This past week and a half, I had the great opportunity to travel to Puerto Madryn in the Chubut Province (the Patagonia region of Argentina). Puerto Madryn is approximately a 20-hour bus ride south of Buenos Aires. With regular stops every three to five hours and new friends to share empanadas and yerba mate (a South American tea), the trip goes by pretty fast. Originally founded as a Welsh whaling port in 1865, Puerto Madryn has a rich history. Many of the roads in town are named for some of the original Welsh families, and it’s one of the few places in Argentina where rugby is just as important as soccer. Today, most people know about Puerto Madryn as a world-class destination for whale watching: during the annual migration from Antarctica, the gulf provides a protected area for females to give birth. Unfortunately, I was a few weeks early to see whales near the coast, but it was a beautiful view from the lab nonetheless.
In Puerto Madryn, I got to work at the Centro Nacional Patagonico with Marcelo Tejedor, Marcelo Krause, and Nelson Novo, all collaborators of John Fleagle’s on the Pinturas and Santa Cruz Formation paleontology project. Marcelo, Marcelo, and Nelson work on the project on a daily basis and run multiple field trips each year to collect more fossils and geological information from the research area. While much of the material I worked with in Buenos Aires was from fieldwork in the 1980s and early 1990s, here I had the chance to study fossils collected in just the last three years. Unlike some of the fossils collected 20 to 30 years ago, the more recent collections have their geological information and stratigraphic positions much more accurately recorded. From these collections, I sampled 30 teeth, including two of the early New World Monkeys, as part of the pilot project. The environmental and climatic data we get from these samples will help us determine the usefulness of the stable isotope approach to the Pinturas and Santa Cruz Formation project and help us develop more focused research questions for future field work and analysis.
In addition to the sampling, Marcelo, Marcelo, and Nelson filled me in on some of the most recent finds over pizza and Patagonian beer. Marcelo Krause is a geologist who works on paleosols. Paleosols can provide similar environmental and climatic information about an area, but since they form directly in the soil, only provide information for a very small area—like the size of a medium-sized car. His research is corroborating some of John Fleagle’s initial thoughts that the Pinturas Formation represents a wetter period than the Santa Cruz Formation. I was able to adjust some of my sampling plans to see if we could recreate the pattern with the tooth enamel stable isotopes.
After completing my research in Puerto Madryn I found myself with a few day’s extra time, and I just couldn’t resist traveling to Ushuaia. Known as the world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia sits on the Beagle Channel named for the ship on which Charles Darwin sailed on between 1831–1835; there he developed his theory of Natural Selection. Ushuaia was just a pilgrimage I had to make. While not technically the southernmost part of South America (since it is approximately 100 miles from Cape Horn Island) it is nonetheless the southernmost part of the continent that one can feasibly visit without traveling onward to Antarctica. During my stay in Ushuaia, I visited the Tierra del Fuego National Park, which marks the end of the Pan-American Highway—a road that runs more or less continuously from this point for 14,878 kilometers to Alaska. It is also home to some of the most beautiful forested and mountain scenery in the world. The Beagle Channel contains dozens of small islands filled with sea lions and seals, as well as dozens of sea birds and Magallenic penguins. For me though, the most interesting part was learning about the original indigenous inhabitants of the area, the Yamana, their contact with Darwin and the Beagle, and early English missionaries. As an anthropologist and a student of human evolution, it was one of the most educating excursions I’ve ever taken while in the field.