Field Photos from Central Chile, March 2002

In March of 2002, we planned a short trip to south-central Chile to prospect some exposures near Laguna del Laja that John, Andy, and Reynaldo had visited the previous year. This was my first trip to central Chile (my previous trips were to the northern part of the country), so I was looking forward to a change of scenery, and some milder weather. The scenery was beautiful and the temperatures were certainly milder, but I found myself missing the aridity of the Altiplano by the end of the trip (see below).

We visited Laguna del Laja again in 2003, 2004, and 2005 (though I didn’t go on the 2003 trip) and ended up collecting several hundred specimens in total. Many of these are still under study, but we did publish an overview of the fauna in 2008.

Andy and I arrived in Chile on Friday, March 8th, and John and Reynaldo met us at the airport. They had already bought the requisite food and supplies for the expedition and had packed the vehicle, so we were ready to hit the road. We headed south out of Santiago and stopped for a brief lunch in San Bernardo. The weather was perfect (especially as compared to Chicago in early March) and it felt great to be heading into the mountains. Pictured to the right are Andy Wyss, Reynaldo Charrier, and John Flynn.
Lunch on the road

Lunch on the road in San Bernardo.

We made it to our campsite late that night and managed to set up our tents in the dark (while battling heavy winds and light rains). The scene was especially strange for me since I hadn’t been to this locality before and couldn’t see anything in the dark; at least John, Andy, and Reynaldo had been there before and had an idea of what they were looking for in terms of a campsite. I had to wait until morning to enjoy the view of our picturesque campsite nestled amongst small Nothofagus (southern beech) trees alongside a small stream. Most of the tents are blocked in this photo (mine is the one visible to the left), but our red field vehicle stands out against the drab background.

Setting up camp at the base of the mountains.

We wasted no time in hitting the outcrops the next day. The weather was fairly nice, but it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as the warm, sunny weather around Santiago; clouds were more frequent, and there was a constant threat of rain. Most of the area we were working consisted of outcrops like that ones pictured to the right: moderately step slopes composed of various tilted volcaniclastic layers of the Cura-Mallín Formation. The fossils weren’t abundant, but we each managed to collect a few good specimens each day, which is pretty impressive for an area from which fossils hadn’t been noted previously.

Andy on Outcrops

Andy prospecting on the outcrops.

Although small rain showers were frequent, they often didn’t hit us directly. On several occasions we had wonderful views of rainbows. On the day this photo was taken, there were two rainbows visible at the same time, though the other one is not included in the field of view.


One of two rainbows after a morning rain.

 It is difficult to beat the Andes Mountains for spectacular views, and the area around Laguna del Laja is no exception. The mountain in the photo is a volcano, but one that hasn’t been active for some time. Also visible in the lower left corner of the photo is a small white dot. This is the roof of the ranch house located in the next valley over. It sure gives you an idea of scale.


One of the volcanoes in the area, Sierra Velluda.

Nothofagus trees aren’t only pretty, they’re useful; besides helping to cut the wind, they can be a great organizing tool for the camp kitchen. We generally cooked out of the back of the truck, but we kept all our supplies in our kitchen area so we didn’t have to drag them with us when we drove to the outcrops. In an area like Laguna del Laja, we typically camped in one spot and then drove to the outcrops each morning.

Camp Kitchen

Our kitchen campsite.

Andy was usually the brains behind our cooking operations, though all of us tried to help out here and there. He is pictured here getting geared up to cook dinner one evening. Besides Andy, two other things ensured the success of our dinners in the field: a good pressure cooker and the “afterburner,” a high-powered portable gas grill that gave us all the heat we needed. (When cooking at high elevations, building a wood campfire and cooking in a Dutch oven just doesn’t cut it.) Our dinner rotation included pasta, rice, and beans, the holy trinity of paleontological fieldwork.

Cooking Dinner

Cooking dinner after a day of fieldwork.

I always enjoy observing the wildlife on fossil collecting trips, especially the reptiles and amphibians. Unfortunately, cool mountains usually aren’t the best place to find such animals. I was lucky on this trip and was able to catch up with the small lizard pictured to the left, which I think is a species of South American swift (Liolaemus). I found it under a piece of sheet metal out in the sun: a good place to warm up if you’re a lizard. These lizards are known as tropidurids or tropidurines, depending on whether the group is classified as a distinct family of iguanians or a subfamily within the Iguanidae.


One of the few reptiles I saw during our trip.

Although most of the fossils we found were in rock walls or small cobbles, some were in boulders that were too big to pare down effectively. One such specimen is pictured to the left, with John and Reynaldo working on it. The big block contained the front teeth of a large ungulate, probably some sort of toxodont notoungulate or an astrapothere. We were able to bring part of the specimen back with us (hopefully enough for identification) but the rest remained in the field, possibly to be collected during our next trip to the region.

John and Reynaldo excavating a fossil

Trying to collect a super-sized fossil.

After managing to dodge most of the rain for the better part of a week, we woke up one morning to find that big storms had finally visited our area of the valley overnight. I, in fact, woke up to find a small river running right underneath my tent, something I had to correct later in the day by moving my tent. Additionally, the small stream near our campsite had become quite the raging torrent, and we could easily hear cobbles and boulders being rolled along the bottom. As we watched the storm throughout the day, we could see the snow line move progressively lower on the surrounding mountains.

Storm and Snow

Early storms visit south central Chile.

Because it had been raining all night and was continuing to rain, it wasn’t safe to go out onto the slopes that day. Since we weren’t able to go out on the slopes, Andy and John decided that there wasn’t any imminent reason to leave their tent. Reynaldo and I had grown tired of our respective tents, however, and so had gotten up to make breakfast and stretch our legs a bit. Andy and John ended up benefitting by getting breakfast (or, at least, coffee) in bed.

Wet Tent

John and Andy enjoying coffee in lieu of fieldwork.

The rain showed no sign of stopping anytime soon, and  we all eventually made our way into the truck; at least we could all sit in there and chat (and eat meals) instead of sitting by ourselves in our tents. We spent more than two entire days inside that truck. Thinking back on the experience, I’m not exactly sure what we did for that amount of time, but it was better than sitting in the tent, that’s for sure. If we would have had a computer, I’m sure we could have cranked out a couple manuscripts with all the time we had, but such is fieldwork.

Inside Truck

The inside of our rental truck, our second home.

Finally the rain stopped and we ended up with one beautiful day: lots of sun and nice, dry breezes. Nearly everything I had at that point was soaked (fortunately, not including my sleeping bag), so I turned my tent into a drying machine while we went out prospecting. Evidently, that’s why tent manufacturers make tents with all those loops, hooks, and ropes in them.

Drying off gear

Drying off the gear after a break in the weather.

We ended up leaving the field a few days early to be on the safe side. We had easily collected enough specimens to make the trip successful, and we didn’t want to risk getting stuck in the valley due to more storms. We had to cross some rivers to get to the site, and if they were to become flooded, we would have been stuck until the water levels went back down. We packed up all our stuff, and started the trip back to Santiago.

Field Crew

Reynaldo, John, Andy, and I before heading home.

One benefit of leaving the field early was that we were able to spend a few days at the Flynn residence in Santiago. (At that time, John and his family were spending a year in Santiago as part of a sabbatical.) Perhaps the best aspect of the Flynn residence was that it was surrounded on three sides by patios, most of which were filled with tropical plants. We did get some work done there (notice the laptop computer on the coffee table) but after being soaking wet for several days in the Andes, it was nice to soak up a little sun before heading back to the U.S.

Oustalet's Chameleon

One of  the Flynn verandas in Santiago.