Let’s start with Hawaii

Aloha!! (Welcome)...

There is a land with seashores where blue waves dance, with beaches where warm winds blows, and where people just enjoy life surfing and smiling. Who hasn’t dreamed with an almost paradise image like this of Hawaii?
What does this idyllic place have to do with the Southern Beech Forests in Argentina and Chile?
Let’s see. The first Hawaiian Islands emerged in the immense Pacific Ocean at least 30 million years ago. They are at a distance of 3,500 km from the closest continent, being the extreme geographical isolation in the world.

The Southern Beech Forests in Argentina and Chile may be considered a green archipelago, and it has been isolated from other forests since 10 million years. The closest grow at present in the Northwest of Argentina: those who travel from the Yungas subtropical cloud forest have experienced the distance of more than 1,200 km of arid and beautiful landscape (through Catamarca, La Rioja, San Juan, Mendoza and Neuquen provinces) including the Patagonian steppe, till they can exclaim: “Forest in sight”.

The point is that both environments, Hawaii and the Southern Beech Forests, share a clue concept: they are I-S-L-A-N-D-S, and in both cases isolated since a long time ago.

With the geographic isolation the forces of evolution may act faster and result more evident. It is considered that many of the ecological and evolutionary processes applicable to Hawaii, the Galapagos and other archipelagos are valid in most of the isolated terrestrial environments. This applies in our Southern Beech Forests, with obvious differences, but the concept is valid. One of the consequences of isolation is the high number of endemism (see page 00).

Which plants and animals species are there? Where did they originate? Why are some only found there and why not elsewhere?
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) dedicated their lives to find answers to the interrelation of the fascinating natural world. They spent years collecting data and samples, and observing live in continents and islands. With study and analysis as well as passion and imagination, they gave origin to theories.

After them (…and their theories), more discoveries followed, new connections and interpretations and more questions.
In the first steps of the XXI century we may conclude diverse balances of the world we live in. But we must consider it a privilege to exist in a time of knowledge. With this perspective, a trip to the Southern Beech Forests may be a fabulous adventure.

These pages give the chance of a practical use on the field itself, with many examples of plants and animals. So that they don’t remain isolated observations, the proposal is to try to fit the pieces of a dynamic and changing system together. To know the branches is undoubtedly attractive, but I think and feel that trying to see the “forest” is even more captivating and motivating.

The mammals

The diversity of mammals in the Southern Beech Forests is low in relation to the temperate forests of North America. On the other hand, there are no large native mammals that may be compared to bears or elks. In relation to the closer rainforests (in the North West of Argentina) and considering mid-size to small mammals, in the Southern Forests there are neither monkeys nor squirrels, and the diversity of bats is low. Taking into account the small species, in the Southern Forests there are many endemic species.

The climatic and geological changes of the past may be responsible for the present low diversity in these forests. During the glaciations, for example, the scarce capacity of dispersion of the mammals may have limited their possibilities to adapt. The majority of them aren't good long distances travellers to spread from or to isolated environments. They don't resist much time without food and even less without water. Also the adult mammal needs a couple, and young needs a mother.

In the Patagonian forests the diversity and density of mammals in general decreases southwards, while towards the west crossing to Chile, there are less variations.

The Huemul

The Huemul is an endemic deer from the Andean-Patagonian forests. Distributed in restricted areas from Argentina and Chile, is an endangered species. In Argentina isolated populations can be found between Neuquén and Santa Cruz. It was declared National Natural Monument and Provincial Natural Monument in Santa Cruz, Chubut and Rio Negro provinces.

It is robust with thick dense hair and short legs, adaptations to the environment. The males have forked antlers, and are bigger than the females. They move alone or in groups of two or three members: a male and his female and young or just females. In winter they may form larger groups. During summer they inhabit steep lands or even elevations over timberline. With the arrival of the cold months, they descend to the forests looking for sunny slopes and protected valleys.

Its herbivorous diet varies from winter to summer according to the habitat. It includes stems, leaves and flowers of herbs, and bushes like the Notro, Maqui, Chilco and Chaura. In the forest it browses new shoots of Lenga and also Roble Pellín, in the northern sector. It seems to prefer to eat in open areas and then entering the forest for refuge.

They are on heat in autumn and at the beginning of winter the males lose their antlers. After six or seven months of gestation, at the end of spring and beginning of summer, the females give birth. The Red Fox and the Black-chested Buzzard Eagle may predate them, while the Puma may even attack the adult Huemul.

The isolation of the populations, the destruction of their environment, the fires, the hunting, the competition with the cattle rearing and the illnesses that these may transmit, as well as introduced species like the Red Deer are different causes that have left the Huemul in a critical situation.

Populations are small and are found in the Nahuel Huapi, Los Alerces, Lago Puelo, Perito Moreno and Los Glaciares National Parks; and also in different areas out of these parks.
Various campaigns of the Argentine Wildlife Foundation has provided valuable information about the distribution and abundance of the species. Nowadays, the National Park Administration is leading a Huemul Conservation Program.

Prints, excrement, marks on new shoots, reposing areas, hair, paths, browsed vegetation, smells, antlers, or bones are all remains that can be found and may give different clues. Analysing the length of the print, for example, researchers can categorise by sex and age. The huemules in Los Glaciares National Park are the most austral in the country. It is considered that the Patagonian icefield and the great lakes is surely a barrier they can't pass. The effect caused by cattle, wild and domesticated, has increased the isolation of this species.

The commitment of some people in the area to protect the huemul is also noticed. A good example is the study funded by a firm owner of an estancia that includes Lago Escondido, in the South West of Rio Negro. The results showed very few huemules lived in the area. In a town close to lago Puelo it was declared a species of Municipal Interest. The owners of Chacra El Monje, near the small town El Hoyo, mounted a wooden construction from where with a telescope and a bit of luck, it is possible to observe at a distance some on the Cerro Pirque.

The Pudú

The Pudú is an endemic deer of the Valdivian and Magellan forests, adapted to move in dense cane fields and ñirantales. With a height of 35 to 40 cm and a weight of 9 to 11 kg, it is the smallest deer in the world.

Being small allows moving easily in the dense thicket forest. The Pudu marks its territory scratching branches with its antlers and leaving a smell on the small branches and leaves. It moves alone, or a male with a female and sometimes in small groups. The males reach their sexual maturity one year after birth and the females give one young. Staying in group in the dense and closed cane fields can have its complications. In groups they may be predated more easily than in an open environment.
The best strategy for this deer is to be alone and elusive. The Puma and the Guiña cat are its natural predators, but since decades dogs and man can be added to the list.
In open environments, the early detection of danger and the group defence are valuable advantages.

This may have been the case of the Huemul in the past (when they were more abundant) when they formed numerous groups in certain moments of the year. Records from the beginning of the century mention one hundred huemules in the area of lago Argentino.

Source: Santiago G. de la Vega, 2003. Patagonia, the Laws of the Forest, Contacto Silvestre ediciones.

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