Field Photos from Northern Chile, Sept. 2001 and Aug. 2004

In September of 2001 we made a second trip to the northern part of Chile to prospect some new sites and do additional collecting of the early Miocene (Santacrucian) locality of Chucal. We made the trip a little bit later in the year (i.e. not in the middle of austral winter) in the hopes of avoiding some of the brutally cold weather we had encountered on our initial expedition to Chucal in 1998. I left Chicago on September 2, 2001 with the plan to meet John Flynn (who was already in Chile) and some of our Chilean colleagues the next day.

My flight out of Dallas was canceled, so instead of spending my first night on the plane to Santiago, I spent it in Dallas. I was able to fly to Santiago the next day, but by then I had missed my connecting flight to the north, so I spent the second night in Santiago. Finally, on the morning of the third day, I was able to catch a flight to Arica. By the time I reached Arica, John, Reynaldo Charrier, and Gabrielle Carrasco had bought food and packed the truck, so we were ready to go. They picked me up at the Arica airport and we headed out into the field. This is a typical field vehicle for us: a four-wheel drive truck loaded to the hilt.

John Flynn and our field vehicle at Arica’s airport.

After leaving Arica, we traveled along Ruta Nacional 11.  This road goes east from Arica and soon enters one of the driest places on earth: the Atacama Desert. This desert parallels the coast of Chile for nearly 1000 km and is situated between the coastal range to the west and the Andes Mountains to the east at an elevation of roughly 750 m. As is evident from this photograph, some parts of the desert have virtually no plant life and the surface of the ground is covered only by rocks and fine dust.  It looks like what you would expect to see on the moon.
Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert and the road from Arica.

On our way to Chucal, we did some prospecting in the vicinity of Belén, a small town (148 inhabitants in 2001) in the Chilean Altiplano. It is located about halfway between the coast and the Argentine border at an altitude of 3,240 m and is notable for being the only town in the Altiplano founded by Spaniards (in 1625). This photograph shows the three-tiered central plaza of Belén.  On the right side of the photo is, I believe, the bell tower of the older of the two churches in Belén, the Iglesia de Nuestra Senõra de Belén.

The town of Belén on the Chilean Altiplano.

There are four types of camelids in South America: guanacos, vicuñas, llamas, and alpacas. The latter two of these occur only in domestication. Of the wild camelids, the guanaco is slightly larger than the vicuña, has a darker face, and tends to occur at lower elevations. At least historically, it ranges throughout the length of Chile. As is evident from the three in this photograph, guanacos blend in quite well with the drab coloration of their surroundings.

A trio of guanacos (look carefully!)

This is another organism that tends to occur at lower elevations (below the 4000+ m elevations at Chucal). I haven’t yet figured out what it is called, but it is some sort of cactus that has long, very sharp, barbed spines. Moreover, its growth form is low to the ground in these small (3-4 cm in diameter) ball-shaped stems that easily break off from one another and adhere to shoes, skin, pants, etc.  It is quite an effective form of dispersal for the plant, but makes walking in some areas pretty miserable. I still have spines in the soles of my boots that broke off when I was trying to pull them out.
Jumping Cacti

Some sort of cactus with really long spines.

This photograph was taken at well over 4000 m (probably closer to 4500 m) and if you look in the center of the photo, you can see a trio of vicuñas. Yes, they look like the guanacos in the photo above, but that’s only because I didn’t get a close picture. They’re not that tough to tell apart in the wild. It is amazing that they find enough to eat in these areas. The large green mounds in the foreground are llareta (Azorella compacta), colonies of tiny, succulent plants that encrust boulders. They grow at an incredibly slow rate (2 cm per year); each of these colonies is probably centuries old.

Vicuña, llareta, and beautiful scenery.

