An Eye on Patagonia

Patagonia

The World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy have their eye on Patagonia. Although they are interested in the region from a global conservation perspective, they describe the territory as a “black box” due to a worldwide lack of understanding of its biological character and diversity. This lack of knowledge currently limits conservation efforts. That’s where BYU comes in.

BYU professors Jerry Johnson, Jack Sites, Keith Crandall, and Leigh Johnson from the Department of Integrative Biology have been awarded a $2.1 million grant that has made BYU the flagship institution in an international collaboration to uncover the biodiversity of Patagonia. Of 173 submitted proposals from major universities throughout the U.S., their grant was one of only twelve funded by the National Science Foundation, (endorsed by the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy), and the only grant funded for biological sciences.

Each year since this grant was awarded about a dozen BYU undergraduates travel to southern Chile and Argentina to conduct approximately ten weeks of biological conservation studies in the field. The students are fully integrated into a foreign laboratory and community, where they collect tissue samples, record data, and preserve specimens for BYU’s Monte L. Bean Museum of Life Sciences. “Our students have a unique opportunity to integrate science and culture, education and experience, and thereby develop a lifelong thirst for knowledge across a diversity of disciplines and cultures,” said Crandall.
Calceolaria flowerLizard from the Liolamus speciesAndean condor
(LEFT)The tiny Calceolaria flower (less than an inch high) caught the eye of Jack Sites.BYU’s (CENTER)Patagonia project is uncovering considerable new diversity such as this yet-to-be-named lizard from the Liolamus species that is targeted for intensive work.(RIGHT)An Andean condor glides over the BYU team in the field

BYU students interact with top colleagues from two institutions in Chile and three in Argentina who are world experts on Patagonian biology. BYU students and faculty also benefit when these outstanding scientists and their students come to collaborate in research based at BYU. “International cooperation broadens our students’ perspectives tremendously,” said Leigh Johnson.

The project has both research and educational objectives. It focuses on the impact that geology and climate have had on the evolutionary development of at least 16 distinct species: three fish, two large complexes of lizards, two frogs, two freshwater crabs, and two plants.

Sarah Lindquist and Angela Jensen
BYU students Sarah Lindquist (left) and Angela Jensen study BYU herbarium specimens of Navarretia (Phlox family). In Argentina, under botanical expert Dr. Raúl Pozner, they are studying the glandular hairs on Navarretia and Collomia to better understand species origins and relationships. Collomia biflora (inset) is the only species of Collomia in Patagonia; the rest occur in the western United States
Jenna Trubschenck, a senior Biology major, is one of the students conducting research in Patagonia. Her objective is to better understand the genetic relationship of two species of catfish native to the area “These native fish are rapidly being out-competed by sporting fish that were introduced into the lakes and rivers to support tourism,” Jenna said. “Once we have a better understanding of their associations and gather solid data on their diminishing numbers and geographic niches, better preservation policies can be employed,” she said.

BYU senior Monty Hawkins is studying coloration patterns in lizards. His target lizard (see photo) is part of a genus found from the southern tip of Chile to central Peru, and from sea level to over 16,000 feet. Two other BYU students are currently involved, and a total of eight are expected to study the geographical distribution and genetic relationships of such lizards.

Undergraduates selected for the 2007 expedition prepared for their trip by conducting mentored research on campus and developing individual research objectives. They enrolled in an international field study course that introduced them to the culture they would soon be emerged in and familiarized them with the climate, geology, and biotic history of Patagonia. Without hesitation participating undergraduates agree that the chance to be involved with this project has been an amazing opportunity. “From my mentored experience I have learned what it really means to acquire knowledge and how to use that knowledge universally in everything I do,” said Cory Heizenrader, a senior Physiology and Developmental Biology major under Jerry Johnson.

At the end of the five-year grant, an evaluation meeting will be held in the Andes where governmental and conservation agencies will discuss results, implications, and proposed policy changes. By that time, the black box that is Patagonia will be a little better understood -- thanks to the students and faculty of BYU and their Latin American partners.

Patagonia, located in the southern-most areas of Chile and Argentina, is a region often compared to the American west and Alaska because of its geography and climate. The area has wide variations in temperature, precipitation, and altitude, resulting in everything from bogs, moorland, lakes, rain forests, vast grasslands, and mixed deciduous woodlands that reach the Andes Mountains to the west. Patagonia has numerous glaciers and the largest ice fields in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica. The main economic activities have been mining, whaling, agriculture, and tourism; however with less than 5 percent of the Chilean and Argentine populations living in the region, it is essentially a vast wild land.


Vast Wasteland
Patagonia
Patagonia, located in the southern-most areas of Chile and Argentina, is a region often compared to the American west and Alaska because of its geography and climate. The area has wide variations in temperature, precipitation, and altitude, resulting in everything from bogs, moorland, lakes, rain forests, vast grasslands, and mixed deciduous woodlands that reach the Andes Mountains to the west. Patagonia has numerous glaciers and the largest ice fields in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica. The main economic activities have been mining, whaling, agriculture, and tourism; however with less than 5 percent of the Chilean and Argentine populations living in the region, it is essentially a vast wild land.