ePostcard #140: In Darwin’s Footsteps–A Naturalist’s Journey to Patagonia

by | Oct 24, 2021 | 4 comments

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Audrey DeLella Benedict


For the naturalist, the dramatic coastlines, windswept steppes and spectacular cordilleras of Patagonia need little introduction. From Ferdinand Magellan to Charles Darwin and beyond, explorers’ journals are filled with expressions of wonder at Patagonia’s unforgettable landscapes and unique wildlife. Patagonia is truly a land of extremes—immense continental icefields, wind-sculpted spires that rank among the world’s most challenging summits for climbers, lush forests of southern beech, turquoise-blue lakes and fjords, and vast semi-desert steppes populated by some of the most unusual animals on Earth.

This ePostcard series—In Darwin’s Footsteps—continues our Patagonian-based explorations and will draw from Cloud Ridge Naturalists’ natural history trips to the region over the past 20 years. These extraordinary trips would not have been possible without the natural history expertise, logistical support and collaborative efforts of my Argentinian friends and colleagues, Carol and Carlos Passera, and their company Causana Viajes.

Those of you who have followed Cloud Ridge’s ePostcards since their inception in March of 2020 may remember that the Ferdinand Magellan and Charles Darwin discovery series began with ePostcard #77 and continued through ePostcard #112. I would encourage my current readers and those who are recent subscribers to revisit these earlier ePostcards to get a better sense of the geographic scope and natural history included in our previous explorations to “The Ends of the Earth.” Except for the maps and a few photos where noted, all of the images are from my photographic archives and were taken on Cloud Ridge’s trips to Patagonia.

What can we learn by traveling in Charles Darwin’s footsteps today? Darwin traveled as the expedition’s naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle in the mid-19th century and later published his journal entries from the voyage as a book, the Voyage of the Beagle, which would become many people’s first introduction to Patagonia. We now view the Beagle’s five-year expedition as the most important scientific voyage of all time. For Darwin, desk-bound and ailing during his elder years, memories of places explored in Patagonia during that voyage were what sustained him most.

Darwin’s theory of evolution—the multi branched “tree of life”—published in On the Origin of Species in 1859 set forth the biological mechanisms responsible for the diversity of life on Earth, for the variation within species, and for the geographical distribution of species and varieties. This remarkable body of work was an unequivocal and science-based rebuttal of creationism—a stand that placed him squarely at the epicenter Victorian and scientific debate, the reverberations of which continue to this day. Charles Darwin was, in many ways, the first conservationist—believing that humans represent but one tiny twig on an enormous and luxuriantly branching tree of life. What would he think of the transformative environmental challenges facing our planet today?

Few people think of penguins when they imagine what kinds of wildlife they might encounter on a trip to Patagonia. The photo above shows Magellanic penguins traversing lichen-covered rocks on Isla Los Pinguinos, a small island located off the Atlantic coast of Argentine Patagonia. The stunning orange color that you see is the rock-encrusting sunburst lichen (lichen genus Xanthoria ) and the color results from the orange pigment anthraquinone, parietin, which is deposited as tiny crystals in the top layer of the lichen’s upper cortex. Parietin synthesis is enhanced by UV-B and stimulated by photosynthates, such as those provided by the green algal Trebouxia symbiont.

Lichens, as you might remember, are created by a unique partnership—a symbiosis—between a fungus and another organism (an algae or bacteria, sometimes both) that can convert sunlight to energy using photosynthesis. The green partner provides the energy, which fungi can’t produce on their own, and the fungal partner provides a place for the green partner to grow. Lacking roots, lichens get their moisture and nutrients (especially nitrogen) from the air or from whatever washes over them.

Our access to Isla Los Pinguinos was provided by Darwin Expediciones (Puerto Deseado, Santa Cruz, Argentina).

This Magellanic penguin is sitting on eggs in a nest burrow dug in a tangle of shrub roots on the coastal semidesert steppe.


The name Patagonia is derived from the word Patagones, as the Tehuelche people, the region’s original inhabitants, were called by 16th-century Spanish explorers. Patagonia comprises the vast geographic region at the southern end of the continent of South America. Stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, Patagonia straddles two countries, Argentina and Chile, and extends from 39° S to the very tip of Tierra del Fuego at 55° S. It encompasses amazing diversity, ranging from Valdivian rainforest on the coast of Chile, up and over the southern Andes, down through the semi-arid steppe of Argentina, and on to the penguin stronghold along the coastline of the South Atlantic.  

The climate of Patagonia is influenced by the South Pacific westerly air current, which brings humid winds from the ocean to the continent. These winds lose their humidity (through cooling and condensation) as they blow over the west coast of South America and over the Andes, and they are relatively dry as they head towards the Atlantic coastline of Patagonia. The vegetation and landscapes of Patagonia reflect the rain shadow role of the Andes and can be divided into two main climatic zones—northern and southern—by a line drawn from the Andes at about latitude 39° S to a point just south of the Valdés Peninsula (Argentina), at about 43° S.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of This Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra satellite captured this true-color image of the northern half of Patagonia during the austral winter on August 24, 2003. Snow runs down the spine of the Andes Mountains, with Chile on the left, and Argentina on the right. The semidesert steppe zone is the dark brown plain that extends from the Andean foothill forests to the sea. Along the coast of Argentina, waters of the Atlantic Ocean are tinted green by a phytoplankton bloom and by a brownish sediment discharge.

The distinctive Andean peaks of the Cuernos and the Torres grace the skyline of Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. The panel below provides the names of the peaks.


Map Credits: Courtesy of Printable Maps (


A gaucho brings in the horses at Estancia Cerro Guido (Region of Magallanes, Southern continental Chile.). This ranch was established by European pioneers in the 1920’s as part of the Tierra del Fuego Exploitation Society, the largest cattle network in the history of Chilean Patagonia.

For 10,000 years, huge herds of guanacos, the wild ancestor of the domesticated llama, made long-distance, seasonal migrations across the Patagonian steppe. Guanacos and vicuñas are members of the camel family and are native to South America. The vicuña, which is smaller than the guanaco, is thought to be the wild ancestor of the alpaca and is found at higher elevations in the Andes.

Baby guanacos are called chulengos, and they can walk within five minutes of being born. Guanaco mothers play an important role in defending their young against predators. Predation accounts for a large proportion of juvenile mortality, and maternal aggressiveness toward potential predators, including threatening, spitting, charging, and kicking, has been shown to increase the survival of guanaco young.

Commonly known as the Chilean firebush (Embothrium coccineum), notro, or ciruelillo in Spanish, this small evergreen tree is in the flowering plant family Proteaceae. It is in the same family as those gorgeous proteas in the ePostcard series on South Africa and Namibia. Firebush is native to the temperate forests of Chile and Argentina.

Much like the unexpected burst of firebush red against glacier ice, the rich pink of a flock of Chilean flamingos viewed against the brownish canvas of the Patagonian steppe surprises most travelers to Patagonia. Chilean flamingos are found in temperate South America from central Peru through the Andes and Uruguay to Tierra del Fuego. They inhabit muddy, shallow alkaline and brackish lakes. They live in warm and tropical environments, and range from sea level, along the coast, to high altitudes up to 4,500m in the Andes.

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