The people in this photo (minus me, who is behind the camera) constituted our crew for the first half of the 2001 trip. Not very visible in the photo is Gabrielle; he’s standing directly behind Andy Wyss, the guy on the left in the tan hat. To the right are John, Reynaldo, and Gerard Hérial.  Andy and Gerard caught up with us a few days after we left Arica. We don’t usually eat lunch out of the back of a truck, but on this particular day, it was a good rendezvous point. We’re eating cheese, sardine, and jalapeño sandwiches, a combination affectionately known as a “Chucal.” (They’re a lot better than they sound.)

A gourmet lunch on the Altiplano.

     For many people, camping is a recreational activity. For paleontologists, it is often a necessity if you want to stay anywhere near where you’re working. Pictured here is a particularly nice campsite of ours, nestled among wonderful-looking rock outcrops. I say wonderful-looking because to be truly wonderful, rock outcrops have to produce fossils, which these did not (despite quite intensive prospecting). This area wasn’t as high as Chucal in elevation, and so the nights did not get nearly so cold; I only had to use one of the two sleeping bags I brought with me.

Our campsite in northernmost Chile.

     A side benefit of prospecting for new places to look for fossils is getting to visit neat little towns.  One such town is Putani, located in the northern tip of Chile, just south of Visviri. It’s a tiny settlement, and we didn’t see anyone when we were there. With not too much to see, it doesn’t make its way into many (maybe any) guidebooks, and the road to it is a dead end. With no pun intended, this photo shows one the most beautiful places in the town: the cemetery. It is located right next to Putani’s small church, which is equally impressive.
Putani Cemetary

The cemetery at Putani.

     And speaking of impressive, this is sunset on the first night we got to Chucal. Unfortunately, my camera stopped working soon after this, so I’m continuing this series with some photos I took several years later when we again visited Chucal (in August 2004). As a final note on 2001, however, if you paid attention to the date we arrived in Chile (Sept. 2nd), you might have correctly surmised that we were there during the incredible events of Sept. 11. We didn’t learn about it until several days later. You don’t realize how cut off from the rest of the world you really are until something like that happens. It was surreal.
Chucal Sunset

Sunset at Chucal.

     The rock exposures at Chucal are pretty spectacular if you get to a nice, high place where you can view them. They include layers of virtually all the colors in the rainbow; in this photo, you can see red, pink, white, blue, and yellow intervals. Many of these layers were deposited by streams and rivers, but some developed in freshwater lakes and others were ash layers from volcanic eruptions. Based on radiometric dating of some of these ash layers (in this area and others), the fossils from Chucal  are between about 17 and 19 million years old.
Chucal Outcrops

The expansive outcrops at Chucal.

    This is part of one of our prize specimens from Chucal: a glyptodontid. Glyptodontids were large relatives of armadillos that went extinct only about 10,000 years ago. Like armadillos, they were covered by a bony shell, and that’s what you can see here: a piece of the shell, made of many smaller bones known as osteoderms. In life, this bony shell would have been covered by a fingernail-like layer dotted with hairs and glands. In addition to this piece, we found more of a shell, an excellent lower jaw, some limb bones, and part of the vertebral column. It turned out to be a new species that we described in 2007 and named Parapropalaehoplophorus septentrionalis.

Bill Simpson excavating a glyptodont.

     No, this isn’t a dinosaur footprint, although you certainly could mistake it for one if it were in 70 million year old rocks. This is a modern footprint of a rhea (Pterocnemia pennata), a large, flightless bird similar to an ostrich that lives in South America. We saw many more rhea footprints than we did rheas, but we did manage to see them on a couple occasions. They really seem out of place on the plains of the Altiplano.
Rhea footprint

Footprint from a lesser (Darwin’s) rhea.

     This is what we woke up to on one of the last days of our trip in 2004: a covering of snow. Even though the Altiplano is a desert, it does receive precipitation every so often. At high elevations, this precipitation often comes in the form of snow. You really can’t look for fossils when the rocks are covered, so all you can do is wait for the sun to come out and melt it off, which usually doesn’t take too long. On this day, we only lost a few hours.

Snow can sometimes be an issue at altitude.