The Bones of Patagonia

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Puerto Madryn, Argentina -- The steppes of Patagonia are filled with stories of the past despite their monotonous demeanor. Listen to Darwin describe the physical aspects: "The level plains of arid shingle support the same stunted and dwarf plants, and in the valleys the same thorn-bearing bushes grow." Yet  across these wind-swept arid landscapes are exposed strata of the ages, and within each layer, there are bones of the ancients. Many of the mammals that lived here have been unearthed, and in a museum in the town of Trelew some of these dinosaurs have been painstakingly reassembled. How surprising to find a paleontological collection so thoughtfully constructed. It provides a sense of how deep is the history here. Darwin had bones sent back to England, where they were analyzed and found to be "weirdly in unorthodox in structure and quite unlike any found elsewhere on the earth," according to paleontologist G.G. Simpson. "Here, in Patagonia, Darwin got his first glimpse into evolution.

Darwin's Overlook

John Bell Hatcher explored the territory of Santa Cruz in Patagonia, and sent his bones to Princeton University. George Gaylord Simpson made collections for the American Museum of Natural History in the 1930s. Simpson's adventures are related in "Attending Marvels, A Patagonia Journal" and the  1934 book is educational and enjoyable today. But it is Darwin who first gave significance to Patagonia, and we are following his footsteps today.

But that does not mean we are neglecting the joys of penguin- and whale-watching. The Magellanic penguins nest in burrows dug into the sand and pebbles of Peninsula Valdez, beneath the calafate berry bushes that bear great thorns. If you look across the plain, you will not guess that thousands of these birds live here during nesting season.  In the waters of Gulfo Nuevo, female southern right whales have given birth and attend their calves. Their heads are covered with large calluses in which sea lice live.These are harmless to the whales. But when they surface to breathe,  kelp gulls land on their backs and pull away strips of flesh. The gulls feed in a landfill and may carry bacteria on their beaks. This is a real conservation issue and a program has begun to shoot the gulls, although the chances of totally reducing their numbers are unknown.

Oyster fossils
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