are you seeing this right? You sure are.  It’s not Oobleck or alien slime, but a plant with clever adaptations, Yareta.

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Yareta (Azorella compacta) is a plant native to South America, present at altitudes between 10,000 and 15,000 ft above sea level.  It’s in the family Apiaceae, same as many familiar plants such as carrots, celery, and parsley.  In contrast to how it may appear, Yareta is an incredibly firm, dense plant with a woody structure covered in many small waxy leaves.

Its foreign appearance is due to the plant’s adaptations to surviving a fairly inhospitable environment where it must endure drought and regular bouts of cold temperatures.  It grows incredibly slowly, at a rate of 1.5 cm in any direction a year to conserve resources needed to produce biomass, and grows dense to conserve the plant’s internal heat and moisture.  The waxy cuticle on the leaves also ensure less water transpires from the plant.  Botanists theorize that Yareta limits itself to several feet in height because it’s slightly warmer clinging close to the ground.

 

Pretty crazy, isn’t it? It’s amazing what forms plants can take to survive.

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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).

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Images of Thyrsopteris elegans

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The fruit of Gomortega keule

 

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